The products, made from plants yet designed to mimic the texture and experience of meat (right down to “bleeding” burgers) grabbed national headlines. Players like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat built billions of dollars in brand value and jockeyed for deals with fast food and supermarket chains, meal kits, college campuses, stadiums, hotels and theme parks.
Those in the category had a lot of heavy lifting to do to convince consumers that they weren’t hawking the dried out, tasteless soy or bean health food patties of yore. Since the target demo is flexitarians (those who occasionally eat meat), ad messages have focused mostly on how similar the faux versions are to real beef, chicken, sausage or bacon.
Other considerations like animal welfare, sustainability and health issues didn’t crop up much in the advertising.
With the global craving for plant-based protein expected to top $100 billion in 15 years, according to JPMorgan Chase, the industry’s just getting started, and many more well-funded contenders are likely to jump in. The backlash will also continue, as vegans sue Burger King and some 30 states push for new labeling laws.
From the height of the marketing mania, Adweek has cherry-picked some of the most notable moments from the recent past. Check them out here:
Burger King Impossible Whopper
Burger King is one of the all-time great pranksters, especially on April Fools’ Day. Remember the chocolate Whopper or the in-home ordering kiosks? How about Whopper-flavored toothpaste? They’ve punked us good in the past.
But it turns out that the Impossible Whopper wasn’t fake news, even though the marketer announced the product launch on Apr. 1 with a customer-reaction video. Hardcore fans swore they couldn’t tell the difference between the regular Whopper and the meat-free one.
The test at 59 St. Louis-area restaurants, an out-of-the-gate hit, spread to all 7,000-plus BK locations just months later on an accelerated timetable, marking the first national fast-food chain to add an Impossible option. BK had its best quarter in four years after the sandwich rollout in August, with execs saying the meat-free product helped boost those results.
KFC meatless chicken nuggets
If the product is a head-scratcher, do you run straight at its convoluted essence in your communications? KFC decided to do precisely that with a social campaign to hype its experimental launch of Beyond Fried Chicken in August. A memorable tweet from the brand read, “It’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, but it’s made with Beyond Meat. It’s confusing, but it’s also delicious.”
The approach was a huge success, as were the boneless plant-based wings and nuggets, which sold out in five hours, proving that consumers were ready and willing to buy chicken-free chicken.
The test took place at a spruced up, green-accented Atlanta restaurant, which drew pre-8 a.m. crowds and drive-through lines that double looped around the building.
Coincidentally—or not—this happened as Popeyes was making its own history with the now-famous chicken sandwich debut and stoking the cheeky Chicken Sandwich Twitter War of 2019. KFC, the first Yum brand to offer faux meat, could return to the product in 2020.
McDonald’s and Beyond Meat
McDonald’s, the behemoth in the industry but a laggard in this category, finally (but rather quietly) rolled out a Beyond Meat collaboration in late September with a test in 28 Canadian locations.
The chain called the product PLT (plant, lettuce, tomato) as a play on BLT, which seemed to confuse buyers. Was it fake bacon? (Answer: No, it was a plant-based patty on the signature sesame seed bun with condiments). The PLT didn’t get a significant ad push or much on-premise hype, according to media reports, and its debut failed to generate the kind of frenzied consumer response seen elsewhere, calling its future into question.