In response to growing consumer concern about the environment, many brand management strategies have been about green credentials and a host of new market disruptors have emerged to provide environmentally conscious choices where they didn’t exist previously.
But while these issues definitely impact consumer decisions, there are still many people who aren’t willing to make lifestyle changes in order to reduce their footprint on the planet — and while traditional options are losing market share, they still reign supreme.
For Impossible Foods, this poses a serious challenge. Their mission is to lead the charge against animal agriculture, with the goal of eliminating it by 2035 by providing meat, fish, and dairy products made from plants. But across the globe, meat consumption is still growing and, for many meat-eaters, ditching their favorite foods is a sacrifice they just can’t stomach.
This brand deep dive looks at how Impossible Foods built an environmentally conscious brand aimed squarely at meat-eaters and the things they got right, and wrong, as they promoted their offering to mainstream consumers.
The Improbable Rise of Impossible Foods
Spurred by the environmental impact of meat production, demand for meat-free alternatives has exploded in recent years, while the range of products available to consumers has become ever more sophisticated.
Impossible Foods is a major player in this growing industry, founded in 2011 by Stanford University professor, Patrick O. Brown, with the ambitious goal of eliminating animal agriculture. The Impossible Foods brand has been built around this mission, which permeates every aspect of the company’s product, culture, and messaging.
Source: Impossible Foods
Their flagship product, the Impossible Burger, was first released in 2016 — fueled by a belief that the only way to wean people off animal products is to create something that looks, cooks, and tastes like the real thing. To that effect, Impossible Foods analyzed meat “at the molecular level” to faithfully recreate the experience of a burger made from beef. Their special ingredient “heme” even makes the burgers bleed.
In 2019, a revised version of the Impossible Burger was released (dubbed the Impossible Burger 2.0) and, though a few detractors still aren’t convinced, commentators and critics praised the recreation of beef’s texture and flavor with many claiming their taste buds were completely tricked into believing it was the real deal.
Following a successful trial with 59 Burger King restaurants in and around St Louis that same year, the fast-food giant vowed to make Impossible Whoppers available across the US by 2020.
Since then, Impossible Foods’ growth has been precipitous, becoming one of America’s fastest-growing brands — with its products available in more than 11,000 supermarkets as well as restaurants and fast-food chains.
Most importantly, this growth is not coming at the expense of other meat-free products. Nine out of 10 people who buy Impossible Burgers regularly eat animal-derived foods. According to Jessica Appelgren, VP Communications at Impossible Foods, “72% of people buying our product are buying it at the expense of the animal version.”
Source: Impossible Foods
However, the brand’s growth has also come at a cost. Impossible Foods’ decision to partner with fast food restaurants in order to gain access to mainstream markets raised concerns about the health impact of their products, particularly the highly processed nature of their offering as well as the high levels of sodium in Impossible Burgers.
This backlash has forced the brand to defend its products, something which is unusual for many of the other players in the meat-free category — even if it is typical for the fast food industry.
On top of this, the use of soy heme in their products required approval from the FDA, and in order to get this, the ingredient was tested on animals. So while the ingredients of the Impossible Burger (and the sausages, meatballs, and chicken nuggets that make up their full product range) are technically vegan, there will be some consumers who still choose to skip them for ethical reasons.
To make matters worse, Impossible Foods was caught off guard by surging demand. Production had to increase 10-fold by the end of 2020 to fulfill orders from their new fast-food partners, as well as supermarkets and restaurants.
In order to pull it off, the company’s staff had to go the extra mile, volunteering on the assembly line to get Impossible Burgers produced and packed for delivery. It was a feat that somewhat damaged the company’s reputation, with employee reviews on Glassdoor painting a chaotic and unsavory picture of the company’s management.
Despite these challenges, Impossible Foods continued to grow and by the end of 2021 was on course for a $7 billion valuation, beating its main competitor Beyond Meat. Their offering has expanded from just the Impossible Burger to sausages, chicken nuggets, pork patties, and meatballs. By the end of 2021, they’d launched the brand in Australia and New Zealand and have their sights firmly set on European and Chinese markets for the future.
But what can your brand learn from Impossible Foods’ journey? Let’s discuss.
