The Rise and Rise of the Alt-Milk Revolution and What Makes Oatly Stand Out
Updated: May 21
When I was a kid, milk referred to the white, creamy, nutrient-rich liquid produced by mammals. I wasn’t very fond of drinking it, but I was told by my parents and teachers that it would keep my bones healthy. I don’t remember putting much thought into which ‘type’ of milk I was drinking. Things like full fat, semi-skimmed, skimmed came in later.
Jump to 2020, you walk into any big supermarket and there are all kinds of milk on offer - soya milk, almond milk, coconut milk, cashew milk, oat milk, quinoa milk, pea milk, peanut milk, hazelnut milk, walnut milk, hemp milk… the list is endless.
Plant-based milk or ‘Alt-milk’ has moved from the fringe to the mainstream.
Powered by the increasing popularity of veganism and more health-conscious living, greater awareness of disorders like lactose-intolerance, and concern for the environmental impact of milk production, the non-dairy milk or ‘alt-milk’ industry was valued at a whopping $17.7 billion in 2018 and is expected to grow to $27.17 billion (with an annual growth rate of 11.3%) by 2022 (more here).
The health benefits of alt-milk over dairy milk may be fiercely debated by nutritionists, but milk seems to have transcended its identity as a purely nutritional drink during childhood, to a creamy ingredient to add to adult drinks like coffee, smoothies, protein shakes and the like, beyond just breakfast cereal.
In this context, one product from Sweden has made its way to the top very rapidly. Oatly, an oat milk brand, is one of the strongest emerging vegan drinks worldwide. Why is that? What's their secret?
We studied their website and social channels and ran almost 1000 images and captions from Oatly’s Instagram handle through our Culture AI models to understand what sets them apart.
Catering to the Post-Milk Generation
Oatly was founded in 1994 by Rickard Öste, a researcher at the University of Lund. Headquartered in Sweden, it is focused on producing dairy alternatives using oats, and it’s growing popularity has surprised many, especially given that milk has been an integral part of Swedish diet for over a century.
Oatly’s expansion outside of Sweden in recent years has largely been credited to its present CEO Toni Petersson’s vision and strategy (including commissioning a Sustainability Report). With sales of 1.83 Bn dollars in 2019 (and almost 500% increase in sales in the last few years) Oatly is expanding rapidly, and already has a presence in 20 countries in North America, Europe, and Asia.
Maximum Nutrition, Minimum Environmental Damage
From a product perspective, Oatly is for milk what Beyond Meat is for meat. With catchy slogans such as “It’s like milk, but made for humans” (which ran into its fair share of controversy) and “Wow, no cow”, it positions itself as a healthy, environment-friendly substitute to milk and a thought leader of the dairy-free movement.
Nutritionists rank it high amongst other plant-based milk because of its simple ingredients and no added sugar. Consumers are happy with its taste and creamy consistency.
While Oatly’s major competitors also cater other plant-based milk and products, Oatly has stuck to oat milk and related products- including flavored oat milk, oat-gurt (oat yogurt), oat milk ice-cream, over and above its best-selling product - Oatly Barista edition, designed especially for third-wave coffee shops.
From its packaging to its marketing campaigns, Oatly presents itself as a new-age, millennial-friendly drink.
Oatly’s social media posts and advertisements are fun, wacky and compelling. They pay no heed to social media conventions of short and catchy captions, instead treat the captions as a domain for introspective, rambly, witty storytelling (examples below), while also occasionally touching upon the environmental benefit of shifting to oat-milk. No wonder our AI models detected ‘intellect’, ‘artistic ability’ and ‘altruism’ as top personality traits of Oatly’s Instagram.
We also made a word cloud out of the top adjectives detected by our machines and mostly found positive adjectives: from product-specific words such as ‘creamy’, ‘delicious’, ‘natural’, to larger qualities like ‘sustainable’, ‘thoughtful’ and ‘progressive’.
When we ran our image analysis AI models on Oatly’s Instagram posts, the top emotions detected by our AI model to describe Oatly’s feed were: ‘emotional’, ‘happy’, ‘creative’, and ‘bonding’. This is reflected in the general imagery displayed on the handle - artsy photos of hands or limbs and an Oatly carton, Oatly as an accompaniment at everyday comfort spots such as one’s bedroom, couch or balcony, and bonding with self and others over a sip of Oatly...
In contrast, other alt-milk brands confine oat milk to the realm of the kitchen.
The best part about Oatly's marketing strategy, though, is that they’ve taken it beyond social media and onto the streets…. and there too they have gone against the traditional norms of outdoor advertising.
Evidently, there are many things that set Oatly apart in the alt-milk industry - single-minded focus on oat milk products, epic marketing and most importantly, making their consumers feel like they belong to a larger community movement.
Oatly has also been very strategic about its expansion. Instead of going to grocery stores and selling to people directly, it first targeted baristas of third-wave coffee shops who would go onto introducing it to their customers. The love for Oatly is best summarized by Stuart Forsyth, a former barista and the co-founder of vegan coffee brand Minor Figures- “Oatly made oats sexy”. What more can a brand ask for?
If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also like: The Not-So-Sweet Life: What Vegans Miss the Most