Plant-Based Proteins Might Go the Way of WeWork

Impossible and Beyond Meat are trending—for now, anyway

Impossible Foods burger, beyond meat beef, and spaghetti and meatballs
Will these meat alternatives suffer the same fate as WeWork and prove to be all bun and no meat?
Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat

If I could use one word to describe the current meatless market, it would be froth.

Impossible and Beyond Meat brands are trending at fast-food restaurants nationwide, with meat-centric chains like Burger King launching a plant-based Impossible Whopper. Some herald this as a paradigm-shifting moment, the end of meat even. And while I do believe this is a significant tipping point, it may not live up to the hype.

To better understand what’s happening, we need look no further than another cleverly branded venture that’s also occupying the headlines.

WeWork didn’t invent coworking spaces. Regus was offering them for 20 years when WeWork came along and slapped some fresh paint on their old model. A little reclaimed wood here, a craft beer keg there, and the coworking concept enjoyed a full-scale glow-up, complete with a $40 billion valuation. Market forces also played to their advantage, as they launched when the gig economy was on the rise, particularly among millennial workers looking for less corporate workspaces.

WeWork understood that successful marketing is about more than aesthetics or functionality—it’s about messaging. That’s why the WeWork mission isn’t to offer office space, it’s to “elevate the world’s consciousness” (a lofty goal for any brand, let alone a glorified meeting room with taxidermy).

Booms built on novelty alone are short-lived and are not enough to build an entire market.

Similarly, Impossible and Beyond Meat, with their savvy marketing and war chest of VC money, promise a revolutionary meat alternative that will not only change your QSR order, but the world. And yet, at their core, these products are not new. When you peek beneath the bun, you’ll see a marginally improved veggie burger that may or may not convert a few people to vegetarianism and a product whose long-term cultural and environmental impact is still questionable.

Will these meat alternatives suffer the same fate as WeWork and prove to be all bun and no meat? The following three variables will determine the outcome.

Novelty factor

Meat alternatives are trending, and since we love to feel hip, we’ll jump on board long enough to capture an Instagrammable moment. Right now, there’s money to be made, but booms built on novelty alone are short-lived and are not enough to build an entire market.

Health-consciousness

Today’s consumers want clean, fresh, natural food but not at the expense of convenience or taste. This is a long-term, persistently growing demand worth betting on. These meatless alternatives taste great, but we must address the plant-based elephant in the room: most of these menu items are covered in sauce and dripping with cheese. They’re no healthier than their meat-filled counterparts, particularly when topped off with fries.

Plus, a preference for healthy food does not necessarily correlate with a demand for plant-based meats. So far, the numbers don’t add up. Only 5% of Americans are vegetarian, 3% are vegan and many health-conscious consumers—paleo and vegan alike—are not regulars at these chains.

Will Impossible and Beyond Meat help QSRs acquire and keep new health-conscious customers or merely offer a fleeting novelty to existing consumers more likely to ask, “Where’s the beef?” by next month?

Culture shift

For this meatless meat craze to really take off, something must catapult it beyond the realm of novelty, beyond its nominal wink at healthy eating, to appeal to the masses and stick. Something must tip the scales for it to become a larger cultural paradigm shift.

Take straws. We’ve known the perils of plastic for a long time, but it wasn’t until recently that straws became stigmatized, forcing restaurants to offer an alternative. Plant-based meat will need its own “sea turtle with a straw in its nose” moment to cement its place in our culture and daily habits.

WeWork built a great brand, a seemingly better product and positioned itself as the solution for hip entrepreneurs and small businesses. Then that all came tumbling down. The same may happen to Impossible and Beyond Meat, where brands that also offer a better but not a truly differentiated product without proven demand, unless they address these three challenges.

At the height of the hype cycle, a big, irrational idea like the end of meat can go one of two ways: the novelty either takes hold and becomes a category- and market-disrupting force or it takes an unceremonious plunge. Will plant-based meats become a catalyst for global transformation, or will they need a stiff glass of kombucha to wash down a very different reality? Time will tell.

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