How marketing is fuelling the ‘post-milk generation’

As the plant-based alternative milk market continues to surge in popularity, a host of brands are fighting to carve out their own niche with quirky campaigns, strong visual identities and compelling messages about the future of the planet.

Swedish oat milk brand Oatly, the self-styled leader of the ‘post-milk generation’.

It is fair to say you know a trend has gone mainstream when it makes it onto primetime TV.

The 2018 finalist of the BBC’s Apprentice, Camilla Ainsworth, was inches away from scooping a £250,000 investment from Lord Alan Sugar for her alternative-milk brand M+LKPLUS. Despite losing out on the big prize, Ainsworth announced in late December she was rolling out her brand of salted honeycomb hazelnut milk nationwide through health food retailer Holland & Barrett.

Throughout the show Ainsworth talked up the size of the alt-milk market and she wasn’t exaggerating. Some 19% of Brits drank plant-based milk in the three months to February 2018, rising to 26% of consumers aged 16 to 24 and 27% of consumers aged 25 to 34, according to Mintel.

The number consuming dairy milk is undoubtedly far larger, with 86% of British consumers drinking animal milk during the same period, rising to 92% of consumers aged 55 to 64. However, the Mintel statistics suggest there is a considerable overlap, with 68% of people who drink plant-based milks also consuming cows’ milk.

The most recent figures available suggest almond milk was the strongest performer in 2017, with sales up 9.1% from 2016 to £84m. This was followed by sales of soya milk, which reached £80m in 2017, up 1.3% on the year before.

Sales of coconut milk reached £27m, up 17.4% from 2016, while rice milk grew by 9% to £10m in 2017. However, oat milk experienced the biggest surge in growth during 2017, up 66.7% to £20m.

Mintel puts the rising consumption of alt-milks down to the healthy halo effect around nuts, the popularity of exclusion diets and the buzz about plant proteins.

The benefits were also felt at Waitrose, where 25% of its milk range is now made up of non-dairy options. Sales of almond milk were up 26%, coconut milk rose by 60% and oat milk rocketed by 116%, according to the 2018/19 Waitrose Food and Drink Report.

The popularity of alternative milks has inspired drinks giants to muscle in on the act. In March, smoothie brand Innocent launched its first range of plant-based milks in almond, oat, hazelnut and coconut flavours. Meanwhile French food company Danone, owner of Alpro, plans to triple its worldwide plant-based sales to €5bn (£4.49bn) by 2025 by accelerating its core plant-based beverages and yogurt categories.

While some brands play on the health benefits of alt-milks, others want to shine a light on the compelling environmental factors. Swedish alt-milk brand Oatly, for example, is on a mission to fix what it describes as a “broken food system”, leading a “paradigm shift” from meat and dairy to vegetarian lifestyles.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm where we’re seeing veganism, flexitarianism and people eating less meat,” notes Oatly creative and strategic director for international markets, Michael Lee. “It’s no longer a fringe trend anymore. We’re seeing it reflected as a shift in society and the numbers support that.”

READ MORE: How brands can tap into the ‘flexitarian’ trend

The ‘post-milk generation’

Founded in the 1990s, Oatly has carved out a leading position in the oat milk space in the UK, which became its second largest market in 2017. Leaders of the self-styled ‘post-milk generation’, Oatly has strived to create the sense of being part of a movement in a bid to encourage people to move away from dairy.

To power this movement, Oatly embarked on a total rebrand in 2014. “We said we want this brand to have a very homemade feel as if Toni Peterson our CEO was just sitting in his basement creating the packaging by himself,” Lee explains.

To roll out its new look Oatly started sharing its oat milk with top baristas across Europe and the US. The company was determined not to approach the launch like a “normal FMCG company”, where someone walks in wearing “a terrible suit”, holding a box of product and says ‘I’ll be back in a week to take your order’.

“We hired baristas, people who spoke the lingo and understood that the whole culture around coffee that was just exploding. The fact that people tried our product in a great café with a perfectly poured cappuccino or latte was just the best way to sample our milk,” Lee explains.

Oatly Kings Cross
The recent Oatly take over of Kings Cross underground station.

Central to the rebrand was an understanding that the Oatly tone of voice “flexes on the nonsensical”. This became apparent in October when the alt-milk brand brought its ‘Like milk but made for humans’ campaign to the UK with a takeover of London King’s Cross Underground station. Back in 2014 the campaign raised eyebrows in Sweden, causing the Swedish Dairy Association to sue Oatly over claims it was scaring consumers into thinking milk was dangerous.

