It looks and tastes like a Whopper, but where’s the beef?

Burger King Canada’s Impossible Whopper may still be a little green compared to the famous original version, but the burger chain is betting the plant-based menu item will appeal to customers seeking variety and ways to incorporate more non-animal protein in their diet.

“We feel really strongly about this product, and the investment we’ve made in launching it is further evidence that we believe this is something that’s here to stay,” said Burger King Canada general manger Matt Wright of the Impossible Whopper’s national launch earlier this month.

Wright described the Impossible Whopper, developed in partnership with California’s Impossible Foods, as the chain’s biggest launch in several years. “Maybe ever,” he added.

Burger King rolled out the Impossible Whopper across its 307 Canadian locations on April 12, following a successful test in March in Ontario—the chain’s largest market, with 130 locations. Customers in Ontario greeted the new item enthusiastically, even though the company provided zero advertising support, said Wright.

The national launch however comes with considerable advertising support. The media buy from Horizon Media includes TV, as well as digital and social. The brand is also working with a number of meat-enthusiast influencers, including popular Instagram personalities Daniel Seidman, the female grilling team of Maddie and Kiki and Max L’Affame.

It is also supporting the Impossible Whopper rollout with an aggressive in-restaurant push in markets where stores are open, including Impossible Whopper T-shirts for staff.

The creative from OneMethod and CC Media—one of the agency partners for Burger King parent Restaurant Brands International—employs a tried-and-true approach when it comes to promoting plant-based products: showing customers who are initially skeptical and unsure of what to expect, wowed by the Impossible Whopper’s resemblance to a traditional hamburger. “What we really wanted to get across is that you really have to taste it to believe it: this really does taste like the Whopper,” said Wright.

Burger King believes the Impossible Whopper will find interest among its existing flexitarian customers, while also potentially attracting vegetarians, said Wright. “We believe it’s got a permanent place on our menu, but at the end of the day we let our guests decide, based on their feedback and purchasing behaviours.”

The National Research Council of Canada says that more than 40% of Canadians are trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet, with plant-based proteins expected to contribute $4.5 billion to GDP growth.

The NRC predicted that within 25 years, 20% of meat will consist of plant-based and “clean meat” (meat grown in a lab from stem cells). “Cultural, health and environmental changes have all combined to create favourable market conditions for the rise of plant-based protein,” it said.

The Whopper name contains considerable brand equity, but Wright said the decision was made early in the development process to attach the name of its signature product to the plant-based version, rather than introducing it as a standalone menu item—McDonald’s for instance, never associated its plant-based offering with iconic menu items like the Big Mac or Quarter Pounder.

The product formulation for the two burgers is identical expect for the choice protein, he said, with Burger King promoting the new menu item as “100% Whopper, 0% beef.” It is prepared on the same cooking surfaces as its meat-based products, however.

“We wanted to make sure we were replicating the taste of our flagship product,” said Wright. “At times we thought that might be an impossible task, but we’re really excited about the outcome. We think the product really lives up to the Whopper name and that’s not something we take lightly.”

Wright said that the 2019 launch of the Impossible Whopper in the U.S. helped prime Canadians for the product, as media coverage and advertising spill from border stations ensured that it had some awareness here. The Impossible Whopper was credited with driving a 5% increase in same store sales in the third quarter of 2019, leading RBI president José Sil to call it one of the most successful rollouts in company history.

But that rollout hasn’t been without some hiccups. Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that Burger King had cut the price of the Impossible Whopper, temporarily adding the item to its 2-for-$6 discount menu. According to the Times, Burger King’s largest U.S. franchisee, Carrolls Restaurant Group, reporting that daily sales at one of its locations had dropped by 32 to 28 (compared to about 234 beef Whoppers sold daily).

But if there’s flagging consumer interest in plant-based burgers, you’d never guess from all of the activity in the space among the major burger chains.

McDonald’s quietly began testing a burger dubbed the McPlant in international markets earlier this year. Its Canadian arm had previously partnered with faux-meat producer Beyond Meat on an item called the P.L.T., although it removed the item from its menu in April of 2020, and made no public declaration about its future.

A&W also currently offers a Beyond Meat Burger, while Wendy’s introduced its Plantiful Burger last year (it does not turn up on the Wendys website). Harvey’s has carried a Veggie Burger since 1999, but partnered with Lightlife last year to introduce a new Lightlife Burger at more than 250 locations.

Wright, though, is hopeful that the Impossible Whopper’s national rollout will provide it with a bit of an edge in the competitive burger sector. “We’re really excited and optimistic about our results,” he said. “We’re getting great feedback from our franchise partners and our guests, and each day, as we continue to gain more awareness, we’re seeing volume continue to increase.”

It’s enough to make its rivals green with envy.

Chris Powell