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19-03-2021

Impossible Foods’ Success: A Behavioural Science Perspective

People love meat. Yet CEO Patrick Brown aims to end all meat consumption by 2035 through Impossible Foods, his company that sells plant-based “meats” that taste exactly like animal-based meat with just as much protein.

Although countless meat-lovers could never imagine giving up meat, Impossible Foods has converted 33 million Americans to plant-based meat[1] — a feat previously thought of as insurmountable. At the same time, Impossible has started a significant contribution towards combatting climate change through sustainable eating. As a result, Impossible Foods has raised $1.3 billion and been evaluated at $4 billion.

© Impossible Foods – https://impossiblefoods.com/media/images

From a behavioural science perspective, much of Impossible Foods’ success can be attributed to their deep understanding of consumers’ behavioural drivers. Studying their case, we have identified four main learnings that could inspire brands willing to explore plant-based opportunities: a bold behavioural mission, a decoding of consumer trade-offs, a development strategy focused on the number one choice driver: taste and finally, a behaviourally informed marketing strategy.

1. A bold behavioural mission that defines the target in behavioural terms:

CEO Patrick Brown chose an incredibly difficult yet promising mission: changing the behaviour of eating meat by having meat-eaters switch to a plant-based alternative that delivers a like-for-like meat experience, without compromise. To achieve this, he defined the target market in behavioural terms (what people do), not attitudinal (what people say), knowing that there were a broad range of behaviours related to meat reduction.

He did not design “just another veggie burger” selling products for vegetarians/vegans, who are already happy with their current protein substitutes. They do not really seek a product mimicking meat, as they do not eat meat at all. Besides, vegans/vegetarians account for only 6% of the American market – far too niche.[2]

Nor did he simply target the “flexitarian” consumers, who choose to reduce the frequency of meat consumption. Flexitarians occasionally replace meat with plant-based substitutes, but often prefer adding sophisticated veggie recipes in their diet, including some with animal proteins (cheese, eggs). In this way, they compensate for the loss of meat in their diets by some kind of pleasurable, yet different, alternatives.

Instead, Patrick Brown has chosen to crack the biggest challenge: have the 94% of Americans that eat meat switch their meat consumption to a new generation of plant-based substitutes. By seeking an alternative that meat lovers would consider as good as the best meats, he addressed the biggest market—both in terms of penetration and repeat purchase. By making it fruitless for flexitarians to deprive themselves, he captured most of the existing meat-eating moments before they are reduced or removed from practice.

And so far, Impossible Foods’ mission of changing eating behaviour has been successful: 72% of their sales replace would-be meat purchases. This means that when people buy Impossible products, they don’t buy it in addition to buying meat—they buy it instead of meat, thus reducing meat consumption.

2. Understanding consumer trade-offs to guide switch strategy:

Barriers towards veggie substitutes, as well as craving factors for meat

Before Impossible Foods’ launch, research suggested that there were several barriers that prevented meat-eaters from consuming existing plant-based products. Explicit barriers were predominantly: a fear of a tasteless or bland product, a premium price compared to meat, some inconvenience of preparing the food, doubts about unknown ingredients, and believing there was not enough protein in the veggie substitute.

Observation reveals other barriers, such as the fear of social judgement when asking for a “veggie” version (and being assimilated into a marginal group disrupting social conventions [3]). Or simply the lack of visual and sensorial appeal of the food-form in store, or when cooking it, compared to animal meat.

However, in order to create a competitive alternative that would delight meat users, you also need to understand the deep motivators that make meat lovers crave their “meat moments”. What are the intrinsic cues of the product (aspect, smell, preparation etc.) that help judge or anticipate the quality of the product? What are the occasions, the contextual cues sublimating the tasting experience (recipes, places, names)? Because if you want to compete with meat, you need to understand what drives its appeal in the various contexts, from the store to the plate.

Acknowledging that taste is both the primary barrier to eating existing meat substitutes and the primary reason why people crave meat was pivotal beyond what people claim about their interest in sustainability or more balanced diets. Starting with a minced beef patty was also a way to attack the mainstream market in the US, with an iconic tasty recipe: the burger is a staple of American cuisine.

3. A product development strategy focused on cracking the primary choice driver:

A product that tastes like meat

Once Impossible Foods chose taste as its core mission, they dedicated all their product development towards this goal. Not an easy choice, as we have seen various plant-based players following different paths in alternative categories, making choices such as developing more nutritionally balanced products or valorising some healthy or protein-rich ingredients.

Improving veggie-burgers is not a difficult task, but by concentrating on improving an already undesired category by meat eaters would have been to choose the wrong benchmark. Impossible Foods chose to beat meat. They did not try to develop a nutritionally advanced product at the same time, as these two objectives would have clashed.

Impossible Foods’ teams are at ease with having a long ingredient list, simply because that is what it takes to make plant-based ingredients taste as good as meat. The nutritional elements do however meet the minimum standards that consumers expect from a meat substitute: the same amount of protein, but no cholesterol and fewer calories.

To recreate the taste of meat, Impossible’s teams spent their research and development time on perfecting heme, an ingredient from plants that mimics the savoury nature of animal blood. They added natural ingredients to give a bright red colour that resembles raw meat and which turns naturally brown when cooked.

