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By Thomas O'Neill, Managing editor

February 1, 2021 | 8 min read

From Katy Perry tagging it while dressed as a giant burger to shops consistently selling out of its products and the boss getting into a beef with the big meat lobby, food tech company Impossible has been pushing all the right marketing buttons.

It’s pretty much impossible that you’ve not, by now, heard of Impossible. The Redwood City mock meat maker has grown into a technology powerhouse since founder Pat Brown first boggled burger lovers with his bleeding plant-based patties.

The 60-something, former Stanford professor’s animal-friendly approach to fast-food quickly caught the attention of tech world titans, with Bill Gates, Google Ventures and Menlo Park’s Khosla Ventures all among its investors. Google even attempted to buy it outright for a few hundred million in 2015, but Brown wasn’t interested. Now, after 12 rounds of funding, Impossible has raised over $700m, pushing its value to around $2bn.

Also among that list of investors are Katy Perry, Jay-Z and Serena Williams, with the tennis ace saying she invested to help “provide plant-based options for people that may not have ever had those choices due to cost and availability”. Perry, meanwhile, attended a Met Gala after-party dressed as an enormous Impossible Burger.

The Impossible Burger, its flagship product, has been sold in more than 17,000 restaurants across the United States, from Fatburger to Red Robin to Hard Rock Cafe – and, of course, White Castle, which was the first big fast-food chain to offer the Impossible Slider. The slider’s unveiling at CES 2019 won Impossible several awards, including Most Unexpected Product, Most Impactful Product and Best of the Best. Burger King has since brought Impossible to the UK with its Rebel Whopper, while you’ll also find its products in Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau.

Pent-up demand

Scale, however, proved an obstacle – one it’ll be hoping all that investment helps it overcome. Restaurants have regularly been reported as selling out, while Impossible’s wooing of McDonald’s was put on a back burner until it can commit to the kind of numbers needed to make such a deal work. Despite the shortages, it found itself named the most popular late-night snack on Grubhub and made Yelp’s 2019 Hot List. And in September of that year, when it made its retail debut, it immediately became the number one product at some of America’s favorite grocery stores, including Gelson’s which has since sold more Impossible Burgers than all types of ground beef from cows. The retailer’s chief merchandising officer John Bagan says “no one could have predicted this level of pent-up demand” and tells how people have been buying up 10 packs at a time.

A keen marketing mind has, of course, created this demand. That road to retail was deliberately unrushed (a rarity among new food brands), with the strategy instead to first get it into as many restaurants as it could and to reap the free exposure. And push media has been deliberately spurned while it leverages social influencers to build its following among millennials unswayed by radio, TV or print. And again, all this is for free. Katy Perry tagging it on Instagram after the Met Gala? Wasn’t paid for. All the celebrity endorsements? Entirely authentic according to Impossible.

Perhaps its biggest marketing masterstroke, though, was its decision not to gear its products towards vegans or vegetarians. Its plan, rather, is to get them into all the spaces where animal-derived meat is currently sold – hence all those fast-food chains. It is part of a bigger plan from Impossible to completely eliminate animals from the food chain by 2035, according to vice-president of communications Jessica Appelgren.

“Our intention is to make everything that comes from an animal – meat, fish, dairy – directly from plants,” she says. “And the way we do that is through a process of reverse engineering, at the molecular level, figuring out what makes meat taste like meat and then recreating it from the plant kingdom.”

Impossible 2

Time and scale

At its lab in California’s Redwood City, she says the food tech company is constantly experimenting with texture, flavor and aroma. These experiments resulted in Impossible Pork, which Appelgren was at CES in 2020 to launch. It is a breakthrough that could fast-track that 2035 goal and is central to the brand’s push into China where half the planet’s 1.5 billion pigs are consumed.

The idea, she says, is to give meat lovers exactly what they love about meat while demanding very little sacrifice on their part. “If you’re giving the same flavors, the same textures, the same price point, the same health benefits and more, plus all the sustainability aspects of our product versus a product from an animal, why wouldn’t you switch? Our hope is that consumers will begin to understand that meat from plants can be as delicious or even more delicious than what comes from an animal, and with a fraction of the environmental footprint.”

While Appelgren admits that Impossible Meat is, at present, slightly more expensive, she says that as it scales that price will come down. “We have a great opportunity to bring the price much lower than the price of meat from a cow. It will just take some time and some scale.”

And speaking of scale, to achieve its 2035 goal, founder and chief exec Brown says Impossible needs to scale up more than 100,000-fold: “That means that, on average, we need to double our production, sales and impact every year for the next 16 years.” In early 2019 it announced it was looking to bring in at least 50 new employees as it added a second production line at its manufacturing plant and introduced a third shift of workers.

Then, throughout the year, it bolstered its leadership team by bringing in Dennis Woodside, whose résumé includes C-suite roles at Dropbox and Google, as its president; Sheetal Shah as senior vice-president of product and operations; former Apple and Motorola Mobility product lead Ravi Thakkar as vice-president of product management; Netflix and YouTube veteran Jessie Becker as senior vice-president of marketing; and former Twitter and Google exec Dan Greene as senior vice-president of US sales.

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Meat is heat

As 2019 (a year in which 3 million young people across the globe mobilized and marched out of school) drew to a close, Brown was in Madrid, at the UN Climate Change Conference, accepting the 2019 United Nations Global Climate Action Award. There, he joined activists looking to accelerate the transition to a sustainable food system and launched Impossible’s ‘#MeatisHeat’ social campaign, which looks to highlight how our demand for meat is behind catastrophic collapses in wildlife populations and ecosystems.

“Unless we act quickly to reduce or eliminate the use of animals in the food system, we are racing toward ecological disaster,” he said. “But I’m hopeful because younger generations are quickly discovering that ‘meat is heat’, and they are uniquely poised to turn us away from the brink of catastrophe.”

Not everyone is on board, however, with some more interested in the cost to their pockets than the cost to the planet – like America’s meat lobby, which appears to have a problem with Impossible’s mission to shut down what is globally a trillion-dollar industry. A group calling itself The Center for Consumer Freedom even went so far as to run an ad in Washington, DC during last year’s Super Bowl, in which kids on a spelling bee struggle to spell the names of ingredients in synthetic meats. The rather dubious message seems to be that, because they can easily spell ‘bacon’, processed animal meat must somehow be better.

Proving it’s possible to still have a sense of humor while fighting the good fight, Impossible’s marketing team quickly turned around a parody response in which Brown chairs his own spelling bee. In the video, he tasks a schoolgirl to spell ‘poop’, explaining: “There’s lots of poop in the places pigs and cows and chickens are killed and chopped to bits to make meat, and there’s poop in the ground beef we make from cows.”

What both ads get right, of course, is their focus on youth. Thankfully, those activists who joined Brown in Madrid, plus a lot more young people all around the world, are of a mind that climate change and biodiversity are absolute priorities, while millennial parents are driving the acceleration of plant-based meat in households around the world. As Appelgren sums up: “When you look at the true cost of the meat we consume, it is an eye-opener and makes you really think about your choices every day.”

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