If you’ve heard of Impossible Burger, odds are good that you’ve heard that it’s… different from other vegetarian burgers.
Before we do that, though, let’s zoom out so we can see the larger landscape. There are a lot of plant-based proteins available, and “veggie burgers”3 have been around since at least the 1970s. Various brands have made small inroads into the carnivore market here and there, but not in significant numbers, despite rising awareness of the adverse environmental impacts of factory farming. The vast majority of consumers are still eating meat — so why make another veggie burger when that niche is already crowded?
While there are many friction points at play in customers’ decision making — force of habit, cost, and availability are just a few — Impossible Foods decided to tackle one of the biggest ones head-on: deliciousness. Rather than vying for a slice of a small pie (vegetarian burger alternatives), they went all-in on competing in the big leagues: against savory, mouth-watering beef burgers.
For this gamble to work, they had to do two things: develop a product that could truly hold its own, and convince mainstream consumers the Impossible Burger was the equal of a premium, organic-beef option — since they knew that their production costs would require the end product to be sold at the same price point as organic meat.
They put their best food scientists to work on the product, but how to convince people to buy the burgers? The company landed on an unexpected, but brilliant, strategy to focus first on a handful of individuals who — if they could be convinced the Impossible Burger was truly great — could influence an entire category of customers.
They went straight to the top of the (ahem) food chain, and found a single celebrity chef with the power to make or break the Impossible Burger brand: David Chang, of Momofuku fame.
This was the company’s gambit: they reasoned that foodies — the kind of people who go out of their way to eat at top-tier restaurants — would furnish the ultimate social proof that Impossible Burgers were not just another bland veggie burger. If they could convince the kinds of people who obsess over terroir and sous-vide, and cultivate genuine enthusiasm for the food they were making for its own sake, as a tasty addition to their already diverse and adventurous menus, then everyone else who cares about food would follow.
Their weirdos weren’t vegetarians and vegans. Their weirdos were meat eaters who care about the environment, and millennial foodies who are trend-conscious but also concerned about climate change.
- July 27, 2016: The Impossible Burger is introduced at Momofuku Nishi, chef David Chang’s Manhattan eatery (according to Eater, Chang sought out the partnership), and gets advance coverage in places like Gothamist and Eater.
- October 2016: A handful of San Francisco restaurants with “celebrity chefs” get in on the action.
January 2017: According to The New York Times, the burger is exclusively available in “a handful of high-end restaurants.” (Also, it’s getting coverage in the NYT — no small feat.)
- February 2017: Total number of high-end restaurants: seven, including one with a Michelin star5.
- 2018: Impossible Burger makes its international debut via Hong Kong, which has the highest per capital meat consumption in Asia.
- September 2018: White Castle becomes the first fast food restaurant to sell Impossible burgers (in the form of sliders). After trialling the burger in a small subset of locations, CEO Lisa Ingram announces the sales exceeded expectations, and Impossible sliders become a menu staple nationwide.
- April 2019: Burger King joins the party, adding the Impossible Whopper to their menu.
- September 2019: the burgers finally make their way into grocery store chains, starting with less than 150 stores. Within a year, they’re available in over 11,000 stores and supermarkets.
Notably, the three-year product roll-out started very small, and very focused: not only did limiting availability to high-end restaurants brand the Impossible Burger as a high-end, gourmet food, but it also meant that the company could gradually scale up production over time and focus on wholesale customers first, before tackling all the business complexity that comes with consumer-facing products.
Meanwhile, consumer demand grew as reviews and media coverage appeared — so by the time the burgers were available in fast food restaurants, there was a huge market of customers eager to try the product.
Grocery stores brought up the rear, along with direct-to-consumer sales; but by the time these options were introduced, the writing was already on the wall: Impossible Burger was well established as the meat alternative to beat, in terms of taste and cachet.
And proving the company’s hunch correct, their sales come primarily from customers who would otherwise be buying meat.
So what did they do to cultivate relationships with their weirdos? They got to know the restaurant industry, and how to support their weirdos’ own businesses. If you visit the Impossible Foods website, there’s a whole section devoted to restaurateurs and helping them succeed with the products. In it, you’ll find cooking, handling, and storage tips for kitchen staff; talking points to help servers speak knowledgeably with patrons about the meat; and a form restaurant managers can submit to be featured on the Impossible Foods map (a much-used resource, given the level of demand for the burgers).
They’ve also been cautious about over-committing on the production and distribution side, ensuring they can fulfill their promises — not just in terms of quality, which continues to be their most precious asset, but in terms of their capacity to fill orders and keep their weirdos well-supplied.
What’s clear about this business strategy is that it relies on a few key factors:
- Quality, quality, quality. The product is best-of-breed and stands alone in its field. That’s a clear advantage in any competitive category.
- Generous runway. The company is privately held, but it’s investor-backed and must have had deep pockets to invest so much in product development and this small scale, restaurant-focused approach.
- Rock-solid alignment with customers’ goals. By putting flavour and texture first, and catering exclusively to restaurants for three full years, Impossible Foods’ business success was predicated entirely on the success of its customers. That’s the ultimate weirdos-first approach.
- A greater-good mission. When your business is founded on trying to make good food and save the planet, there’s a feel-good factor that’s undeniable.
Whether your business can check all the same boxes or not, though, there’s much to be learned from the rise of the Impossible Burger, and the weirdos that made it possible. For just about every business, there are equivalents to “meat eaters who might try this if it tastes good enough.” And for most of us, too, there are individuals and groups — those with high standards, high integrity, and major influence — who can singlehandedly grant you credibility by proxy, if you earn their partnership.
Once you get those weirdos on board, so long as your ultimate destinations are linked, you might just be in for the ride of your life.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Who are the folks who care the most about quality in our field?
- Who’s most likely to tell us flat-out if our product doesn’t make the cut?
- Whose business could benefit from ours, and set us apart from the competition altogether?
- What’s the equivalent of a Michelin-star endorsement in our world, and how might we earn one?