5 Marketing Lessons to Learn from Oatly’s Outside the Box Approach

diana-parkhouse-H8sqvuLE2CQ-unsplash July 3, 2021

Have you heard of Oatly?

I’ve been an admirer of the Swedish oat milk brand for a while now. No, I’m not a customer of theirs, but I appreciate how they do things differently.

Oatly has been both praised and criticized for its approach to advertising and marketing. It must be doing something right, with sales up 106% in 2020 – and it was named to the 2021 Time 100 Most Influential List. The company is now worth $12.5 billion after its initial public offering in May.

Even though Oatly is newer to American consumers, the company is nearly 30 years old (its founders invented oat milk in 1994). So when CEO Toni Petersson joined the company in 2014, he rebranded it and decided to market Oatly in the U.S. With the plant-based milk market growing here, it turned out to be a good bet.

Oatly is an example of how sometimes marching to the beat of your own drummer can set you apart – in a good way.

How Oatly Is Finding Success by Marching to the Beat of Its Own Drummer

Here are five marketing lessons based on how Oatly thinks differently:

1) Turning a negative into a positive: Oatly used negative comments from customers in its packaging and ads. That’s one way to grab attention – and a bold way, at that. Not every brand is confident enough to put the negative comments it receives front and center.

The story about Oatly that first caught my eye was the one about how it featured this comment: “This tastes like sh*t! Blah!”

I’m a fan of this type of advertising (another example I love is how this artist took criticisms of national parks from reviews on TripAdvisor and turned them into promotional posters). It catches your attention. And that’s the first step toward awareness – and potentially purchasing your product.

2) Thinking outside the box with ads: When other brands zig, Oatly zags. Take, for example, the ad it paid $5.5M to run during this year’s Super Bowl.

The ad was very simple, featuring the brand’s CEO, Toni Petersson playing an electric piano and singing a song he wrote in an oat field. It wasn’t even new. It first aired in Sweden in 2014.

Many said they didn’t “get” it – and therefore dismissed it. But, others applauded their efforts because it helped the brand stand out in a sea of largely forgettable ads.

The Super Bowl ad was right in line with Oatly’s overall approach to advertising.

“A lot of Oatly’s advertising doesn’t say anything about the product at all. It doesn’t have a value proposition, the headlines are super long, and it seems to break all the rules of marketing,” says this Masters of the Message article.

“But they do follow the actual rules of what gets consumers to buy. As importantly, they’re unexpected. Marketing is a battle for attention, and unexpectedness is one of the most important ways to stand out from the background.”

3) Forming strategic partnerships: Early on, Oatly decided that coffee shops could be an effective vehicle to help introduce oat milk to consumers by allowing them an easy way to try it before committing to buying an entire carton.

“The company focused on getting baristas and coffee drinkers hooked on oat milk’s creamy texture and ability to froth before pushing into grocery stores,” says this CNBC story.

Now, Oatly has forged a partnership with Starbucks to carry its oat milk at cafes nationwide. Starbucks even unveiled several new oat milk drinks on its spring menu. Some reports say the oat milk has proven so popular that stores have run out.

4) Using controversy to their advantage: Most brands run from controversy. The marketing lesson here is how Oatly has embraced it.

Oatly has been engaged in a war of sorts with the milk lobbyists in Sweden. The company was sued for its slogan, “It’s like milk, but made for humans.” Oatly lost the suit, paid the fine – and ran the lawsuit’s full text on its site.

All this controversy led to press coverage with headlines that were much more flattering for Oatly than they were for the Swedish milk lobby:

Journalists dubbed the controversy the “Milk Wars,” and many of the stories positioned Oatly as the small competitor being beaten up by the bully.

While not every brand can pull this off, it raises awareness so that when those looking for an alternative to milk (which is many these days) began to search, Oatly is likely to pop up.

5) Playing off angles that appeal to their target audience: What does your audience care deeply about? For Oatly, the primary issue it focuses on is the environment, because it recognizes that consumers it targets are passionate about the climate crisis.

Along those lines, Petersson commissioned a report to highlight how the production of oat-based milk produces 73% less CO2 emissions than cow’s milk. The company highlights these numbers in its messaging. With a push for consumers to stop drinking milk for reasons including helping to save the environment, Oatly is in a great position to capture some of that market.

Different Can Be Good, As These Marketing Lessons Illustrate

So, what does this mean for your business? The next time you want to do the same thing you’ve always done with your marketing, maybe try thinking outside the box.

We all get stuck in a rut from time to time. But – it could be time to start fresh and try something new.

Let Oatly serve as an example of how different can be good.

About the author: You’ll find Michelle Garrett at the intersection of PR, content marketing and social media. As a public relations and communications consultant, content creator, blogger, speaker and freelance writer, Michelle’s articles and advice have been featured in Entrepreneur, Muck Rack, Ragan’s PR Daily, Meltwater, ThomasNet, Attorney at Work, FairyGodBoss, Freelancers Union and more. In addition, Michelle was named the sixth most influential PR professional by Commetric in April 2021 and a Top Digital PR Leader in 2020

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