What Can You Learn From Impossible Foods?
1. Look beyond your category’s traditional target audience
Many brands catering to vegetarians, vegans, or environmentally conscious consumers prioritize their eco-friendly credentials and, while this is a core part of Impossible Foods’ brand messaging, they’ve been open with their customers from the start. Their target audience isn’t people who are already making sacrifices or avoiding animal products — it is meat eaters. In their own words:
“We’ve known from the beginning that if we want to transform the global food system, we need to create mouthwatering alternatives to our favorite foods that don’t require sacrifice or compromise…We like to say that while our products are made FROM plants, they’re made FOR people who love eating meat.”
Applegren clarifies that they built the company “on the philosophy that we should not put the pressure on people to care about sustainability as a requirement of loving this product. It can't be about guilt. It can't be about sacrifice. It can't be about just saving the planet. It has to be about, I want this, this is delicious and it's good for my body and the planet.”
The brand’s first national ad campaign in 2021 reflects this ethos. “We love meat” bears all the hallmarks of a traditional burger ad, only mentioning at the end, as little more than an afterthought, that the product is made from plants.
While environmental sustainability is central to Impossible Foods’ mission, in order to reach meat-eating consumers they’ve placed the quality, taste, and experience of their product front and center — rather than relying on facts and figures about carbon footprints or water usage which might otherwise fall on deaf ears.
What can you learn from this? Growing your brand means speaking to and converting consumers who might not be the traditional target audience of your product. Rather than fighting for market share in a crowded category, there can be huge rewards for brands that find a way to grow the market instead.
Ultimately, preaching to the converted will only get you so far. Think about what your brand can do to help consumers change their behavior and choose your offering over the competition.
2. If you’re innovating, make sure to shout about it!
Doing things differently can be risky, but it can also be the key to shaping your brand’s identity and distinguishing your offering from that of the competition.
Impossible Foods’ use of heme to recreate the distinct flavor of real meat is a USP that they shout about, and the fact that their Impossible Burgers are the result of cutting edge science is not something they try to hide. Indeed, even the brand name “Impossible Foods” highlights the technological achievements of their product.
What can you learn from this? Unless you're doing things the good old fashioned way (which can be a USP in and of itself), the things that make your brands’ offering distinct from the competition could be vital ingredients in your brand’s identity.
We live in revolutionary times, so if you’re disrupting the status-quo or innovating in any way, this might be something that fires up your target audience and turns them into brand advocates.
3. Consider a whole brand approach.
Your brand is defined by more than just a few handpicked campaigns. Absolutely everything your company does, from the suppliers you work with to your customer support services, can influence how consumers perceive your brand.
Impossible Foods practices a whole brand approach where a single core idea helps guide and define all of their brand actions. For them, their brand is built around the mission to replace animal agriculture and the belief that this can only be done by meeting “animal meat, head to head with a plant-based version that performs the same in every way that the animal meat version performs.”
These ideas inform everything the company does, from its advertising campaigns straight through to the partners it works with and the great emphasis placed on the Impossible Burger experience.
What can you learn from this? According to ad agency Barkley, “Whole brands are rated five times more likely as a brand on the rise”, so it really pays to take on a holistic approach and ensure all of your company’s moving parts are aligned and working on the same mission.
Here are some key questions to ask about your brand and its offering, if you want to build a whole brand: Are all of your employees working towards the same shared goal? Are your customer touchpoints aligned with your brand identity? Do you have a consistent core message across all of your campaigns?
In much the same way that Tesla redefined consumers’ perceptions of electric vehicles, by creating an aspirational brand, Impossible Foods has challenged the pre-conception that alternative, meat-free products are only for vegans, vegetarians, and the environmentally conscious. And they’ve done this through strong branding which incorporates their founding goal and values.
The meat-free category looks set to grow as more players enter the market with different solutions to the problem of animal agriculture. As the demand for these products continues to grow, so too will their sophistication. In the words of Impossible Foods’ founder Patrick O. Brown, “the benefit we have over the cow, is that the cow stopped getting better ages ago, and we get better every day.”
Learn more about the growth of Impossible Foods in our exclusive Brand Bite, where we explore the numbers behind consumer perception of their brand.