As people are becoming increasingly aware of the nutritional shortcomings of cow’s milk, and the negative impact production has on the environment, plant-based milk is quickly becoming a household favourite. In the category, one brand will be top of mind for the majority of people: Oatly.
Founded 25 years ago, Oatly makes a milk-like product using oats and has grown exponentially from its humble beginnings in Sweden. Today, it is available globally and loved by many people in search of milk alternatives that are healthier for the body and the planet.
Central to their success is of course a great product that hits the mark in terms of flavour, texture, and behaviour. But their story is also a great example of how strong branding, clever marketing and authentic purpose come together to make a business successful.
Reaching the right people
Oat milk as a product was already popular in parts of Europe, but in the US it really wasn’t a thing for most people. So instead of launching Oatly as a milk alternative available in supermarkets, they took a smarter approach to distribution which has paid off really well. Their distribution strategy in the US was to partner with small coffee shops where proper baristas work their magic. The types of places where they explain flavour profiles of different coffee beans and create works of latte art.
The artisan coffee shop with minimalist interior design and focus on natural products of the highest quality is the perfect environment that the Oatly brand should be associated with. Taste makers in the roasting community see baristas use Oatly, which effectively connects Oatly to the vibe in the shop and launches the product right into the heart of hipster coffee culture.
From there, Oatly uses a combination of witty ads, distinctive packaging and engaging social media content to expand brand awareness. Across all channels and touchpoints, the way Oatly communicates is instantly recognisable with its sarcastic tones and self-deprecating messaging. The brand is serious about its cause, but never takes itself too seriously.
A playful brand developed for a global audience
Take its outdoor placements for example. It basically takes a meta approach and comments on its own advertising with a poster seen in New York reading “if you don’t read this ad, no worries. Someone else likely will.” For its UK launch, Oatly took to the subway and the streets with a string of ads that definitely stood out from the rest as you can see in the images below.
In a recent article, AdAge cited Oatly’s Creative Director John Schoolcraft explaining why the brand was developed using this approach. It’s not your typical Swedish perspective, but instead uses a lot of sarcasm aimed at an international audience. “The most important thing is to treat the consumer with respect,” he says. “If you’re going to interrupt the consumer’s life with an ad, it has to be something that makes them laugh or keeps them interested. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
No opportunity to express that brand direction is left untouched. Its packaging is visually striking compared to cow’s milk and plant-based alternatives. What’s more interesting is what it says on the box.
The ingredients label reads “The Boring Side”, with a short paragraph instructing you to flip the carton if this side bores you and have a wonderful day. On the other side, they could have something like you see in the image below, a short ad for an Oatly colleague who is looking for the perfect boyfriend that loves puppies, wakeboarding and is preferably vegan.
The good vibe continues on their social media channels. It’s filled with witty observations, trend capturing images, oat-life hacks, pep talks and just overall excellent copy. Here’s a few Tweets we liked:
What sets Oatly further apart from other players in the space, is that it’s not just selling oat milk but promoting a plant-based lifestyle instead. In the last Tweet in the image above, the shirt reads “Post Milk Generation”, which pretty much sums up what Oatly is aiming to achieve. It is a planet-friendly movement pioneered by Oatly, and many of its followers proudly carry that message across the world.
Leading marketing with a vision-first approach also gives the brand much more latitude when it comes to content. For example, Oatly recently launched a microsite and new Instagram channel called “Hey Barista!”, which is entirely dedicated to the stories of great coffee masters. By focusing less on the product and more on storytelling, the content is a great tool for targeting the professional barista community and reaching specialty coffee shops interested in using dairy alternatives.
If you haven’t yet defined your brand’s core purpose and mission, or you feel the need to refine it, now is the time to invest in your brand development. Consumer expectations shift all the time, and you need the internal compass to guide your brand to adapt to the changes while staying true to the roots of your brand.