Should we talk about a company’s “visual identity” instead of its “brand”?
This is a transcript of Vegan Business Tribe podcast episode #34, Are you using non-vegan language in your business?
As this aired shortly after my post on how book editors can work toward social change, language has been a hot topic lately and this episode expanded on some of the terms I mentioned that indicate cruelty to animals.
Today we’re discussing a topic that started out as a footnote in our ‘How to promote your vegan business’ marketing course on the VBT website. And if you’ve not checked out the marketing course yet then go take a look after you’ve finished listening, but when we wrote the course and I was going back and editing it, I started thinking about the language I’d been using while writing it. Now, you have to remember I’ve spent a lot of time waste-deep in the marketing sector, I studied marketing, I’ve taught marketing, I was an ambassador for The Chartered Institute of Marketing in my previous life, so I don’t actually give a lot of thought to the language I use – it’s just accepted business language. But it wasn’t until I spotted that I’d use the phrase “guinea pig” when talking about testing a concept that I really started to think about the language I was using. I mean, the concept of a guinea pig directly relates to animal testing, and here was I writing a marketing course for vegan businesses and using it as a throw-away term. But I had used it because everyone knew what I meant by it, it is a short-hand. If I said to you that I was looking for a guinea pig for my new service you would know exactly what I meant – I want someone to test it out on. But you can no longer find an actual guinea pig in the wild. The only place you will find them is as a pet or companion animal, or in a laboratory and that phrase just normalizes using animals to test on. And this led me to think deeper about the other language I was using and I discovered that a lot of the language we use in business in general is definitely not vegan-friendly.
Terms with animal origins
We talk about “strategy” and “tactics” for example and these are terms that come directly from the language of war, from mapping-out the battlefield. But other business terms that are really commonplace today hide their original, animal-based origin. As an example, let’s think about the word “branding.“
In a business sense, your “brand” is how you present your company, it includes your logo and the colours you use. We all use it because, just like “guinea pig”, the term has a lot of recognition to it. If I talk about a brand, you’re probably aware that doesn’t just mean someone’s logo – it means a company’s brand voice, it means the colours you use on your packaging, the words you have on your website – all this has been really neatly encapsulated in that one little word – a brand. But originally, that word comes from the Norse word “Brandr” which means “to burn“—because “branding” was the practice of burning marks of ownership into the skin of animals with a red-hot implement. You burned your mark into the side of your cows, so if someone stole them or they wandered off then you could identify that they were yours. Each owner, or ranch or farm had their own unique mark which is where the concept of a brand, or logo, comes from. Later, the same process was then used to burn company marks onto the side of wooden packing boxes which is where it then links with the modern-day use – but making marks of ownership by scarring an animal’s skin with a heated implement (i.e. exactly what the word means, branding an animal) it is STILL forced upon animals across the world today – and it is an act of violence and abuse. So – how comfortable does that leave us using the word as vegan businesses when we talk about branding a company once you’ve realised where the word comes from?
Now, I KNOW that some of you will be rolling your eyes now, and don’t for one minute think that I’m saying that if you use the term that it means you’re not vegan or you don’t care. I’ve used the term all the time myself. I know many vegan branding specialists, but even that phrase – a vegan branding specialist – once you make that connection with where the word comes from, all of a sudden a vegan branding specialist becomes an oxymoron. Branding is also an act of violence and exploitation against an animal, so it doesn’t sit comfortably next to the word vegan. Or do we just say that the word has been reclaimed, that it now has a different meaning?
Language normalizes behaviour.
And if you ARE rolling your eyes right now, then I agree that no vegan will ever be offended by you using the word branding, but language which normalizes using animals as commodities (or language which is accepting of animals just being there for us to hunt, capture, kill and eat) is part of the problem. We’ve seen the same with many great movements. If you look at race equality, socioeconomic equality, gender equality, sexuality equality and many others – in each movement, addressing language use has been a big part of enabling change to happen. The use of phrases that originated in the slave era have since been re-examined. Sayings that are inherently sexist, or ableist that may have commonplace when I was younger have been very rightly dropped. And the reason for this is because the language we use is important.
Back in 1970, British philosopher Richard Ryder was an early advocate of the modern animal rights movement and the first person to popularise the concept of speciesism. “Speciesism” refers to the idea that we believe the human species is inherently superior to all other species, meaning that we have rights or privileges they don’t. And when you look at a lot of the language we use, that is really apparent. How many times have you said ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat’? How many times have you used the word “pig” or “cow” as a derogatory term? Our choice of language is powerful, because it normalizes behaviour and attitudes. Language helps us understand what is right and what is wrong. Language controls our narrative as a culture. And if that culture is outdated then it’s up to us to lead the way to change it as we have seen in many great movements.
Language offers an opportunity to educate.
