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This is the latest edition of our VERSUS series, where we dive into how the biggest businesses compete to win. Catch the audio version here, and join our newsletter for more of these stories here.
Last year, I wrote an article breaking down the competition between Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods for leadership in the meat alternatives market.
It was the birthplace of what is now our VERSUS series where we dive deep into the biggest competitive rivalries in business.
It was also incredibly wrong.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods aren’t competing against each other in the market. They’re actually competing alongside each other against an even larger competitor.
So, to do it justice, we’re pulling the fake meat story back outta the freezer and breaking down the go-to-market strategies of both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods in their joint venture to take down the biggest competitor in the market:
The first question we need to answer when assessing both Beyond Meat and Impossible Food’s strategy to compete with meat is, ‘why go after them in the first place?’.
The answer is two-fold:
Meat alternatives are nothing new. But these options traditionally went after a different buyer — the health and eco-conscious consumer. They specifically marketed and sold to people who didn’t eat meat.
Unfortunately, marketing to just non-meat eaters is a strategy that doesn’t equate to dollars and cents when only 2.7% of packaged meat sales in the United States are plant-based.
In order to be more profitable, it didn’t make sense for Beyond Meat nor Impossible Foods to just compete against veggie burgers and Tofurkey.
It was time to target meat-eaters, which coincidentally explains why both founders are adamant that their products are referred to as meat.
‘We can’t ask consumers to meet us halfway. We have to focus on delivering and then over-delivering the things that they value. That’s the only way you win in the market,” said Impossible Foods CEO, Pat Brown on the Big Brains podcast.
Plus, both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods were confident that they had the product and differentiated message that could sway meat-lovers their way.
The central purpose that both businesses were founded upon was to eliminate meat.
“Our mission is to completely replace the use of animals as food technology by 2035,” said Brown.
But Brown realized he was facing an uphill battle the moment he sat down to eat a luxurious meal with global leaders in France.
“Even people who fully understand the destructive impact of that industry. When I went to the Paris Climate Conference five years ago, everybody acknowledged that this was a huge problem. They all went on and had a steak that night.
What that tells you is you’re not going to solve the problem by educating people… Governments aren’t going to do it… [it’s time to] pull the economic rug out from under this industry that’s destroying our planet by competing in the marketplace.”
The marketing and advocacy that prior meat alternatives attempted weren’t making enough of a dent into the mission that both Beyond and Impossible were fixated on.
So, they decided to directly take a bite out of the meat industry’s market share by targeting their customers.
Starting in the grocery aisles.
In 2016, Whole Foods announced that they would stock Beyond Meat burgers in the meat section. No more being cubbied in Aisle 18 besides the party hats and rat traps.
Beyond’s CEO, Ethan Brown, justified their strategy to sell directly against meat by explaining numerous times that at its core, their product is meat:
“The things that are in meat are abundant in the universe, and they are not exclusive to the animal. The animal is organizing those core constituent parts of meat into a particular structure. They are gaining the inputs from two things: plants and water. So why not look into plants and find that which is in meat and assemble it.”
Ironically, Beyond Meat’s differentiated message revolves around them actually being no different at all.
While Beyond Meat gained traction as a first-mover disrupting the market, the newer Impossible Food’s had a different go-to-market strategy when they arrived on the scene in 2015.
Their strategy to get a foothold amongst meat eaters was by initially only selling their products at restaurants.
There are three reasons why this strategy worked out so well:
“When you go to a restaurant the things that are branded are the beer, the wine, and the condiments… you don’t usually know where your steak comes from,” said Dana Worth, former VP Sales at Impossible Foods on the Grit podcast.
That’s exactly why Impossible Foods slapped its name directly on the menu.
Every time a meat eater’s eyes salivated over the selection of burgers at their disposal, they’d now read the words Impossible.
The strategy is a page out of the classic ‘Marketing Rule of 7’: a potential buyer needs to see the advertiser’s message at least seven times before they’ll take action to buy that product or service.
It all starts with getting in front of the right set of eyes.
Selling your product at a restaurant is essentially a B2B sale. That’s precisely why Impossible Foods went this route.
It enabled them to generate revenue from restaurants while also building a direct-to-consumer movement.
It was a play that allowed them to create demand prior to launch in retail.
