The most talkative brand in the world?
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This week, a brand that I stare at literally every morning. They’re such an obvious example of a great voice that it nearly didn’t occur to me to write about them. Here’s Oatly:
🥛Here’s the skinny. (Oh no. Milk puns).
Oatly are Swedish and they make oat milk. You probs knew that. Less well-known is that they’ve been around since 1994. Founded by researchers from the University of Lund, they ticked along unremarkably for years. Then a new CEO shook things up big time.
Together with creative director John Schoolcraft, Oatly played almost every challenger brand trick in the book. This interview with John is an excellent primer on the early years.
A particular highlight: In 2014 they wrote some copy unflatteringly comparing cow and oat milk and were sued by the Swedish Dairy Association for ‘disparaging milk’. Oatly stuck the 172-page lawsuit on their website, and the public saw the bullying tactics for what they were. Oatly’s sales soared, and it cemented an approach that’s key to Oatly’s voice: telling the truth in great detail. We’ll come back to this later. (Meanwhile, Oatly lost the case and the Milk Wars raged on1.)
Let’s pour over the details. (Sorry).
Most people’s first encounter with Oatly was big outdoor and billboard ads. Stuff like this:
And this and this and this:
Oatly certainly weren’t the first brand to do self-referrential like this. And they might well have been inspired by Oasis’s ‘It’s summer. You’re thirsty. We’ve got sales targets’. And yes, it’s been fashionable for a while to diss meta-advertising as dumb or self-absorbed or for having too many words or not mentioning the ‘product benefit’ or yadda yadda yadda.
But this carping misses the point. Firstly, even people who find it irritating totally remember it’s for Oatly. (We’ve all had the experience of liking clever advertising but then being unable to recall who it’s for). Secondly, while other brands have dabbled with unadvertising, Oatly have commited to it with an absurd glee which is genuinely infectious. It’s not just advertising about advertising, it’s often playing with how we move through public spaces:
Though OK sometimes the meta-meta-meta levels get a bit much:
And thirdly, the ads lay down a sort of foundation of naive wonky daftness which they use brilliantly to help them deliver some big ideas:
For me, this is Oatly’s superpower. Gently leading you in with that affected naivety (‘So what is this oat milk drink anyway?’) and that sing-song rhythm (‘you plant them in the soil of the earth and allow the sun to shine on them and they grow’) – the repetition of the ‘them’ in that sentence is something Oatly do a lot to give their copy a childlike vibe – so that you barely notice you’ve slid right into a paragraph about nutritional characteristics and they’ve snuck in a Big Idea: that milk is for cows. But oat milk is for humans.
Here’s more of the same:
You might need to zoom in to read this. Or, if you can’t be bothered, I’ll quote you some. There’s a big chunk about their beliefs – ‘we believe we should eat stuff we can grow, instead of growing stuff to feed animals and then eat them’; ‘everybody, regardless of spiritual beliefs, birth country, race, gender, sexual preference or colour of their nail polish – is of equal worth’; ‘The reckless pursuit of profits without any consideration for the wellbeing of the planet and the humans that live here should be considered a crime’ – tempered with eclectic daftness: from ‘Bigfoot the legendary sasquach is real’ to admitting it’s ‘not easy to come up with new ideas to put on our packaging’ to an ad for ‘My friend Sara is looking for a boyfriend. She’s 26 and really cool…’)
Notice how that serious stuff is really serious. Without the softening effect of the naive daftness, it could easily come across as preachy.
Here they are doing it again – this time they’re challenging the food industry to label food packaging with the CO2 it generates. Again with that innocuous opening (‘Isn’t it strange…’) and ending with an ‘oops, silly little us’ throwaway comment about how the food industry will have to follow suit ‘now we’ve officially and indiscreetly suggested it on the side of this packet’ while in between dropping another Big Idea:
And then of course there’s the fact that there are just soooo many words. Hands down, Oatly must be the most verbose brand in the world right now. Great honking slabs of text. On and on they go. Reading their stuff over again I realise that I’ve read literally tens of thousands of Oatly words over the last five or so years. Far more than any other brand I come across day to day. I notice that I don’t remember Oatly for pithy headlines or sound-bites, but for their great tsunamis of sentences.
Partly this is because they know their cartons sit on kitchen tables at breakfast time – when we’ll eye-graze on whatever words happen to be in front of our bowls2. And partly it’s just because they’ve got loads and loads to say.
We often say that brands that prattle on needlessly are ‘chatty’. Are Oatly chatty? They certainly say a lot, and have a conversational tone. But every word is carefully chosen.
Perhaps Peak Oatly Word Deluge is this ad from when they launched in New Zealand. It’s an excruciating shaggy dog story3 that breaks all the reasonable definitions of ‘long copy’, and ticks all their boxes: idle pondering. self-referrential and self-aware of brands, advertising, and the billboard itself. Sneaking in serious messages (‘our sustainability report is rather lengthy but at this point we can all agree that a lot of words don’t seem to intimidate you’):
If you make it to the end you’re rewarded with an offer of a freebie. Almost. Because the ad goes on so long it needs a second billboard:
A final thing: I notice that while I admire Oatly’s tone, I don’t particularly warm to it. If Oatly was a real person, I suspect they’d be slightly irritating company. A bit full-on, and always monopolising the conversation. But that’s totally fine, because they’re not a real person, they’re a brand. And while I don’t have a soft spot for their voice in the way I do for say Innocent or Who Gives A Crap, I do always want to hear what they have to say.
OK. Fittingly enough, the Substack Ai has just alerted me that this post is now ‘too long for email’. So, let’s wrap up.
Three drops of goodness to love and learn from:
🥳 Get serious about funny. So much copywriting relies on ‘being funny’. Oatly’s particular brand of humour is ultimately, I think, in a dual mastery of faux naivete and the rambling shaggy dog story. A number of the brands we’ve looked at in previous Tone Knobs have also been funny – and each in a different way. Most writers know their ‘storytelling theory’ these days. Do the same for funny. Study its ways, name its parts. (Start with the brilliant Rule of Three podcast).
🧐 Get a status update. Oatly side-steps hectoring or pontificating with its serious messages by being very self-deprecating. In the world of improv theatre, this is known as ‘playing low status’. We saw last week that the CIA are a high status organisation that own their high status to great effect. Here, Oatly are in fact a high status brand (they’re confident, they know their stuff, they have a quality product and they have the courage of their convictions) but they play low status for beneficial effect. So often, getting a tone of voice just right is about understanding the nuance of status.
🤪 Write more. As writers, we’re almost always honing. Working to word-counts. Editing, tightening, polishing. What would happen if you went in the other direction? Wrote far more. And not just idle filler – but really embraced the journey: wrote way past the point where you’d normally stop, just to see what’s out there?
That’s all! Let me know what you think. Just hit reply. Or use any of the links in the footer below. That footer IS there, isn’t it?
It’s worth noting that my take on Oatly is largely based on my UK/US perspective. In ‘milk-loving Sweden’ the back and forth has been vicious. At one point, Swedish milk giant Arla made an ad full of spoof un-milk brands – pjölk, brölk, sölk, and trölk, – to emphasise their un-mjölk-ness (Swedish for milk). Oatly responded by trademarking Arla’s made-up words and using them on their packaging. Boom. The first-ever recorded case of using your competition’s tone of voice against them?
A Swedish friend of mine tells me that there’s a long tradition in Sweden of milk cartons having loads of detail about random stuff on.