Meet the ECD rewriting the rules of meat and marketing with the Impossible Burger
She’s an in-house executive creative director, a Londoner in LA, an employee of a vegan meat company, a believer in the powers of the cosmos and a marketer who hates the term ‘brand’. Is the industry ready for Impossible Food’s Sasha Markova?
It’s not often you go to a marketing conference and hear a client-side creative quote Arundhati Roy on stage. It’s even rarer to hear them discussing the theory that the world’s plants are subconsciously manipulating humans to save the world, or reference a utopia where humans eat a plant-based diet and wild cows are sighted less than wolves. But that’s precisely what Sasha Markova, the executive creative director of Impossible Foods, gave the audience at the D&AD Festival earlier this week.
Amid her anecdotes and philosophies (some mind-blowing, others eyebrow-raising) it became clear that Markova is more than an in-house director: she’s a disciple of her employer, the company that produces burger patties that taste, look and feel like meat but are in fact made entirely of vegetables.
The Impossible Burger is currently Impossible Foods’ flagship product but earlier this month its founder, Pat Brown, revealed his labs are also working to recreate the textures and flavours of chicken, fish and even eggs with vegetables. The company just began selling sliders throughout the US via the White Castle fast-food chain. It’s the ultimate brand for the vegetarian age.
Markova and Impossible Foods appear to be a match made in heaven. While Brown was working as an academic biochemist, Markova was cutting her teeth under the watch of Mark Waites and Robert Saville at Mother London. As Brown was fine-tuning the Impossible Burger recipe, Markova was flying to LA to set up her agency’s West Coast presence. And while Brown’s brand was gaining traction, Markova found herself at the end of the tether with the ad world after a 16-hour yoghurt brand brainstorm sent her into an existential spin.
“We were like, is [the yoghurt] cloudy? Is it dreamy? Can a yoghurt be privileged?” she tells The Drum. “That was sort of the breaking point of my relationship with the agency and I went out into the night feeling really Jerry Maguire about the whole thing.”
She freelanced in Silicon Valley before setting up her own agency to directly service animals and nature. Working purely for clients such as Wild Horses of America was “completely economically crazy”, she admits, but it pushed her to realise she needed to effect change on a macro level.
“I literally put it out into the world,” she recalls. “I closed my eyes and said, let those people get in touch with me. And the next day [Impossible Foods] called. It was such a fluke.”
Does she really think it was a fluke?
“Well it's the cosmos, it’s the universe. This might sound crazy, but I really believe the universe is on our side on this.”
For Markova, Brown and the Impossible Foods team, the Impossible Burger represents more than a juicier alternative to the Linda McCartney sausage. It’s a paradigm shift – an edible symbol of our changing world and the power of science – and, by Markova’s definition, more than a brand.
“This argument of ‘this is just the way it works’ – it doesn’t work anymore,” she says. “I’m even questioning how I do things at Impossible Foods creatively. I’ve come in with all these ideas of brand architecture, brand platforms and propositions and I don’t even like using the word ‘brand’ anymore.
"It makes me feel ill. I think this is something different. We want to be a spirit of something. You’re part of something when you’re in the Impossible world. You’re part of this energy around this thing.”
But when you willingly discard words such as brand and shed taglines because your founder thinks they’re “dictatorial”, it’s easy to lose people’s understanding along the way – not least your agency’s. Impossible Foods' relationship with the “couple” of shops it previously hired in America didn’t end well; from Markova’s account, it seems it was the in-house shop’s devotion to its product that proved a stumbling block for the traditional agency set-up.
“An agency puts on a layer – they put on a paint job,” she explains. “They would put a creative idea on top of the creative idea, which is the product. They have it – meat made from plants – it’s a fucking amazing creative idea. Now we just need to tell that, and put out the spirit of that.”
Markova recalls dialling into conference calls with US agencies and feeling like she was listening to a radio play. “It was still so part of that Don Draper world of the agency going away for a couple of weeks, coming up with something and unveiling the line,” she says. “We don’t have time for that. We just want to do everything together and if we work with anybody, we want to talk to them every day and just have a conversation.”
For now, her team is preparing to launch a campaign in the next two to three months. Markova is resisting the temptation to fiddle with the company’s underlying marketing strategy. However, she’s determined that the name, logo and aesthetic are here to stay, as is the ‘taste first, saving the world second’ messaging.
The thing about burgers and meat in America, she explains, is they imbibe emotion, nostalgia and memory. It would be reckless for a challenger brand to break that spell by talking about killing cows or methane emissions. And in any case, it wouldn’t work, because “as soon as you start eating meat as a child, you begin a process of disassociation”.
And Markova has found an agency that works – Fred & Farid Shanghai, which partnered with the brand for its launch in Hong Kong. “In Shanghai, you’re so aware of a new world being invented all the time,” she says. “Maybe it was easier for them? They got the idea that [the Impossible Burger] unlocks this new paradigm – that it unlocks this sense of possibility – more than anybody else.”
There are currently no concrete plans to launch in other markets, primarily due to manufacture and distribution logistics. But when the Impossible Burger does come to Europe, it will be interesting to see which agency gets the call.
The money’s on Mother, but with a marketer such as Markova at the helm, it’s impossible to predict.