Oatly picking a fight = marketing?

Why Oatly's "Milk Wars" started on purpose as a strategy to win more press coverage

“It’s like milk, but made for humans.”

Photo credit: @m0lls92/Instagram

What would you do if the powerful dairy lobby sued you, a small oat milk manufacturer, for using that slogan in your ads? 

You would probably fight the case and, when you lost like Oatly did, pay the £100,000 fine, change your advertising, and start calling yourself an “oat drink.” 

Except if you’re Oatly. Then you publish the full text of the lawsuit on your website as a David vs Goliath story. And spend £700,000 to run the same ad campaign in a different country. 

Oatly is an incredible example of what investor Paul Graham calls “beef-as-marketing” or “beef marketing.” 

Beef-as-marketing is when you pick a fight to get press, and everything about the way Oatly frames their message is a way to increase the mileage of their advertising.

Oatly has great ads (more about why towards the end). But their ads are even more effective because they’re contrarian—which lets one advertising campaign turn into an absolute flood of press coverage. 

Here are a few of the headlines that Oatly won as a result of their fight against the milk lobby in Sweden:

The Swedish dairy lobby doesn’t come off all that well in this coverage. The story—which journalists have named the “Milk Wars” (another win for Oatly)—paints a picture of the bully dairy lobby beating up on a smaller competitor.

That’s part of the story, but Oatly isn’t exactly playing nice either. When Swedish milk companies created a series of ads under the banner “only milk tastes like milk,” they included nonsense words that sound like the Swedish word for milk. Oatly responded by filing trademarks on those words, entangling the ad campaign in litigation.

I can’t find an independent source for the stat (although this paywalled Bloomberg article supports it), but Oatly’s Wikipedia page claims huge sales results. “Oatly published the text of the lawsuit leading to a 45% increase in Oatly's sales in Sweden.”

Oatly is an incredible modern example of how picking a fight with a message can help that message spread. But the idea isn’t new. A century of public relations and psychology research show why beef-as-marketing can be David’s sling as he stares down Goliath. 

Oatly picks a fight almost everywhere they can. Why does it work?

“Pugnacity with its attendant emotion of anger is a human constant. The public relations counsel uses this continually in constructing all kinds of events that will call it into play. Because of it, too, he is often forced to enact combats and create issues. He stages battles against evils in which the antagonist is personified for the public.”—Edward Bernays, in Crystallizing Public Opinion, 1923

“The most powerful predictor of what spreads online is anger.”—Ryan Holiday, in Trust Me, I’m Lying, 2012

People don’t want to watch lectures. They want to watch debates. 

From the earliest days of public relations (back when it was still just called propaganda), experts knew that the way to get press coverage for their message was to create the news. As Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, wrote “The public relations counsel, therefore, is a creator of news for whatever medium he chooses to transmit his ideas.”

One of the easiest and most effective ways to create news is by taking a strong stance and picking a fight. 

In a paper analyzing what makes news go viral, Professors Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman (no relation to Oatly) found that “awe” was the emotion most likely to go viral. And Positive emotions generally led to more virality.

Anger was the exception. Anger was one of the most viral emotions—and unlike “awe” or “humor,” which can be difficult to create on demand, anger is easy to manufacture. 

Fights get shared online. Fights get press. Fights are what spread.

How does Oatly pick a fight at every opportunity?

Oatly’s advertising and packaging goes after milk hard. The consistent messages are about the environmental impact of dairy and the fact that it’s weird for humans to drink other animals’ milk.

Source: TheDrum coverage of Oatly

(Note that Oatly is forced to call themselves an “oat drink” in countries where they lost lawsuits to the dairy lobby). 

A quick Google of “Oatly ditch milk” will show news coverage from TheDrum, but also from sites like Plant Based News, New Nutrition, and Vegan Food and Living—exactly the audience that’s most likely to buy oat milk.   

The “it’s like milk, but made for humans” campaign got Oatly sued in Sweden. But when they turned around and brought the same campaign to the UK, it led to another slew of headlines. 

Oatly vs the Cowliath became such a story that one student even wrote their thesis paper about the “Milk Wars.” Which you can see here, but is in Swedish.

Sometimes Oatly has toed the line with their message. They created a wave of negative press for their “flush the milk” campaign—an homage to a well-known anti-alcoholism campaign in Sweden. Oatly likely intended to draw parallels to humans’ odd fascination with milk, and instead may have made a misstep (although it’s still not clear if the negative response outweighs the brand awareness benefits). 

Outside of their advertising, Oatly puts their message anywhere it could conceivably go. Including on the package itself.

Source: interview with Oatly’s creative director

The environmental message on the packaging is widely shared—and wildly different from most messages you read on the box.

