In Europe and North America, butter is generally seen as a classic staple food product necessary for creating certain flavours and specific dishes that make up national and regional cuisines. Increasingly however, butter is also the star of the show, with trends like butter boards emerging on social media, and restaurants increasingly serving bread and speciality butter as a dish in its own right. Specialty butters are developing cult followings, and many consumers are increasingly dedicated to specific brands or formulations of butter and butter alternatives to get even the simplest meals tasting just right.

In line with this trend, leading edge supermarkets such as Erewhon in the US are stocking butter brands that convey a sense of longstanding heritage and classic, straight-from-the-countryside heritage. One example is Frentel, whose pack design features a simple, almost caricatured hand-drawn image of a rustic farmhouse surrounded by grazing dairy cows. The resurging appeal of this unchanged, vintage-style packaging and imagery demonstrates an interest in the traditional, time-tested, and straight-from-the farm qualities of dairy butter. It conveys a feeling of inherent rustic goodness that is ultimately part of the flavour of the product, whether eaten on bread or used in cooking.

Alongside this, Frentel and other premium butters such as Paysan Breton or Rodda’s Cornish Butter showcase the regionality, not just national origins, of their butter recipes. Embedded in this is a sense of hyper-local tradition and heritage. In these cases, the butter comes directly from a knowable countryside location, suggesting a kind of terroir for butter that offers a unique flavour profile and culinary tradition. In this sense premium butter is something that should offer a rich taste that comes from quality ingredients and traditional know-how, with longstanding regional recipes creating the difference rather than modern innovation.

In addition, brands such as Lurpak position butter as a key element in building and finishing good food, for chefs and home cooks alike. Using imagery that follows a home cook making classic, familiar dishes like pancakes, clams, or pastry from scratch Lurpak demonstrates how good butter has been a key element in the creation of Western food heritage, and how it can continue to be an enabler of culinary skill and creativity. Even so, it’s simply good butter, that enables the creation of something larger. Again we see that making a virtue out of simplicity and inherent goodness are key in communicating the benefits of butter. And ultimately, this provides richness and sensory pleasure, something butter has always been good at.

Beyond traditional butter, plant-based alternatives are increasingly sophisticated and positioned as a dairy butter equivalent, rather than a compromising swap. Historically products like margarine and butter alternatives have been seen as engineered to be cheaper or healthier, allowing for a familiar spread, or a flavourful cooking fat, but not necessarily a quality ingredient in their own right. Today butter-alternatives and plant-based offerings are not only offering a solution for a culinary need (for example a solid fat for making a pie crust) or a ‘better’ option that adds buttery flavour without the same fats or animal-origins (as exemplified by “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”). Instead we see offerings that offer artisanal quality and a sense of makership found in traditional butters. 

In the US brands like Miyokos, for example, are offering “European Style Cultured Vegan Butter” developing a plant-based proposition that replicates the traditional processes and flavours of premium dairy butter. These butters are shown simply spread over toast, but also as base ingredients for dishes like pastry, conventionally difficult to make or flavour properly without dairy butter. Innovation in this case exists to enable familiarity and set home cooks up with the right tools to make whatever dishes they want to, without sacrificing their personal dietary needs. In the UK as well, Flora plant butter packs feature imagery of a textured curl of butter, simply showcasing the way that Flora replicates the texture and culinary possibilities of conventional dairy butter. Along with this, comms imagery showing generous pats of Flora used in familiar dishes like asparagus or risotto highlight the product’s potential to replicate rich flavour profiles and enable classic cooking methods while still foregoing animal products. Overall there is a sense that whether plant-based or dairy, butter and butter-replacements are a simple but flavourful and comforting staple ingredient. 

When it comes to familiar, staples, inherent quality is increasingly sought after. Rather than innovating added value modifications, or ‘healthier’ replications, consumers are looking for products that enable creative cooking and good taste. With competition from a wide range of different oils and international cuisines, butter and butter alternative brands are increasingly highlighting the flavour and culinary benefits of using solid ‘yellow fats.’ To appeal to consumers with seemingly endless access to a diverse array of products, butter and plant-based butters can look to butter’s role in cuisine, and in the nostalgic indulgence of good, simple things to build relevance in consumers’ lives.

3 key takeaways for brands:

  1. Innovation works best when it supports consumers’ culinary habits; rather than innovating for the sake of it, understanding the cultural meaning of the category will help develop products that serve a real need.
  2. Sometimes less is more and simplicity can be a virtue: seek to understand how the heritage of staple foods can remain relevant even as ideas around cooking and wellbeing shift.
  3. What makes your product different: consumers are increasingly open to nuanced differences, and want to understand how small variations in products can add to their cooking and food experiences. Find out what consumers want, and how your product’s unique qualities can deliver on this.

Isobel Grad, Project Director

Semiotic Spread: How butter & plant-based alternatives are staying deliciously relevant