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College of Business, Law and Governance

Publish Date

2 April 2020

Related Study Areas

Plant Power

Depending on what type of consumer you are, you might buy full-fat or low-fat cow’s milk, goat’s milk or even plant-based milks like almond or oat.

If you take a look around your local grocery store, you will quickly notice the growing number of innovative plant-based milks, along with more vegan products and meat substitutes on the supermarket shelves.

JCU Senior Lecturer in Marketing Dr Breda McCarthy is interested in food marketing and ethical consumption. She explores what motivates consumers to buy products with an ethical label and how branding and labelling affect those choices.

“I am interested in looking at the factors driving food choices and how branding and labelling affects choices at the point-of-sale,” Breda says. “There is a wide range of ethical labels available for sale in the marketplace – certified organic, eco-friendly, free-range, fair-trade and vegan. Logos from third parties, such as the sustainable fish logo from the Marine Stewardship Council, can influence point-of-purchase decisions. The success of Woolworth’s ‘Odd Bunch’ range shows that consumers are interested in supporting farmers and buying products that do some good in wider society, and of course if the produce is sold at a discount, then this drives sales too.”

Plant-based milk refers to milk alternatives such as rice, soy, quinoa, oat, coconut, hazelnut and almond milk. There is increased interest in plant-based milks or milk alternatives on health grounds. Many of these beverages are sold at a premium price and are positioned as healthy and nutritious, although there are many different types and they all vary in terms of nutritional qualities. Consumers who are lactose intolerant choose plant-based milks over cow’s milk. People who are vegan choose these products over dairy milk. They avoid consuming animal-based foods due to concerns about animal welfare and beliefs that a plant-based diet is more environmentally friendly than an animal-based diet.

A branch with leaves and fruit
Bowls with nuts and milk in a jug

Can we redefine milk?

“We can draw on wider academic literature to explain why consumers are buying ethical labels,” Breda says.

“Both the health and environmental positioning of plant-based milks help sell these brands and ultimately get much more shelf space in supermarkets today. What’s interesting about plant-based milks is the current media debate on whether they should be labelled ‘milk’. While plant-based milks are often white and may have the appearance or texture of cow’s milk, they are not derived from mammary secretions. The dairy industry is seeking to reclaim the name ‘milk’ and ensure dairy is clearly differentiated from the plant-based milks – which is standard marketing practice.”

The ownership of a word, particularly a generic word such as ‘milk’, is fundamental to branding and dairy milk marketing, particularly when fluid milk sales are steadily declining.

“The labelling of plant-based milk alternatives is under debate in Australia at the moment. In European countries, legislation prohibits the use of the word ‘milk’ for drinks that are not made from mammary secretions, with exceptions made for coconut milk and almond milk.”

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Breda McCarthy

Senior Lecturer

Breda McCarthy is a senior lecturer of Marketing in Economics and Marketing at JCU. Breda’s research interests lie in the intersection of consumer behaviour, sustainability, and marketing practice. She is curious about why consumers engage in sustainable and pro-environmental behaviours. Breda’s research is focused on critical issues that are aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Breda’s interest in social marketing adds dimension to these topics. She is currently working on a multi-disciplinary project on mobile health apps, exploring cognitive aging and older adults’ experiences with health apps. She also has a project focusing on online reviews and investigating how people evaluate electronic word-of-mouth and whether trust influences brand image. Breda has published conference papers, journal articles, and book chapters over a long career spanning 20 years in Ireland and Australia.