Plus, Impossible Foods felt that their product had a far greater chance of getting in the mouths of meat eaters when placed on a menu of 40 items than thrown into a grocery store of a 1000+.
“We knew that by going to restaurant we’d allow the consumer to get a trial. They care less about getting in and getting out, and more about enjoying their experience.
It lowers the barrier to trial… People really got a deep understanding of what our brand meant,” said Worth.
And it wasn’t only high-end, full service restaurants where Impossible Foods placed their product. They also partnered with massive fast food chains like Burger King to deliver their meat to an even broader market.
The Impossible Whopper trial generated almost 20% more foot traffic and Burger King quickly stocked all 7,000 locations with the product.
When you grocery shop, you’re mulling your choices for 5-10 seconds max.
And you’re making that decision independently.
At a restaurant, you’re likely asking the waiter questions like:
‘What do you recommend?’ ‘Does that fake meat thing actually taste real?’ ‘Why do you always sit me by the bathroom?’
Well, maybe the last one is just me.
By placing their food in restaurants, Impossible Foods had built-in salespeople educating the market about their product!
The result of this go-to-market strategy of initially partnering with 17,000 restaurants? By the time Impossible Foods went into retail people already knew who they were.
When they debuted their Impossible Burger at grocery stores in California in 2019, it was an immediate hit. The burger outsold all ground beef at Gelson’s Supermarkets during its opening weekend of sales.
Impossible even hit a snag in 2019 when their production began struggling to meet demand; this opens the can of worms of growing pains at a high-growth company, but it also highlights that they’d creaed real demand.
Ask any top salesperson, and they’ll tell you that the key questions they need to answer to sway a buyer is: Why change? Why now?
For Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, both are attempting to create a change in consumer behaviour that is rooted in thousands of years of human evolution.
So, yeah… creating ‘change’ is a lot more difficult of a sell than say shifting from email to Slack. Or switching from your flip phone Nokia to a touch screen iPhone.
These eating habits are entrenched into how we live.
How have both businesses then tried to tackle cracking the hearts, minds, and tastebuds of meat eaters then?
One answer can be found in how they’ve tiered their messaging to consumers.
Based on his aforementioned experience with world leaders in Paris, Pat Brown knew that educational messaging about the environmental ‘why’ behind their product was not the winning recipe to win over hungry customers.
“We’re not going to solve this problem by pleading with consumers to eat beans and tofu instead of meat and fish. We need to solve this problem another way — not by guilting consumers into changing their diets.
The surest strategy for replacing the most destructive technology on Earth is to deliberately create foods that deliver greater value and pleasure to consumers… and let market demand take care of the rest” Brown said in their 2018 Impact Report.
With this in mind, you can see Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat’s strategy in how they deliver their message to the market.
Product parity is the answer here.
It’s all about eliminating the perception of that shitty black bean burger your vegetarian uncle forced upon your two summers ago… okay, too specific of a reference but you get the point.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat rarely, if ever, touch on the ecological purpose of their product in their large advertisement campaigns that are being broadcast to a colder audience that may not be as aware of plant-based meat.
Take a look at Burger King’s Impossible Whopper commercial, for example. They use the tried and true advertising method of social proof from your everyday consumer. And every single review revolves around the taste of the product.
A recent study by the Good Food Institute explained why Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat approach their top-of-funnel messaging from this lens.
When looking at the motivating factors that spur a consumer towards trying plant-based meat, they identified that taste, price, and convenience were the most powerful drivers dictating immediate decisions.
Whereas, health, environment, and animal welfare were considered secondary drivers to meat-eaters. Yes they matter, but they aren’t the factors that get their foot in the door.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the reason both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat exist is to tackle the agricultural impact on climate change . That’s their ‘why’.
But, there’s also the classic marketing line: people don’t care about your product, or your why, they care about their problems.
And it’s true.
But, once you meet the consumer’s initial needs and expectations (or their tastebuds!) now you’ve built trust.
Trust gives you more time and opportunity with the consumer.
Time allows you to tell a deeper story.
A deeper story allows you to build real brand affinity.
This is how both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are able to tell the ‘why’ behind their product, and build a deeper relationship with their consumers.
Just look at the content that they produce for folks that are in the ‘middle-of-funnel’ stage of being a loyal customer.
