Impossible Foods CEO Says Plant-Based Meat Marketing’s ‘Wokeness’ Hurt the Category


If the CEO of Impossible Foods, Peter McGuinness, wrote a primer on marketing, a few of his first tenets might be: Never alienate the American heartland, and don’t wag your finger at folks who love their burgers and chops.

McGuinness, speaking at the Adweek X conference in Los Angeles Monday, admitted that plant-based meat brands have an image problem, among other challenges like taste, distribution and price.

And he and his chief marketing and creative officer, Leslie Sims, have a herculean task in front of them trying to convince the meat-eating public to sample alternative protein.

That may be because founders in the space are historically “climate warriors” who have leaned into sustainability as a key selling point, which “narrowed the aperture and made the category smaller than it needs to be,” McGuinness said during the afternoon session with Adweek CEO Will Lee that some attendees described as a TED-style talk.

“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,” McGuiness said, “and that pissed most of America off.”

Impossible, as well as many competitors, has never targeted vegans, with those consumers making up only about 1.4% of the U.S. population. The brands, instead, have aimed their products squarely at about one-half of the country that identifies as flexitarian—meaning they still eat meat but sometimes swap it out in favor of plant-based protein. 

“So 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.”

Early communication that positioned plant-based companies as “food tech” did the category no favors either, according to McGuinness, who said, “We don’t eat technology.”

Little awareness, lots of misinformation

Startups in the nascent category face a marketing conundrum, with McGuinness pointing to “very little awareness and understanding” of the pork, chicken and beef substitutes, along with a raft of disinformation often spread by “Big Beef” and its deep-pocketed friends.

Even a former speaker of the House of Representatives—who McGuinness didn’t identify by name but called “not the sharpest tool in the shed”—spouted animal agriculture’s talking points during a conversation with him.

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