Oatly will even pick a fight with people who think about buying their product. After getting feedback that their drink “tastes like shit,” they printed that feedback directly on the package. 

Source: interview with Oatly’s creative director

“If you don’t like the taste of our oat drinks, you don’t have to drink them.” A similar message in response to “this tastes like shit” is easier to read in their Instagram post with the same message. 

“This tastes like shit! Plant-based drinks don’t taste anything like cow’s milk,” is a real comment by a real person. “Plant-based drinks don’t taste like cow’s milk because they aren’t cow's milk,” if you stop to think about it for more than a second, would be the simple and highly logical response. Because if you have been drinking cow's milk all your life and think of its taste as a starting point or the standard, and also expect other drinks to taste exactly the same, then oat drink (for example) may seem rather unpleasant (or no, let's say “unusual” instead). On the other hand, if you ask someone who only drinks oat drink how they think cow's milk tastes, he or she will probably say “unpleasant” or we mean, “unusual.” Of course.
March 13, 2019

Just about anywhere Oatly can put a message, they put one that picks a fight. Even when they don’t their tone is irreverent, pro-environmental, anti-milk, and perfectly tailored for sharing. 

Oatly’s success at (ironically) beef marketing has made their advertising investments more effective—because every dollar towards an ad also becomes a dollar towards press coverage and social media spread. And by manufacturing the idea of the “Milk Wars,” Oatly has virtually guaranteed themselves more free press. 

As long as they don’t stop picking fights.

How does all this fight picking actually sell a product?

“Brand competition and growth is largely about building two market-based assets: physical availability and mental availability. Brands that are easier to buy—for more people, in more situations—have more market share. Innovation and differentiation (when they work) build market-based assets, which last after competitors copy the innovation.”—Professor Byron Sharp, writing in How Brands Grow

Press is all well and good, but how do Oatly’s ad campaigns—even the funny, not fight-picking ones—actually increase sales? 

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.

Oatly’s campaign in Berlin, (Source).

Oatly’s ads don’t follow the “rules” or so-called “best practices” of marketing in that they’re unconventional. But they do follow the actual rules of what gets consumers to buy. 

The ads are funny, and as Jonah Berger’s research showed above, humor is one of the best ways to get shared online. 

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. 

In his landmark paper “The Psychology of Curiosity,” behavioral economist George Loewenstein points out that unexpectedness is one of five ways that people become curious (and arguably the most powerful). In their book “Made to Stick” brother-professors Chip and Dan Heath review the research on what sticks in your head—and unexpectedness is a key factor.

Still, all of these ads don’t give a reason to buy the product. Right? 

They don’t need to. Modern research on advertising effectiveness, especially research coming out of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute in Australia, shows that there are two key factors that influence purchase decisions:

  • Mental availability. Does the consumer think about your product when they have a problem your product can solve?

  • Physical availability. Can the consumer easily buy your product when they are thinking about it?

Oatly’s category entry point—the thing that would trigger someone to buy it—is extremely simple: milk replacements. Increasing general awareness of oat milk as a product is likely to increase the number of people who think of oat milk when they might have otherwise bought milk, soy milk, or almond milk. 

These ads actually increase the physical availability of Oatly as well—because they show what the package actually looks like in stores. 

(Also, the package helps complement the ads. It clearly says that it’s an oat milk/drink, which makes it clear what the ads are selling even if the ad copy doesn’t mention it). 

Oatly’s packaging design is intentional too. Here’s what it used to look like.

Source: interview with Oatly’s creative director

Pretty boring. Also, have you ever bought milk in a package that looked like this? 

Oatly’s redesigned package is the brainchild of creative director John Schoolcraft (also the mastermind behind the ads), who remarked in an interview that the old packaging “looked like a Dutch multinational, just indistinguishable from anything else.”

Oatly’s new package looks like a milk carton! Which makes perfect sense for a company trying to sell its products as a milk replacement. 

Source: interview with Oatly’s creative director

In her book Building Distinctive Brand Assets, Ehrenberg-Bass researcher Jenni Romaniuk argues that the value of branding is standing out in a cluttered environment.

“When you build a brand's mental availability, you prepare the mind of a category buyer to look for a brand in what is often a chaotic, cluttered environment—think of this as moving the mind of the category buyer closer towards your brand than other brands they have in their brain.”

She also argues that branding has value because it helps connect marketing campaigns across a range of mediums and messages. You’ll notice that Oatly’s packaging appears just about everywhere the brand is mentioned—because Oatly wants to make sure you know what to look for in the store.

Oatly’s approach to marketing feels “nontraditional.” But really they rely on hundred-year old principles of public relations and advertising to brilliantly execute the fundamentals. The result is a fast-growing, well-known brand that carefully controls the presentation of their message—as the lovable underdog forces in the “Milk Wars.”