The Impossible Burger - inside the marketing strategy, the science, and where to buy this revolutionary product

If I said to you ‘Impossible Burger’ what would you think of? Because it now exists, in the form of a very meaty burger that isn’t made with meat, brought to you by the four year old Californian startup, Impossible Foods.

Yes I know, we’ve been confronted with various plant based patties over the years and I’m not saying that they aren’t delicious, but if I said that this one cost $80 million dollars to develop and a staggering five years of research, maybe you’ll be a little more intrigued as to why it’s so special. In a nutshell, it’s an entirely plant-based burger that not only looks, tastes and cooks like meat but it also bleeds like real meat.

The race for the perfect vegan burger 

This isn’t the first attempt at a bleeding burger - earlier this year, Beyond Meat unveiled their Beyond Burger, backed by Bill Gates and 7 years in the making. The soy-free pea-based patty that bleeds beet juice sold out from the Colorado based Whole Foods where they first went on sale within an hour.

This isn't about vegans: the Impossible Burger targets the mass market

Now, before we go into further detail on the new Impossible Burger, you might be wondering why veggies and vegans want their burgers to bleed at all. The reason involves looking beyond those who are perhaps expected to be the target audience - Impossible Foods and their competitors don’t just want to please the herbivores, but they want to appeal to meat eaters too. See, the global aim of the Californian startup is to develop food that has less environmental impact, is healthy and is affordable, which includes making tasty foods which lack cholesterol, hormones or antibiotics.

They want to develop products that can cater to the rapidly growing population, which is expected to increase to 9.5 billion people worldwide by 2050, as opposed to 3 billion in 1940. By targeting herbivores alone, however, they won’t get as far as if they can please everyone.

Pat Brown is the man behind Impossible Foods and it's mission to replicate meat.

Pat Brown is the man behind Impossible Foods and it's mission to replicate meat.

The Impossible Foods Marketing Strategy

And it seems bleeding burgers are the way forward. “You’re not going to make anything that appeals to a hardcore meat-lover by mushing together a bunch of vegetables”, explains Patrick Brown, M.D., PhD, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, who was a professor in Biochemistry at Stanford for 25 years. “So, we had to do a deep, molecular investigation into what it is that accounts for the desirable properties – texture, juiciness, the aromas, how it cooks”. Whilst on a sabbatical from Stanford he got thinking about meat and he “decided that without question the biggest threat to the global environment right now is the use of animals for food”, continuing “but the only way you’re going to [replace meat] is a marketplace approach and that entails creating a food that outperforms this market”.

The science behind Impossible Foods

Now, it’s time for the science. If you look at the way in which Brown and his team have created this bleeding burger, it’s actually pretty incredible. It all revolves around a molecule called heme or haem, from the Greek haima meaning blood.  

It is an iron-rich molecule that is a major component in haemoglobin which is packed into your red blood cells, carries oxygen, and is actually the stuff that makes your blood red and gives meat its pink hue.  Heme isn’t just present in animal haemoglobin though; it is found in several biologically important hemoproteins and in plants, kind of like a plant blood.

Following his research, Brown found that heme is what causes meat to taste like it does and its addition to the Impossible Burger is what makes this patty unique from all other veggie burgers on the planet. The use of plant heme in replacement of animal heme, which is derived from genetically modified fermented yeasts, essentially recreates the texture and tastes of beef burgers, making it react to being grilled with a browning, fat-emitting, sizzling reaction. It can also be ordered well-done, medium rare etc. with Brown commenting “everyone has their own idea of what a great burger tastes like”, adding “we knew that in order for this to be successful as a replacement for ground beef, we had to deliver all those same properties for consumers, so they could make their choice”.

A perfectly engineered vegan beef patty - the Impossible Burger.

A perfectly engineered vegan beef patty - the Impossible Burger.

Aside from heme, all the other ingredients are pretty standard, including water, coconut oil, potato protein, wheat protein and natural flavours and micronutrients. Fat flecks found in beef burgers are imitated by the coconut oil, which is mixed into the ground textured wheat and potato protein. When the meat is seared, the potato protein offers a tough and crispy outside, whilst the coconut oil melts like beef fat.            

The Impossible Foods Mission

The burger has fulfilled Impossible Foods' aims of making products with a lesser environmental and health impact without harming animals. The latter goes without saying, as the veggie burgers are free of any animal products whatsoever. As for the environment, according to Brown “the greenhouse gas footprint is one-eighth of the same burger from a cow, the water footprint is a quarter, and the land footprint is less than one-twentieth of the land footprint of the same burger”. He translates that as being the equivalent to a 10-minute shower, 75-square-feet of land, and 18 miles on the road in terms of energy and natural resource conservation per burger. 

Just to hammer that home, statistics from the Impossible Foods website claim “because we don’t use animals, we can make it using 95% less land, 74% less water, and with 87% less greenhouse gas emissions”.

