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Milk, but made for humans

Oatly is a company built on the idea of change. We exist to make it easy for people to eat better and live healthier lives without recklessly taxing the planet’s resources in the process. This is why we come to work every day. Headquartered in Malmö, Sweden, the Oatly brand is available in more than 20 countries across Europe, North America and Asia.

Oatly was an obscure, local Swedish brand for its first 20 years. Then in 2012, the oat milk company brought in a new CEO, Toni Petersson, with a radical new vision for the brand and with a new look and a tasty product.

Most viewers cringed at the Super Bowl ad, which featured Petersson singing a tune he wrote himself accompanied by his keyboard in a wide-open field of oats. It seems most people felt it was one of those things that’s so bad but you just can’t look away. Yet, the lyrics, which included, “it’s like milk, but made for humans,” and “wow, no cow,” were surprisingly catchy. It was weird, different, and certainly generated a lot of curiosity.


Known for its irreverent approach to advertising and brash, tongue-in-cheek packaging, Oatly takes a bold approach to marketing.

From publishing the actual text of a lawsuit against its slogan “Milk, but made for humans” in Sweden to launching a European-wide ad campaign called “Are You Stupid?” — Oatly’s irreverent approach to winning over consumers has been surprisingly successful.

Though the company has been around since the early 1990s, it only started picking up steam around 2014 when it relaunched the brand under the guidance of new CEO Toni Petersson. With an increased focus on sustainability and health, Petersson and the marketing team crafted a new brand voice: quirky, somewhat flippant, and definitely humorous — it became their calling card, of sorts.

However, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for this milk alternative brand — from backlash surrounding chosen investors to fighting Amendment 171 in the EU, Oatly has faced its fair share of setbacks and challenges.

Still, having gone public in 2021 via an IPO valued at up to $10.1 billion, the vegan brand is on the up.

Oatly was founded in the early 1990s by Swedish brothers — Rickard Öste, a food scientist, and his brother Bjorn. The inventors of oat milk, the brothers were researching alternatives to cow’s milk for people who were lactose intolerant.

Though they were successful in creating such a product, Oatly didn’t really make it big on the international scene. That is — until the brand brought in Toni Petersson in 2014 as CEO. With previous roles as CEO in a myriad of companies, Petersson brought a good deal of experience and knowledge to the role.

The first big changes Petersson made? The packaging. Previously, Oatly’s cartons had a small, red “Oatly” logo in the top left corner. Forgettable and somewhat bland, this logo, placement, and overall packaging style had to go.

In a bold move, Petersson opted for a combination of block and bubble letters that spelled out “OAT-LY!” in the center of each carton. Additionally, the packaging copy was changed from Swedish to English in an effort to be more accessible to a global audience.

Petersson also did away with the professional, informative tone of the former packaging and utilized Oatly’s new brand voice and personality. Cheeky and fresh, this new copy proved far more eye-catching and entertaining to consumers.

Petersson’s next move was to focus on Oatly’s environmental impact and sustainability. He commissioned a report in 2017 that would show how Oatly is better for the environment than traditional dairy. The findings?:

“Oatly estimated that its oat drink can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80%, land use by 79% and energy consumption by 60% compared to a same size portion of cow’s milk.”

With this kind of data at hand, Petersson could make bold claims about the superiority of oat milk in the areas of sustainability and environmental preservation — which are included in each carton’s product information.

Another tactic Petersson used in 2017 to promote their products in the U.S. was to get in at the ground floor with local baristas. Oatly actually sent representatives to high-end coffee shops in places like New York City to share and test their products with local baristas.

The thought was that if baristas could recommend and use Oatly’s milk with customers, it would lead to higher rates of interest. Of the strategy, the brand’s U.S. General Manager Mike Messersmith told CNBC Make It:

“We thought about specialty coffee shops and tea shops, where if you were able to take the recommendation of your local barista you see every day, and try our product through an expertly prepared latte or cappuccino that would be a really amazing way to kind of be introduced to even just the idea of oat milk”.

Petersson’s changes paid off. Between 2017 and 2019, Oatly’s revenue in Europe went from about US $15.5 million to about US $69 million. That’s a massive increase for just two years. And in 2020, Oatly reported revenue of US $421.4 million — which is a 106.5% increase from their 2019 revenue.

However, Oatly’s success hasn’t made it immune to controversy or bad decisions. In 2020, Oatly sold $200 million in stake to a myriad of investors — with one such investor being the Blackstone Group, a company that has been accused of financing businesses contributing to deforestation in the Amazon and road development in the jungle to export soy.

Shortly after this was announced, Oatly faced backlash from consumers on social media and had to deal with their first “cancel culture” experience. Though many consumers are still not happy about the brand’s association with Blackstone, it hasn’t seemed to damage its reputation or sales in the long run.

Now one of the largest oat drink companies in the world, Oatly offers a wide variety of oat-based products — from milk to ice cream to yogurt to spreads.

John Schoolcraft, Chief Creative Officer at Oatly, has executed the rebranding of the company after joining in 2012, contributing to the expansion of their oat products to over 20 countries worldwide with sales exceeding $200 million this year.

In this keynote on branding, John explains how he fosters creativity at Oatly and how just the will to change the world plays a part:

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