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Fake Meat? It’s a Whopper!

Originally published on Meatingplace.com.

“It will never be more than niche.” That’s what a cattleman friend of mine recently said about meat alternatives. I’m not sure nationwide availability at Burger King fits in the niche category. The chain is garnering plenty of press for its plan to offer the Impossible Whopper – a plant-based burger – nationwide. Is this a fad or trend, and how should the meat industry respond?

First, this is bigger than the Impossible Whopper. The move is part of a larger shift, based on concerns about the sustainability of food production, animal welfare and the connection between food and health. Whether it turns out to be a tidal wave or gentle current depends, at least in part, on how the meat sector responds.  Do they see the strategic opportunity, or will they get defensive and make this another “Get off my lawn!” moment.

I get it.  Anytime someone eats into your market share, it’s a threat. The key is to avoid “fight or flight” and respond strategically. This should be a chess match more than a game of Battleship. We know from consumer research that the public is tired of the proverbial food fight and those who “go negative” are more likely to be cast as bullies than brilliant marketers. So, what would a more strategic approach look like?

Developing a strategy requires honest analysis of the situation. Burger King didn’t decide to add the Impossible Whopper to the menu to achieve some political or social agenda, but rather to ride the wave of a growing trend of consumers who want to know that their food is good for them and good for the world, and to differentiate themselves from other burger chains.

There’s public interest in plant-based protein because a growing number of consumers are concerned about the impact of meat on their health, the environmental footprint of animal agriculture and whether meat animals are well cared for (only one in four consumers strongly believe that’s the case). Right or wrong, perception is reality. So, what is the industry going to do about it?

One thing is certain; fighting over whether the alternatives can be labeled meat will do little to change perceptions. Consumers aren’t being duped into believing the alternatives are real meat. Consumers are seeking out the alternatives because they are NOT real meat. Yes, labeling should be clear and not deceiving, but the bottom line is that interested consumers believe alternatives are better aligned with their values. Purpose-driven purchasing is increasing, not declining, making values alignment more important than ever.

So, here’s the opportunity.  Skip the attack on Burger King or others offering meat alternatives and address the underlying consumer motivation.  Embrace growing consumer interest as the perfect opportunity to tell those with concerns that you understand and appreciate their interest, and that they can enjoy the burger, steak and brat they crave and feel good about the environment, animal care and the impact of meat on their health.

If you want to compete, don’t pick a fight. Celebrate and elevate the attributes of traditional burgers that align with consumer values. Going head to head doesn’t have to occur on a battlefield. The court of public opinion will do just fine. There is plenty of supporting evidence to sway the jury, ranging from the industry’s sustainability story to enhanced animal welfare and the important nutritional value of meat.

The question is whether the industry will come together in a meaningful way to make the case, or do they add fuel to the meat-free fire with more tone-deaf attacks? On that point, the jury is still out.

By Charlie Arnot
CEO, Center for Food Integrity