While familiar packaged-food brands, such as Kraft macaroni and cheese and Nestle’s Hot Pockets, enjoyed a revival during the pandemic, the long-term prospects remain brighter for products that are perceived as healthier. Just look at the rise of the vegan sausage roll sold at Greggs Plc. Its arrival prompted the U.K. baker to upgrade its profit forecasts several times in 2019.
In fact, with the unprecedented focus on health precipitated by the novel coronavirus outbreak, the opportunities for categories such as fake meat, fish and eggs may be even bigger.
What happens in the Nosecco case could be a lesson for the upstarts.
Nosecco has been sold in the U.K. since 2017, and Les Grands Chais de France, the country’s largest independent wine producer responsible for J.P. Chenet and Chemin des Papes wines, wanted to establish a trademark for it. It was challenged in 2018 by a consortium representing the northeast Italian region where Prosecco is produced, which said the name brought to mind the Italian wine, which is protected by European rules on origin.
The French company argued the name was never meant to rival Prosecco in the U.K. Instead, it was chosen to capture the drink’s alcohol-free quality while playing on the fact that it wasn’t “sec,” or dry, like the Italian wine, but rather sweet.
But the U.K.’s Intellectual Property Office found in favor of the Italian producers, deciding that in the minds of consumers the name Nosecco evoked the hugely popular Prosecco. There was a serious risk, it said, that consumers would believe the drink was in fact non-alcoholic Prosecco. Les Grands Chais de France is now appealing the decision in the High Court.
The company is not alone in facing delicate marketing issues when it comes to new food categories. It has long been debated whether dairy alternatives can be classed as milk. In Sweden, that’s culminated in a “milk war” between the country’s dairy industry and Oatly, a Swedish manufacturer of oat milk. There’s no clear winner, but the skirmish doesn’t seem to have done Oatly any harm: Oat milk is hot around the world right now. In what could be a challenge to the rise of meat substitutes, some U.S. states, including Arkansas and Mississippi, have sought to restrict the use of terms such as burgers and dogs. (Mississippi now allows plant-based food makers to use some terms so long as they carry modifiers such as meat-free.)
Naming battles will likely crop up between competing alternative-food makers, too. Just last week, Nestle SA, the world’s biggest food company, said it would rename its Incredible plant-based patties as the Sensational burger. The move came after a Dutch court upheld an injunction filed by Impossible Foods Inc., citing a trademark infringement. Nestle said it will appeal the ruling.
What is clear is that producers of everything from lupin burgers to non-alcoholic gin must work hard to stand out. While there is huge growth to be had, the competition will be stiff. Traditional food companies and brewers are piling in, too. Drinks giant Diageo Plc last year acquired a majority stake in Seedlip, the non-alcoholic spirit maker.
There is no doubt that Nosecco was a stroke of marketing genius. But it has ended up in a protracted legal wrangle. Amid the shifting landscape for alternatives, producers will need to be innovative and creative with their branding. The Vegetarian Butcher, the meat-substitute maker acquired by Unilever Plc in December 2018, is perhaps a good example.
It’s not always easy to get the message across that a dish or drink is a vegan or non-alcoholic version of an old favorite, and in an appealing way, but marketers will need to dig deep. Otherwise, as Nosecco has shown, they could have a fight on their hands, and that’s not very appetizing for anyone.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.