So, this is all very interesting – but how does this apply to our businesses? Well, I have to admit I was in two minds about whether to talk about this as a podcast episode, because – well, gosh – you can already imagine the newspaper headlines! “Vegans want to ban the word branding because it is cruel to animals” but I’m a big advocate that when you have a VEGAN business, it’s your ethics that separate you from your non-vegan competitors but also connects you with your customers. And actually being able to prove those ethics is a big part of that. A few episodes ago we talked about how to make sure your business is actually vegan. And although we focussed mainly on making sure that the ingredients in any food products you might be making were indeed vegan, we also spoke about going further in proving your vegan credentials as a business. So is the handwash in your washroom cruelty-free and not tested on animals? Do you buy your services from other vegan businesses rather than non-vegan ones to keep the money that your vegan customers pay you in the vegconomy? And the language your business uses is also another thing you can use to prove your vegan credentials. A non-vegan company might talk about “bringing home the bacon” as a way of talking about providing for your family, but all that does is reinforce pigs as being a commodity or something there for us to kill and eat. But as a vegan company, instead of saying ‘bringing home the bacon’ we can talk about “bringing home the bagels” instead. It seems such a small change, but it’s a significant one. For your vegan customers, it’s replacing a very obvious non-vegan phrase and letting them know you share their ethics, that you are on the same page as they are. But for you non-vegan customers, it’s also that little bit of nudging and educating. In the same way you can work to bring about animal alternative products, you can subvert your language and use animal-alternative terms and phrases that normalizes veganism instead.
Because a lot of the animal-based phrases we use are so disconnected from what they actually mean that they have completely normalised the concepts they are talking about. You might be in a meeting with a customer and say that an idea will “kill two birds with one stone.” It’s a phrase many of us use regularly – it means to solve two problems with one action – but just stop and think what’s actually just come out of your mouth, because it’s actually horrendous. Do you normally condone killing birds? If you’re listening to this podcast then probably not. It’s a phrase that you’ve probably been familiar with since childhood, but not only is “killing two birds with one stone” saying that hunting and killing an animal is a good thing, it’s saying that if you can do it really efficiently then even better! Swap out the words “birds” with “dogs”, and “stone” with “bullet” and you have a very different sentence that would be hugely distasteful to say in a business context, but actually is exactly the same.
And this issue we come up against with language is the same as we come up against as vegan in a wider context. The use of animals as commodities has been normalized and separated and this is shown in the language we use – and this language has been baked into us since we first learned to talk. You might have even done this yourself (and we’ve seen it in our vegan business networking meet-ups) someone will use an obviously non-vegan phrase like “putting all your eggs in one basket” or “going the whole hog” then realize what they have just said and try to back-pedal to correct themselves. I do it myself, you could probably go back through past episodes of this podcast and pick out phrases I’ve used that are not really that vegan friendly – just because they are standard phrases or business language.
We talk about tracking customers, we talk about finding a hook for your marketing message, about luring visitors to our website, about fishing for leads…these are all hunting phrases and using them normalizes the idea of catching and killing animals. And you might say – well, there’s nothing in those phrases that specifically talks about hunting ANIMALS. Well, if you think normalizing hunting people is OK also then maybe you need to take a moment out and think about the ethical connotations of that too! And although there are other terms we can use (so a designer can say ‘visual identity’ instead of branding) they don’t always carry the same kind of recognition and weight. But maybe that’s an opportunity for you to come up with your own word that’s just as punchy. Can you “veganise” the term “branding”? Can we start calling our company logos and colour-schemes our “Vegentity” for instance?! And the great thing if you do this is it allows you to have some really interesting follow-up conversations about why you use that term. For example, of the best vegan businesses that I know for converting more people to veganism is Blonde’s Cruelty-free Eatery in Hull here in the UK. It’s a vegan cafe, but they don’t say that. Instead, they say they are a “cruelty-free” cafe – because then a new customer want to know what that means, and, hang on a moment, why would other cafe’s NOT be cruelty-free? Well, let’s talk about that…
And to me, this is the real reason we should take more notice of the language we use in our businesses. As a vegan business owner, the language we use is an opportunity to educate. Most of us start a vegan business in the first place because we want to help move towards a vegan world. For many of us, having a vegan business is our activism, and purposely being aware of the language we use can bring attention to that. So the next time you are talking to a customer, instead of saying “the world is your oyster,” say “the word is your oyster mushroom” and see what reaction you get. Instead of talking about “beating a dead horse” as a way of talking about doing something which is futile, try talking about “feeding a fed horse.” And when someone talks about there being “bigger fish to fry,” correct them by saying “you mean bigger fish to free! We are a vegan company after all”.
And this can be a big part of being a vegan business. In the same way you make sure your business cards are printed not using inks that have animal ingredients, we should look to do the same with the languages and phrases we use too. Because the further you look into the language we use in businesses, just like milk powder, you find unwelcome animal derivatives. Nobody really wants to “skin a cat” or “break a camel’s back” so why use these phrases? And whenever I’ve talked about this with other vegan business owners, usually on the back of the footnote I put in the marketing course on language, then I’ve got nothing but positive feedback about the idea – because, again, language is powerful.
Photo: Dan Barrett
Learning better alternatives can benefit your business.
