Plant-Based Brands! Oatly

by Sarabeth Davis

In Plant Based Brands! we trace the success of popular vegan brands. When choosing which brand of non-dairy milk to buy on a given week, or which exciting plant-based product to try, we’re looking for 5 key things: Look, Experience, Flavor, Origin, and Purpose

This edition’s brand is Oatly.

Start by feasting your eyes on these 20 seconds of wonder via Oatly’s Instagram.

What do you think? My takeaway is that Oatly has some of the most out-of-the-box-yet-somehow-spot-on brand messaging out there. Arts and crafts combined with guacamole, chips, and bathtime? None of these even fall in the realm of oat products. Although the only through line is use of an Oatly carton for flotation purposes, the quirky and ingenious message prevails: Oatly is a delicious product and experience. And by buying their product, you support the rad team that devised this fabulous marketing idea. 

Let’s start with some context. Oatly was founded in the 1990s based on enzymatic research from Lund University in Sweden. 2016 marked their first real moves in the U.S., when they got baristas across the country hooked on the froth and flavor of Oatly Barista Blend. This is key: rather than distribute via Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, Oatly targeted coffee aficionados and became baristas’ choice. Not until 2020 did they strike a deal to be the exclusive oat milk distributor for 1,300 Starbucks locations.

A combination of industry growth for plant-based milks and Oatly’s marketing magic accounts for the company’s unprecedented growth. Between 2017 and 2018, Oatly U.S. experienced a 900% increase in revenue, with sales skyrocketing from $1.5 to $15 million. Oatly devotees—and their wallets—will remember the infamous 2018 Oatly shortage that inflated the price of 12 cartons from $50 to $200 on Amazon. Mergermarket reports that Oatly U.S. is on target for 2020 revenue of $400 million. That’s some gargantuous growth.  

Look: Oatly’s signature blue is clean and cool, accented with neutral tans and creams. In contrast to their soothing color scheme, eclectic content and placement of text covers Oatly products. It might seem like Oatly follows no rules, but the careful melange of calm colors and bold font is deliberate and distinctive.

Experience: You never know what to expect from the side of an Oatly carton. Whether it be humor, activism, or flat out nonsense, it’s sure to catch your eye. Beyond the physical product, Oatly offers a range of equally alluring digital content, including Oatly TV, Hey Barista!, Je Ne Sais Quoi of the Month, and Oatly Distraction Services (ODDS). Remember how we started in the bath with Oatly guacamole boats? Thank ODDS for that, a most welcome “distraction.” 

Flavor: Smooth, naturally sweet, and perfectly frothy. And that’s just the milk. Have you tried the silky-rich ice cream? Or the newest addition to their U.S. product line, Oatgurt?! 

Origin: People love a good story. And Oatly’s coming of age from a precursory oat enzyme research in Sweden to a non-dairy beverage domineer is impressive to say the least. Their website recounts how researchers were “nerding out” over beta-glucans found in oats, and that’s pretty darn endearing.

Purpose: Oatly is unabashed in their beliefs. They know their audience cares about human and environmental health, so they regularly spout information about oat fiber and dairy milk’s carbon footprint. Their branding definitely drives profit, but not at the expense of their commitment to social responsibility. 

Oatly recently came under fire for their July 2020 deal to sell a $200M stake in the company to a group of investors, including Blackstone Growth. The company maintains that the deal will only benefit Oatly’s environmental efforts. Furthermore, Balckstone’s investment signals to the greater private equity space that plant-based products are extremely lucrative and worth continued attention. These ripple effects remain to be seen, but certainly do not undermine Oatly’s unique, effective, and purposeful voice. I for one look forward to continued consumption of their products and delightful distractions from ODDS!

Sarabeth Davis graduates from the University of Pennsylvania this December 2020 with her Bachelor’s in English and French. With extensive experience working in digital marketing and participating in rigorous academic environments, Sarabeth brings a critical lens to the plant-based space. She writes a weekly column for PBW Plant Based Brands! where she analyzes market success of vegan brands. A Kripalu certified yoga instructor and avid foodie, Sarabeth spends her free time practicing and teaching yoga, and caring for 20+ plants, a sourdough starter, a kombucha SCOBY, and a ginger bug. She is eager to bring her industrious spirit to a team where she can continue to learn and grow.

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