'Chefs are our ambassadors’: how Impossible Foods built a brand without a physical presence

The Impossible meat balls at Empress in Singapore.

Impossible Foods, the maker of the Impossible Burger, believes its operating model of partnering restaurants around the world to serve its plant-based products helps it build brand credibility, messaging and awareness with consumers.

This is according to the food technology company’s director of expansion, Jordan Sadowsky, who says that because chefs in these restaurants have the creativity and versatility to work with its product, it means they can make sure a person's first experience will be special. This, in turn, reduces the need for Impossible to open its own restaurants.

“Using food service as a platform to spread the word and spread the awareness was a very powerful tool for us from a marketing and branding perspective because the chefs became ambassadors of our brand for us,” Sadowsky explains to The Drum in Singapore.

“Whereas, if you start in retail right away, you have to really fight against all the competition. We had a product that was good enough that chefs wanted it. So, from day one, they believed in our product and our mission, and they promoted it along with us.”

It seems restaurants and their chefs have bought into this philosophy. All 50 states in the United States now has at least one restaurant that serves an Impossible Burger or uses its plant-based burger meat in its products.

Impossible has also tied up partnerships with fast-food chains like White Castle and Burger King, which created the Impossible Whopper. After raising $114 million, led by Singapore’s Temasek Holdings and Hong Kong-based Sailing Capital, Impossible is now available in both countries.

Sadowsky says Impossible, which uses tech to create heme protein from non-animal sources, is enjoying success with this model because it placed the importance of building credibility in the market with consumers as a priority and prevent itself from being categorized as ‘just another veggie burger’.

“We don’t believe in the word, veggie burger, that's not who we are. We are a product for meat eaters and because of that, we thought it was important to create that brand perception from day one,” he says.

“When we entered Singapore, we partnered with some of the best chefs in this city. Chefs like chef Adam from Three Buns, chef Andrei from Park Bench Deli, chefs from Empress. Singapore has some of the trendiest and best restaurants here, and it just goes a long way in convincing consumers to give it a try. Once consumers give it a try, they taste how good it is, and they keep on eating it over and over.”

Partnering with restaurants also helped Impossible localise its brand, explains Sadowsky. For example, as burgers are iconic in the US, most of the products served there are burgers. However, in Asia, where the cuisine is diverse, Impossible has seen its products evolved beyond its core offerings.

In Singapore, consumers can try the Impossible crispy pancakes with Chinese chives, the pan-fried Impossible gyoza, and the black pepper Impossible meatball skewers at Empress, or even the Impossible satay sliders at Privé, which is a twist of the popular local dish of seasoned, skewered and grilled meat, served with a sauce.

“From day one, people can see that it's not just a burger, it's ground beef. Whatever you can do with ground beef, you can do with our product,” Sadowsky says. “It's the same core product, but restaurants can make whatever you want with it.”

“In the US, burgers are so popular, the restaurants just want to keep making more and more burgers. However, in San Francisco for example, there's a Chinese restaurant that makes dumplings with Impossible. Out here in Asia, it's just much more popular to have all those types of dishes, in addition to a burger.”

Ultimately, plant-based products have a low barrier for entry for consumers, Sadowsky points out, which means Impossible has created something that enables people not to have to change their behavior to try its products. He says the company wants people to still enjoy the same food that they have always enjoyed, with the ingredients made in a different way.

“I think in that way, enjoying the same food without the compromise is what this technology enables. Our technology is enabling people to eat what they want, like go out and eat a burger at Three Buns but just don't feel as bad about it,” he adds.

With the money it saves from traditional advertising and media buys, Sadowsky says Impossible invests in things like the production of its product, building out its sales team and research and development into new products.

Impossible also does its creative work in-house, allowing its creatives, led by executive creative director Giselle Guerrero, to work more closely with its strategy, product development, marketing and communications teams.

Earned media value meanwhile, comes from celebrities like Jay-Z, Will.i.am, Jaden Smith and Katy Perry, which Sadowsky says "have embraced our mission and are really excited about promoting our products", but claims the brand does not pay them.

“I think our brand has a lot of excitement today, which does not just come through restaurants, but also through PR,” observes Sadowsky. “I think the media loves to cover new food trends and I think celebrities back in the US really love our products.”

However, the exec does not rule spending more on marketing in the future. “In the future when we partner with bigger restaurants, and when we grow and scale, we will probably spend more, but right now our brand name is carrying us quite a bit,” he says.

Upcoming plans for Impossible include entering new markets like Japan, South Korea and other parts of Asia. It also plans to go into retail through partnerships with grocery stores in the US in 2019, which Sadowsky declined to provide an exact date for.

The Drum spoke to Impossible Foods ahead of its Future of Food issue, which publishes on July 17. You can subscribe here to make sure you get a copy.

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