Okay, I tried that Impossible burger. It was pretty good! It’s plant-based? Okay, what’s going on here…
You might listen in to one of either Ethan or Pat’s interview appearances on TV and podcasts. It’s in those settings that both founders are dropping lines like:
“If I can snap my fingers and make that industry disappear… the recovery of biomass on that land would nullify 22 years of fossil fuel emissions.”
“If we see smoke rising from the Amazon. That’s the smoke from your burger.”
“We use 93% less land to grow “a burger” than you would use if you were using livestock. We use 99% less water and 90% fewer emissions.”
It’s during these touchpoints where Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat aren’t directly fighting over that split second decision someone makes when choosing what they’re about to eat, that they can tell the bigger problem their strategy is trying to solve.
They build a long-term strategy to bring one-time customers deeper into their world by appealing to their logic.
Community-building is all the rage amongst marketing circles. And for good reason!
People to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They also want to feel good about the brands they attach themselves to.
This is where both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat go deeper than just education about the environmental impact that the meat industry is currently accountable for.
It’s where they build an even bigger movement.
For example, if you were really digging into the plant-based meat world you’d likely stumble across Impossible Foods 2020 Impact Report. You’d also likely read the opening message from their CEO that shares their company narrative:
To the outside world, Impossible Foods is a food company – but at its heart is an audacious yet realistic strategy to turn back the clock on climate change and stop the global collapse of biodiversity.
Likewise, Beyond Meat have a page dedicated to their mission statement. The opening title?
We believe there’s a better way to feed our future.
Now we’re not just eating a faux meat burger out of curiosity.
We’re not just eating it because it tastes just like a real whopper.
We’re consuming this product because of its vision for a better future.
That’s how you build customer loyalty as a disruptor in a seemingly impenetrable market. But, it all happens after you get their foot in the door through their tastebuds.
Despite the fact that the plant-based meat market has nearly tripled in revenue over the past five years, the meat industry isn’t cooked just yet.
After going public in 2019, Beyond Meat’s stock has tumbled by 67% over the past 12 months as of April, 2022. Their growth has curbed and revenue losses are mounting.
Why’s it happening? Has fake meat already gone bad?
Both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have done an incredible job through their go-to-market strategy in piquing the curiosity of a wide consumer base.
But your product can’t be everything to everyone.
According to the Food Information Council, while two out of three Americans have tried plant-based meat this past year, only 40% are still eating it with regularity.
This doesn’t mean all doom and gloom for plant-based meat. Instead, the maturity of this innovation is following along the path of the Gartner Hype Cycle theory.
While some fads fizzle out at the disillusionment stage (does anyone remember when fidget spinners were a thing?), technologies that have real legs begin to steadily recalibrate.
Legacy meat makers and lobbyists have deeeeeep pockets and deeeep influence.
And they dove into those pockets to fuel counter messaging that poked holes at the so-called better future of plant-based protein.
In particular, meat-backed PR firms attacked the long list of ingredients comprising fake meat to sow doubt amongst consumers.
For example, the New York Times reported that the Center for Consumer Freedom led campaigns labelling plant-based meat as ‘ultra-processed imitations’ and posing questions within their ads asking ‘what’s hiding in your plant-based meat?’.
The fear-based messaging is making an impact.
According to a recent study by Menu Matters of 1,025 US households, about half (47.9%) of consumers suggest they want more information about plant-based meat before trying them, and 43.1% want complete transparency of ingredients before they try them.
Similar to how Tesla’s innovation in autovehicle industry spurred legacy carmakers to pivot their strategies towards electric vehicles, big meat producers aren’t ignoring the dent that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have made.
Despite publicly downplaying plant-based meat, conglomerates like Cargill, JBS, Kelloggs, and MorningStar Farms are all heavily investing in plant-based meat production through their own R&D and acquisitions of smaller plant-based production companies.
The capital at these companies’ disposal allows them to rapidly shrink the product gap between themselves and the innovators. However, it is a resignation that what Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have achieved isn’t just simply a fad.
Although legacy meat makers’ strategy to compete is by now directly producing plant-based meat, both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have earned a place in the hearts and mouths of vegeterians and meat-lovers alike.
Each have the benefit of a first-mover advantage.
Each have shared the larger purpose behind their businesses.
Both have built a go-to-market strategy that built such brand affinity that will now serve as a crucial competitive moat in their fight against meat.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods will now confront a difficult battle on price and product development.
At least this battle ultimately serves both businesses purpose for being.
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