But that leads to the question – how do we do this, how do we change our language? And this is the issue, because we don’t always realise we’re using non-vegan terms a lot of the time, we’ve been using them since we were children. But you were probably eating animals since you were a child also but you managed to change that with a bit of effort too. Learn some good alternatives you can use and start dropping them into conversation or use them in your marketing materials until they become second nature. You can also just remove certain phrases entirely – so instead of talking about an opportunity being a “cash cow” you might just talk about it just being a “money-making opportunity” – but I think it’s actually more fun to make it obvious that you have removed a non-vegan phrase. Instead of talking about “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” change that to “don’t put all your berries in one basket.” People will see what you’ve done there and probably think it’s quite clever. When you talk about how you had to make yourself stop checking your social media notifications so much, talk about how you went “cold tofu” instead of “cold turkey” – which I guarantee is a phrase that will make the vegans in your audience smile. Talk about going on a “wild gooseberry chase” with your last business idea instead of a “wild goose chase” and try to put some animal-positive phrases in there too. For example, I often say “make sure you don’t throw the piglet out with the bathwater” instead of “throw the baby out” and people get that I’m on the same page that they are.
But to come back to that original question that we started with, should we feel OBLIGED to do this? Well, veganism is a journey – we always say this. When someone first turns vegan they start with the food they eat because that’s the obvious place to start – but then you look at the clothes you wear, what cosmetics you use and at some point you start to become aware of your vocabulary also – and doing so is an amazing way to connect with your vegan customers and make your non-vegan customers think. If you come up with a really good alternative, vegan-positive way to say something – like if you ARE a vegan brand consultant but you come up with a better phrase that is uniquely yours – you might even get known for the phrase too and get your customers using it.
And this is a conversation I’d actually like to continue, because in many ways we’re in uncharted territory right now with vegan businesses. We ARE still learning what makes a company vegan. We are still working out what it fully means to be a vegan business – what separates our business from ones that are not – and the language we use is part of that. So am I suggesting you need to now go back through your website and make sure you remove any wording that could be construed as non-vegan? Do you need to audit your presentation slides in case you’ve accidentally slipped in a phrase that has animal origins? Well, maybe. But not out of fear of offending someone – we already love you, you’re a vegan business – but to help you better connect with your audience. Yes, if you have indeed used the phrase “guinea pig” like I did, then when you read it back these things will jump out at you as overtly non-vegan phrases and you can swap them out – I think I just swapped it out to say ‘test audience’ or something like that – but maybe see if you CAN slip some of those pro-vegan alternative phrases in there too.
So, to wrap up, let’s just take a look back about what we’ve talked about and what the main take-away points have been about what language you use in your business – and is it vegan?
- A lot of language we use every day in business is not always that vegan-friendly. In fact, when we talk about tactics and strategies and winning battles that’s actually the language of war.
- Some language we use in business comes with negative connotations that have been overlooked, for example if we are a vegan business are we comfortable using a term like branding that originates from burning an animal with a mark to show that we own it? Or can we come up with something better? And in fact I might actually challenge a couple of the vegan branding experts I know to attack that one.
- The reason it’s important is because our choice of language is powerful – it normalises behaviour and attitudes. Language helps us understand what is right and what is wrong. Language controls our narrative as a culture and that’s something we really want to influence as vegan businesses.
- Using vegan alternative phrases, such as “feeding two birds with one scone” or “don’t put all your berries in one basket” actually proves to your vegan customers that you are on the same page as they are – as well as giving your non-vegan customers pause for thought about what a phrase such as ‘killing two birds with one stone’ actually means!
- The language you use can be part of your activism as a vegan business. You can use it to make your customers reconsider our relationship with animals, it can be an educational opportunity. On the flip-side you can also use vegan-positive alternative phrases to entertain and make sure you’re remembered.
- It is worth doing an audit of the words you use on your website and in your marketing material with all this in mind. Not out of fear of offending, but to actually connect better with your audience.
And now I’ve got to the end of this session, I’m actually glad I decided to run with it as a topic – or that I took the flower by the thorns (instead of the bull by the horns) we could say. But I do want to continue this conversation. So connect with me on LinkedIn or send us an email and tell me what you think about the language we use in our vegan businesses. Is this something we should talk about more? Has this session got you thinking, or do you already do this and have come up with some great alternatives you use in your business already? Especially on that branding one.
And just before we wrap up, Lisa and I do really want you to connect with us. Talking about the language we use, Lisa and I don’t think that “vegan” businesses should be the ones that carry a label. Why should we have to point out that our businesses don’t cause harm to animals – it’s the businesses who are NOT vegan that should have to carry a warning. But the only way we’re going to get there is if we support and skill-up the vegan businesses community to have a bigger impact on the market. So if you have a vegan business, and you are looking for support, or just to meet other people on the same journey as you, then do check us out at VeganBusinessTribe.com where you can join us as a member for £12.99 a month to get access to the full community and support, or if you’re not quite ready yet then join us as a fan for free to get our weekly email. And if you don’t need the support at the moment but you like what we’re doing and want to give back – then you can also join us as a Vegan Business Tribe patron, or a sponsor, and you will find details of that on the website too.
Read my blog on fully veganizing your business, inspired by another past Vegan Business Tribe podcast episode.
Need a vegan content writer or editor to help you convert unintentionally cruel language so you can be more vegan-friendly? Contact me!