It’s hit us like an express train! There’s no mistaking the zeitgeist that is now ‘plant based’ or ‘meat free’ and it’s given us something that would never have been dreamt of only 12 months ago: new burger wars! Not the old choice of meat burger vs the veggie option, if one even existed, but a whole new dynamic, the imitation meat burger is now in town and there’s a whole new burger war.  Here I consider the new Burger Wars – why Imitations are winning against Pure Veggies!

The decision in McDonalds and Burger King (& Others) has changed – so far pretty much only in the USA, but going global very soon – and increasingly customers can choose, and are choosing, to eat ‘non-meat’. It’s not new to tempt customers to eat less meat but in the past experiments with salads failed and the traditional veggie burgers just didn’t seem to do it. Let’s be frank, consumers go to fast food outlets to get unhealthy stuff, that’s why they’re there!

Who’d have thought we could have got here, and so fast!

What’s changed? My thoughts…but first a couple of definitions:

The pure veggie – those that like their vegetables to look and taste like vegetables – has been catered for many years and that was sufficient, just about, but the numbers of the population looking for this was at best 8% and probably around 4%, due to the fact that these consumers tend to be more ‘foodie’ in attitude and thus less likely to go to a fast food restaurants.

Imitators – those that want the veggie food to look like the meat its replacing – is potentially a much, much bigger market. It is estimated that about 70-80% of the population wants to eat less meat and so even assuming as low as half of these will eat a meat imitation product then circa 35% population are open to the imitator. And furthermore, they have a segmentation in the ‘don’t care where my food comes from’, which covers far more occasions.

If you look at the positioning and segmentation of the category it is no surprise that imitators are doing something that veggies could only dream of. There are simply far more occasions that are being catered for with the imitators:

Burger Wars - why Imitations are winning against Pure Veggies. Meal occasions chart
Majority of occasions come from consumers wanting imitations

This is one reason why imitators are winning at present and most likely will continue to do so. Brands will see the opportunity is so much larger and quite rightly believe the veggie market has been dealt with anyway

There is another way to look at this chart of course, which is when you consider that veggie occasions at 23% is driven by consumer that makes up about 8-10% of the population, so the index is high, which would encourage me!

If I’m positioning a brand into this market, I would consider both segments to be an opportunity. (IMO, the white space for innovation is everywhere, which was proved by Wicked Kitchen in the UK).

In this simple scenario, it’s true, that in the new Burger Wars, Imitators are winning! It’s, of course, not just this simple, and there are other considerations:

Timing – the time is right!

As I said in the first para, the zeitgeist for the post-vegan era is now, and it’s not going away, so buckle up and enjoy the ride! The population are becoming far more health aware and climate caring. They want the planet to be cared for and the reduction of meat eating not only plays to their health concerns but also covers a small consideration for playing a part to help with climate change.

The timing couldn’t be more spot on and opportunities for innovation with protein combined with new product development means there will be a variety of choices in the years to come

Taste – Improving!

In early September, Alicia Kennedy wrote an article for The Washington Post about plant-based startups versus “real” veggie burgers. Kennedy recalled her first-time eating a Beyond Burger, ordered at a beer bar in Long Island. 

“Here was a sign that times were truly changing, yet when it arrived and I took a bite, I immediately began to tear up, looking at my sister with terror: I was so sure I’d just eaten beef, for the first time in years,” Kennedy writes.

This eerie similarity between faux meat and real meat may alienate some vegan and vegetarian customers. However, chains are aggressively emphasizing these similarities in marketing because, as I’ve said, the imitators are looking for exactly what these foods do!

In April, José Cil, CEO of Burger King’s parent company Restaurant Brands International, told investors that he found it “really difficult to distinguish between the Impossible Whopper and the original Whopper.”

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods believe that the key to getting people to eat their products is to make them taste exactly like meat. Beyond Meat’s CEO describes animal protein as the company’s “true north,” saying on the plant-based “meat” company’s earnings call in July that the company is “maybe 75% of the way there.”

Read more: Beyond Meat’s CEO says it’s 75% of the way towards matching animal meat

“The competition is not other plant-based products. It is truly the cow,” Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown recently told Business Insider.

In this scenario, the good old-fashioned veggie burger doesn’t stand a chance!

Protein – It’s still very much in fashion!

It’s interesting, that unlike many veggie burgers, plant-based menu items have similar protein levels to the menu items they’re replicating. 

Growing protein sales and the rise of high-protein diets mean that customers are prioritizing protein over cutting calories — good news for Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.

Further, mimicking fast-food menu items means that the new wave of veggie burgers do not need to market themselves as healthier options. In years past, many vegetable-based dishes have found themselves into the “better-for-you” section of the menu and in ‘healthy’ areas of the retailers’ shelves.

Customers may say they want healthier options, but when it comes time to order, many end up wanting fries instead of a side salad. In 2013, for example, McDonald’s doubled down on meat after its attempts to win over customers with salads failed – “I don’t see salads as being a major growth driver in the near future,” McDonald’s then-CEO Don Thompson said at the time.

Feel good factor on trendthe buzz, environment/planet sustainability / purpose, health!

Instead of focusing on health or convincing customers to give up meat, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are emphasizing sustainability.

“Sustainability is increasingly more relevant as consumers, especially Millennials and Gen Z, have become more aware of the damage that food production has caused to the planet,” Barclays wrote in a report in May.

Impossible and Beyond are presenting themselves as a solution to growing global beef consumption — one of the leading environmental threats to the planet. Barclays notes that cows contribute more to global greenhouse gas emissions than cars, with the average cow emitting up to 500 liters of methane every day.

Research in the USA found that a sense of social responsibility was driving purchases of both the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger with 12% of people who had tried either burger saying that their primary reason for trying the burger was social responsibility.

“While this trails health and curiosity, in our view this represents the most durable reason for growth in the plant-based category, given both brands focus their missions on the environmental benefits of having fewer animals raised for food purposes,” the report states.

Read more: Plant-based fast food isn’t any healthier than the originals — and that’s the point

It’s new; and that’s a good enough reason!

Right now, curiosity is actually more likely to convince people to buy Beyond and Impossible products than a sense of social responsibility. 34% of people who have eaten an Impossible Burger said that the primary reason they tried the burger for the first time was curiosity, whilst 29% of people said the same about their first time trying Beyond Burger.

This curiosity is linked to other factors and while veggie burgers have been around for decades, Impossible and Beyond have successfully marketed their products as something entirely new, with many plant-based offerings are in their nascent stages. This trendiness sets the new products apart from traditional veggie burgers.

Companies’ promises that the products taste like real meat also help draw in sceptics and others eager to test the claim. Meat eaters are more likely to buy the products due to curiosity than vegetarians, perhaps looking to call companies on their bluff.

Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat products have also become cultural icons in their own right, with the help of fast-food giants’ marketing.

So, in the current burger wars, imitators are winning against vegetarian. Does this mean that the veggie burger had its day?
In my opinion, definitely not; it just needs to know where it belongs, develop some NPD and regain a position of pride – it’s always been about taste, the veggie burger has much to offer and there are still millions of consumers who want to see their vegetables within the food they choose!

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