Last week we celebrated December’s Brand of the Month: Oatly.
We talked about how Oatly has been consistently challenging consumer expectations of products. brand and redefining the relationship between supply and demand. For PartII, we are taking a look at the people who make the Oatly start-up great, and future of Oatly and oatmilk.
Oatly’s Unfair Advantage(s)
With the oat milk craze, it’s inevitable that companies larger than Oatly, with huge factories and resources, will start mass-marketing their own versions and formulas for oat milk.
“We would be hypocrites if we said no one else should make oat milk because that was the whole idea for us at the beginning: that you could create a more sustainability-sourced option for a plant-based dairy alternative. So it’s great if more people make oat milk – we think that that’s awesome,” says Mike.
Remember when we mentioned how unexpected and disarming Oatly can be? : )
Oatly’s view is that it’s an overall positive for both consumers and the environment if many companies start making oat milk. “It’s incumbent upon all companies, big and small, to continue to adapt their approach and their strategies to meet the future needs,” he says.
But still, global, multinational companies have excellent operations, commercial channels, and experienced people, making it, needless to say, very difficult to compete as a small brand.
So what’s Oatly’s unfair advantage? What will keep them at the top, as competitors start piling onto the bandwagon?
Turns out there a few advantages.
“The branding and the company itself is big advantage, because we have a tremendous amount of clarity on our values and who we are and how to communicate that authentically to people,” Mike says. This is the core of what makes Oatly great (besides how tasty it is!).
“As long as we, Oatly, continue to try to focus on making an A+ product, as long as we try to stay really true to who we are with why we are doing this and what our values are and how we communicate to our people that’s what I can control.”
Then, it’s up to the consumers to decide.
He also points out that that while large companies do a little of everything, Oatly does one thing really, really well. “We think we make a great product in taste, texture, nutritional content, and ingredients that is differentiated within the market because we only do oats, we don’t know anything about cashews or soy beans or anything else. We have a maniacal focus on that ingredient.” Focusing on just one ingredient is extremely challenging at large companies and at competitive brands.
Another key component: “The organization we built with our people is an advantage. They have been in it from the beginning in the U.S. and they’ve seen how we have grown and they have great perspective on that. We come back to human relationships – we have really committed, dedicated people working on our team.”
Oatly’s U.S. Start-Up Culture
Although the company has been selling these products in Europe for a long time, in the U.S., Oatly is still a youngish start-up. Many times during our conversation, Mike kept coming back to the uniqueness of the Oatly’s startup culture – and its people.
Mike himself started out in the U.S. Navy, before heading to business school and playing with the big food/beverage honchos. Working at companies like Frito Lay, Mike saw some of the obstacles that big companies are facing that smaller natural foods brands are taking advantage of. He also got to see first hand the huge opportunities and challenges that come from scaling a purpose driven,disruptive brands like Chobani Greek Yogurt and Nature’s BountyCompany.
Mike says his Swedish counterparts and his U.S. office is the best team he has ever had. “We have this amazing unique corporate culture that enables us to move with a lot of confidence and fearlessness that doesn’t always exist at all companies. There’s a high degree of empowerment, culture of trust, ownership and autonomy.”
It’s easy to imagine how differently Oatly could’ve turned out if the team in Sweden did not trust that him and the U.S. team: “But they believe in us and our understanding of our market and our ability to execute up to world-class standards. That element of trust is the key underpinning to creating freedom and speed and all these things that you need for a startup to really succeed.”
Not to say that if you are a banker or a consultant that you can’t enjoy the journey and take on the challenges of building a business, and creating a product you think consumers will enjoy. There are plenty of successful brands that have started out as a savvy entrepreneur zeroing in on a trend, and wanting to improve on it– but when it comes to the intention behind Oatly, it doesn’t consider itself part of that crowd.
And we are so happy they’re not.