‘Stop Pissing Americans Off’: Impossible Foods CEO Plans ‘Inclusive’ Rebrand to Shed ‘Woke’ Reputation

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Does plant-based meat have an image problem? Peter McGuinness, CEO of Impossible Foods – one of the largest companies in the space – believes as much. To counter the off-putting “wokeness” associated with these products and take on Big Meat more effectively, he’s now planning a rebrand to make the alt-meat giant bigger and more inclusive.

“There was a wokeness to it, there was a bicoastalness to it, there was an academia to it… and there was an elitism to it – and that pissed most of America off.”

This was Peter McGuinness’s assessment of the product his company has built its name and fortune on. Speaking at the Adweek X conference earlier this week, the Impossible Foods CEO reflected on the challenges faced by the plant-based meat industry, and how it can overcome them.

We’ve heard about the flavour, texture and price battles being fought by these products. Texture is the component Americans dislike the most about vegan food, followed by price. Meanwhile, across the larger food and beverage industry, taste is the top driver for purchasing decisions in the country. These factors come together to form what McGuinness notes is an image problem – and one that needs fixing stat.

This is because even if meat alternatives reach parity with their conventional counterparts on taste, price and convenience, current consumers would continue eating the latter primarily, according to a study by Rethink Priorities in August. But – at least on the cost issue – plant-based meat has some way to go still.

It’s been a tough couple of years for the industry, with retail sales suffering and brands going out of business as investors turn their backs on food tech. In the year ending July 2, meat analogues suffered from a 21% drop in sales volume, according to Circana data, while dollar sales have fallen by over 20% too over the last year. Citing this data, research firm CoBank ascribes this to high prices among a cost-of-living crisis, which means consumers are driven towards cheaper products (conventional meat, in this case). Now, alt-meat faces a “tipping point”.

Invite, don’t insult

plant based meat marketing
Courtesy: Impossible Foods

Without change, these headwinds will likely persist. Brands have an uphill task to convince meat-eaters – who really should be the target audience – to try meat analogues.

In his TED-style chat with Adweek CEO Will Lee, McGuinness said that this might be because many founders in this space are historically “climate warriors” using sustainability as a USP. There was also the early messaging positioning alt-meat companies as food tech, which he believes alienated consumers: “We don’t eat technology,” he explained. All this “narrowed the aperture and made the category smaller than it needs to be”, going on to describe the aforementioned wokeness that has peeved Americans.

“The way to get meat-eaters to actually buy your product is not to piss them off, vilify them, insult them and judge them,” he said. “We need to go from insulting to inviting, which is a hell of a journey.”

But it’s a journey Impossible is already on. Vegans aren’t its target market – they never have been. The focus has always been on flexitarians and meat-eaters, aiming to entice them to consume more of its products. One survey puts the number of flexitarians in the US to about a fifth of the total population – but the more important figure is the 347g of meat Americans eat per day.

Speaking to Green Queen during the announcement of its new beef hot dogs, an Impossible spokesperson confirmed this direction. “We’re trying to reach meat eaters – not vegans, vegetarians or those already eating sustainable diets. That’s why we focus on making products that appeal to actual meat eaters,” they explained, adding: “Our goal is not to compete with fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods, but to offer meat eaters products that are better for them and the planet.:

(Not) fighting off the meat lobby

The plant-based meat category also hasn’t been helped by the constant attacks it has faced from the meat lobby. The meat industry interest group Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) has been on the offensive at companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible, taking a shot at their overprocessed composition and long ingredient lists.

Its largest effort came during the 2020 Super Bowl, with an ad featuring Spelling Bee participants struggling with words like methylcellulose (which it claimed were “chemicals” used for “synthetic meats”). “If you can’t spell it or pronounce it, maybe you shouldn’t be eating it,” concluded the spot. Within a few days, Impossible bit back with a parody ad. The moderator – played by Impossible founder and then-CEO Pat Brown – asked a child to spell “poop”, noting how there’s “lots of poop in the places where pigs and chickens are chopped to pieces to make meat”. The ad ends with the line: “Just because a kid can spell ‘poop’, doesn’t mean you or your kids should be eating it.”

But if Impossible truly is to conquer the meat-eating consumer base and “go from insulting to inviting”, a change of tact might be in order. This is because plant-based meats are surrounded by a “massive amount of myths about plant-based products and the process” used to make them.

So the focus needs to be on emphasising its own value, rather than what it’s fighting: the $1.5T “highly coordinated, highly funded, highly lobbied” and highly subsidised animal agriculture industry. Alt-meat is worth $8B in sales, a “0.0001% share”, as McGuinness called it. “We don’t want to get into a kind of pissing match with meat – we will lose that,” he explained.

McGuinness and Impossible’s chief marketing officer Leslie Sims want to relaunch their brand “in a very inclusive way”, spotlighting aspects like high protein content, zero cholesterol and half the saturated fat found in conventional meat. We’re already seeing this: Impossible has hopped aboard the health bandwagon with its recent launches. Most notably, its lean Beef Lite (one of six new launches this year) is now certified by the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check Food Certification Program, following Beyond as the only other meat alternative maker on the list.

A marketing coalition hits a snag

impossible foods marketing
Courtesy: Impossible Foods

In August, Adweek reported that leading US vegan food manufacturers were looking to create a coalition similar to the marketing groups behind ad campaigns like Got Milk? and the Incredible Edible Egg, which was earmarked for a 2024 launch. Impossible is a part of this proposed alliance, but there have been setbacks.

“We have like 200 plant-based businesses, half are going out of business, we’re highly uncoordinated, no one has any money, everybody’s out for themselves. It’s a total mess,” said McGuinness. The Impossible chief still feels there’s “a collective opportunity to extol the benefits of the category,” but acknowledges that a lack of coordination and cohesion is stalling things.

Impossible will now amp up its educational efforts, with a focus on its soybean supply chain in Decatur, Illinois, and manufacturing in Chicago, Los Angeles and Oakland, California. The plant-based meat giant will also target a rise in household awareness about its brand and products, which is only at 15% across the US. Additionally, it will focus on expanding its retail and foodservice footprint nationwide.

McGuinness, who has previously outlined how vegan food marketers (including Impossible) haven’t sold themselves well enough to consumers, further explained his thinking: “My job is not to steal share from Beyond Meat – then I’ve just moved the deck chairs around, and the category stays at the same size. We have to make the category bigger.”


  • Anay Mridul

    Anay is Green Queen's resident news reporter. Originally from India, he worked as a vegan food writer and editor in London, and is now travelling and reporting from across Asia. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, food tech, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford comma.

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