Finally they have made big steps when it comes to health, too. The Impossible Burger is almost nutritionally identical to a beef burger. However, it has fewer calories, less fat and more protein than a standard beef burger. It is also free from hormones, antibiotics or cholesterol.

Silicon Valley's biggest investors can't get enough of Impossible Foods

Taking into account all of this, it’s hardly surprising that there are some pretty big names behind the $180 million that the startup has raised, including Bill Gates who believes Impossible Foods may revolutionise the world for the environment, the animals and for our health. There were four funding rounds with 9 investors. Series A raised $9 million with Khosla Ventures in 2011; Series B received $25 million from Bill Gates in 2013; Series C gained $40 million from Horizons Ventures and GV in 2014; Series D raised $108 million lead by UBS and joined by Bill Gates, GV, Horizons Ventures, Innovative Fund, Khosla Ventures, Li Ka-shing, Trinity Capital Investment, and Viking Global Investors in 2015.

Google's attempted acquisition

Last summer Google even tried to purchase Impossible Foods for $200 million to $300 million but allegedly the deal fell apart because Impossible Foods wanted more money than was offered. Brown has also explained that he didn’t want his company’s fate to be at the whims of such a large one as Google, when he has just the one priority, which is meat. He said “we’re a mission-driven company and Google has a lot of interests”, adding “we want to have control of our fate”.

Where to buy the Impossible Burger

Now that you know all about it, I suppose I should reveal where you can find the burger, though prepare for yet another surprise. Following its press event in midtown Manhattan on 26th July, the restaurant to debut the Impossible Burger and exclusively have it on their regular menu from 27th July, was David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi in New York. If you haven’t heard of him already, Chang is an American author, TV personality and restaurateur, and founder of the Momofuku restaurant group. He has won more than 20 awards for his work including 2 Michelin stars in 2009, which he has kept every year since, and was placed on the 2010 Time 100 Most Influential People list. The reason this has come as a surprise is that he has also been very vocal on his opinions of vegetarians in the past, with comments including “I don’t wanna live in a world where everyone’s a vegetarian”; “vegetarians are a pain in the ass as customers”; “we do not serve vegetarian-friendly items”; “no reservations, no vegetarian options”. You get the picture - he likes his meat.

David Chang is traditionally an anti-vegetarian, but is one of the first to sign up to serve the Impossible Burger in his Momofuku Nishi restaurant.

David Chang is traditionally an anti-vegetarian, but is one of the first to sign up to serve the Impossible Burger in his Momofuku Nishi restaurant.

"Today I tasted the future, and it was vegan" - David Chang

It seems, though, that he is a somewhat reformed man after trying the Impossible Burger, where he claimed on his Instagram “today I tasted the future and it was vegan... I can’t really comprehend its impact quite yet… but I think it might change the whole game”.

Chang said “I was genuinely blown away when I tasted the burger…. The Impossible Foods team has discovered how to re-engineer what makes beef taste like beef. We’re always looking to support people who are making the best products in the best ways possible and to me, the Impossible Burger is one example. First and foremost, we think this makes a delicious burger”. He also said “it was something I knew I had to get behind”.

Working with Momofuku Nishi is part of the business strategy

The reason that Impossible Foods chose a previously die-hard meat fan to debut their plant-based meat alternative comes back to the point made earlier – they want to get omnivores on board. Having last year said that the target clientele isn’t veggies and vegans but “mainstream, mass-market, uncompromising, meat-loving carnivores”, Brown said “we wanted to work with David in part because he has such talent in making awesome meat dishes and meat lovers flock to his restaurants”. He continued, “the customers that we care most about are people who love meat. That’s obviously what our mission is all about, is making a plant-based product that meat lovers will love and you can’t do better than having David Chang prepare it”. Talk about revolutionary…

Momofuku Nishi also appeared to benefit from the debut, with a queue that went around the block and people waiting for an hour to try the burger. It’ll set you back $12, or $13 with the addition of some non-vegan cheese and comes with fries, lettuce, tomato, pickles and special sauce.

The Impossible Burger debuts on the West Coast soon

Don’t worry, non-New Yorkers. The Impossible Burger will soon be venturing further afield when it will premiere in select restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles this autumn. The ultimate aim, though, is to have it available in supermarkets at the same price as beef.

The future of Impossible Foods

Furthermore, there are ideas in the pipeline to move on from just beef to develop pork, chicken, fish bacon and steak along with dairy-free cheese, cream, milk and yoghurt, with a spokesperson claiming “the methods we’re developing will enable us to make any of the foods … that we currently use animals to produce”. Indeed, Brown is also co-founder of Kite Hill alongside Tal Ronnen and Monte Casino, a company which produces nut milk products that they claim are healthier and more sustainable including almond milk cheese, ricotta and ravioli.

My question is, if the Impossible Burger is such an improvement with regards to its environmental impact, does that mean we can justify a flight to NYC to try it out?!