Nice job, Burger King. Don’t stop now!

May 2 · 4 min read

This week, Burger King announced that after a very successful test, it is planning a nation-wide roll out of the Impossible Whopper, a plant-based version of the fast food chain’s signature burger:

On April 1, Burger King started testing the vegetarian burger, using a plant-based patty from Impossible Foods. The test took place in St. Louis and “went exceedingly well,” a spokesperson for Restaurant Brands International, Burger King’s parent company, said. The spokesperson added that the sales of the Impossible Whopper are complementary to the regular Whopper.

The company plans to expand to more markets “in the very near future” before making the sandwich available nationally by the end of the year.

The Impossible burger was designed to appeal to meat-eaters looking to add more plant-rich meals into their rotation. Burger King isn’t the only fast food chain looking to cater to growing consumer demand for vegetarian or plant-based options. Earlier this year, Taco Bell announced plans to unveil a vegetarian menu.

credit: Burger King

If they catch on, meatless menu options could be a significant development in the fight against climate change. Adopting a plant-rich diet is one of the best things individuals can do to contribute to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. In our Climate Change Needs Behavior Change report, Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment identified plant-rich diets as one of the top climate solutions that individuals can adopt:

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), global average per person protein consumption exceeds dietary requirements across all world regions and is expected to grow. Animal proteins are a significant driver of climate change, with emissions from the livestock sector estimated at 7.1 GtCO2-eq per year, equivalent to 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

So let’s pretend, just for a moment, that Burger King’s motivation is to fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions that come from meat production. What could they do to catalyze adoption of plant-based alternatives vis-a-vis the Impossible Whopper?

Let’s turn the local Burger King into a lab and equip the manager with behavioral strategies. Here are some tactics they might use to shift traditional Whopper lovers toward the plant-based iteration:

Promote the desirable norm. A recent Stanford study found that it’s easier to change people’s behavior if they already see the norm as changing.

In one experiment, participants from across the United States read two statements about eating less meat. One statement (static) described how some Americans are currently trying to eat less meat, while the other statement (dynamic) described how some Americans are changing and now eat less meat.

The participants who read the dynamic statement reported more interest in reducing their meat consumption than those who read the static one. Those participants reported anticipating that this change would continue into the future — leading them to conform to that future norm.

Burger King could put a sign up at the counter stating that more and more Americans are ordering the Impossible Burger, suggesting a dynamic norm.

Make it easy by promoting substitutes. Burger King has learned that people who want to eat a burger everyday care most about flavor. Offering compelling substitutes means building on existing behavior and preferences by offering something that meets people where they are. By selling the Impossible Whopper as another tasty burger, they can make it seem less like a worse option or a sacrifice but something that they want.

Increase behavioral observability. Socially rewarding a desired behavior is a good way to promote its adoption. What if the Burger King associate hit a button that played royal trumpets (playing on the King theme) when an Impossible Whopper was ordered. Or similarly, people could receive differently colored trays or take-out bags. These gimmicks could actually be the motivator for ordering the burger, and patrons would see the behavior and adopt it more readily.

Alter the choice setting. At the very top of the Burger King drive-thru menu, consumers see a big picture of a Whopper — the chain’s standard bearer since 1957. What if Burger King gave the Impossible Whopper equal billing — either in prominence on the menu or as the first choice on automated menus or apps. Our reliance on heuristics, aka mental shortcuts, leaves us susceptible to influence from small cues from our environment and the manner in which a choice is framed. A prime example is saliency and the ordering of items that come first tend to draw our attention. What if Burger King incorporated this into their menu design? ?

Harness cognitive biases. We all like free gifts and giveaways, and this can be especially helpful in getting us to try something that is unfamiliar to us. To overcome people’s status-quo bias of ordering what they already know, what if Burger King offered one day when they gave away free Impossible Whoppers? This way they could boost the number of people who try them, change attitudes, and also help spread the word about how they taste.

These are just some of the behavioral strategies outlined in our new behavioral science toolkit for practitioners. By expanding our environmental toolkit to include behavior-based strategies, we can leverage our growing understanding of human behavior and decision-making to help drive people toward more sustainable behaviors. The success of the Impossible Burger is welcome news. While hope won’t keep it on the menu, behavior-based strategies just might.

In Rare Form

Stories and insights from the frontlines of community-led conservation


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In Rare Form

Stories and insights from the frontlines of community-led conservation

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