They packaged their product in transparent wrapping, exactly like meat and designed the product to look, bleed, smell, and cook like meat. All aspects of the product delivered on the promise of taste at first sight: the packaging, the product and the name itself—“Impossible”—dramatizing the promise of an incredible taste experience.

© Impossible Foods – https://impossiblefoods.com/media/images

4. Their launch strategy leveraged 4 behavioural drivers to accelerate adoption:

Trigger people’s sense of challenge to change their beliefs

For their launch strategy, Impossible teams knew they needed to convince people about their product quality first. For this they chose a very exclusive route to market that proved to be highly strategic, in order to encourage trial and build reputation without spending advertising money: restaurants.

Because it is easy for consumers to experiment in a restaurant (they simply need to order it in a burger), it was tempting to take the challenge of tasting the “Impossible Burger”—they did not need to purchase and cook it themselves. And it was a social experience too: consumers could immediately share their surprise, and have other guests taste it to believe it.

By having the brand “Impossible” printed in the menu, all guests would have had to read it when making their choice. This menu strategy was a clever way to build awareness and create the immediate association with the uniqueness of the experience. “Impossible” flags pinned into the burger itself helped increase brand salience of the product itself.

Nudge desirability of the product by making it exclusive

Impossible did not pick just any restaurant to serve Impossible Burgers: it got chefs like Traci Des Jardins and Chris Cosentino to endorse it. Even Chef David Chang, a renowned meat-loving chef, advertised the product; he signals to consumers that this product can, in fact satisfy hardcore meat-lovers.

These endorsements helped erase any lingering doubts about taste, and reversed the “vegan” stigma, turning eating “Impossible” into a fashionable experience. Now Impossible is associated with gastronomy as well as famous influencers who have endorsed the brand (Rap entrepreneur JAY Z, tennis player Serena Williams, even pop musician Katy Perry) without being paid for it.

In summer 2019, the demand for the burger exceeded its supply, so the company reached a shortage and was unable to provide its product to every location. Intended or not, this activated scarcity bias increased both the demand and the value of the product. In relating the shortage, the media amplified the image of an exclusive and tasty meat-free patty, and subsequently increased the awareness of the Impossible brand, now part of many food conversations.

Change social norms by surfacing them and increasing reach

After inducing desire through social proof, Impossible moved to the next level: releasing the product in fast food chains and retail stores, making it an everyday product that could be adopted by anyone in any location. Their campaign of the Impossible Whopper at Burger King signalled to potential users that anyone could try an Impossible Burger now. The presence in supermarkets also helped move usage from restaurant to home.

Simultaneously, the company dropped the price to close the gap with meat. With more people gaining access to Impossible Foods’ “meat”, the company has continued to expand to all sectors of the population. And they slowly built on their initial success to send out the message that being an Impossible Foods customer meant becoming part of a social movement to change the world: consumption empowers people by being part of a project bigger than themselves.

Create habits by expanding and anchoring their products in local food-culture

Impossible has built occasions around its product through cultural reinvention and creating new meat substitutes more adapted to certain regions or food traditions. Their products will be easy to use in dishes like pasta bolognaise or tacos, integrating the brand into consumption habits and repurchasing.

The company has already launched the Impossible sausage and other foods like Impossible fish. Step by step, they are making it easy for people to forgo traditional animal products for plant-based ones. Its products have now expanded to new geographies outside the US, and can be purchased in 5 countries around the world.[4]

Conclusion: Future Growth for Impossible Foods

Beyond having developed an “impossible” product, what is remarkable in the Impossible Foods story is their sense of managing priorities, and focusing on changing their target audience’s (“the meat lovers”) beliefs and behaviours without using traditional mass marketing.

By dealing with people’s behavioural triggers and barriers one step at a time, combined with a smart use of partnerships, places and collective movements, they have created an adoption curve at incredible speed. In designing the relevant mental associations, they have started to change social norms among the most influential groups of meat-lovers (including millennials).

They are claiming to now move into more personalized marketing. Beyond taste, Impossible will be targeting messages addressing the various subsegment’s concerns: stressing either versatility or convenience and to a lesser extent, sustainability or nutritional reinsurance. But without a one size fits all approach.

Impossible is bound to see some reaction from “real” meat fanatics and from opponents’ campaigns trying to denigrate their product ingredients. The meat industry has already started trying to protect the term “meat” for what is real meat. But by shaping the narrative on what is important to people and to the planet, Impossible has managed to turn their product weaknesses into the lesser of two evils, while keeping a strong competitive advantage: a crave-able taste.

So what about your plant-based innovation?  Are you sure you have chosen the right behavioural mission? Did you crack the deep-seated reasons why people would switch? How would you plan a launch without classical advertising? To find inspiration, apply Behavioural Science to your launch ideas: reach out to see how deep behavioural insights can supercharge your R&D and marketing.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tXErqhPHfw

[2] https://news.gallup.com/poll/267074/percentage-americans-vegetarian.aspx

[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195666318313874

[4]https://faq.impossiblefoods.com/hc/en-us/articles/360019099913-What-areas-is-it-available-in-#:~:text=Currently%2C%20our%20products%20are%20available,and%20fish%20made%20from%20plants.

Written by Richard Bordenave with the support of Ryan Xie

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