Lee describes the campaign as provoking discussion and encouraging people to confront the fact that cows’ milk is for calves and Oatly is designed for humans, all the while delivering the message in a humorous way.

“What’s interesting is that once you get to know Oatly and you look below the surface you can see the depths of purpose and mission we have,” says Lee. “It just becomes lame when you start preaching it in your communications.”

It’s always about taking a holistic approach, so if you see us on our social, you see us on the tube, you see us sampling, everything looks the same.

Natasha Harden, Rebel Kitchen

Prior to the rebrand a big shift had already occurred in the marketing team. Upon joining the company in 2012, global chief creative director John Schoolcraft fired Oatly’s entire marketing department. Now all the creative directors come from an advertising background, which the company believes helps them fully understand what it is like to sell an idea.

Oatly also introduced its own in-house creative department to write its briefs and approve its work, an approach Lee likens to the “inmates running the asylum”.

“That is the only way you could get away with buying a 400sq m billboard in Copenhagen with the words ‘You actually read this? Success’. No marketing director would ever approve that,” he laughs.

“It would be like ‘Where are the bullet points? Where’s our USP?’. The effect of that on people is quite tangible. You come across as a brand that is very different. You’re actually achieving the thing that all those other marketing directors want, but in a way that they never would.”

Making a splash

Getting on consumers’ radars is key to standing out against competitors in both the dairy and plant-based milk sectors.

Oatly’s strategy is to be at events, openings, festivals and generally places where its millennial target audience are already having a good time. The brand “cringes” at being asked to do tastings in what Lee describes as “stale” supermarket environments.

It is, however, a big fan of outdoor advertising, which Lee describes as “one of the last media you really cannot avoid”. The focus is on having a massive impact at street level by buying every inch of space on a street, rather than being diluted across a larger geography.

“It creates that sense that you’re in the midst of this comic book which is unfolding all over the street and even if you don’t read everything you have the sense this brand is doing some odd things and maybe that’s enough to get people to check us out,” Lee adds.

Out-of-home advertising is also of interest to UK plant-based milk brand Rebel Kitchen. Head of marketing, Natasha Harden, estimates that each of the brand’s posters is seen around 30 times by five million people on average per campaign. This all feeds into Rebel Kitchen’s goals to grow the brand, increase penetration and reach as many new customers as possible.

“It’s so important that we’re constantly engaging with consumers. It’s always about taking a holistic approach, so if you see us on our social, you see us on the tube, you see us sampling, everything looks the same,” she explains.

“People in London are exposed to 10,000 brands a day and so to have cut through is near impossible, but it works if everything you’re doing is saying the same thing and pushing in the same direction.”

Harden describes Rebel Kitchen’s visual identity as a key focus for the brand. When designing the packaging for its Mylk range of plant-based alternatives, which launched in 2017, Harden was keen to reject the ‘splashy’ high colour style of the mainstream coconut water or alt-dairy market.

For its Mylk range Rebel Kitchen opted for a monochrome colour palette to stand out.

“It’s very bright, colourful and overwhelming. We don’t need to be that colourful, it’s not about who can shout the loudest,” she states.

“Monochrome is an amazing colour palette, it’s very on-brand for us in terms of how we connect all of our ranges into one brand. For our one-litre pack we used dairy milk as our main category to measure ourselves against. It’s very simplistic packaging. You’ve got red, blue and green, and the majority of the packet is white because dairy milk comes in a clear container.”

The philosophy at Rebel Kitchen is that while plant-based milks are currently an alternative, the taste should not be sacrificed. Nor does it position itself as a “preachy brand” telling people not to drink dairy. In fact, realising that a lot of alt-milks can flavour the taste of coffee or tea, Rebel Kitchen’s product development team broke down the taste of milk into five different taste profiles and then built it back up using plant-based ingredients.

“That’s where we see our positioning within the plant-based industry, we’re trying to give you the best possible version of what the real thing would be,” Harden adds.

READ MORE: How ‘niche’ lifestyle brands are increasing their mass market appeal

Packing a punch

Plenish started life in 2012 as an organic, cold pressed juice brand founded by former Condé Nast executive Kara Rosen. The brand rapidly grew a fanbase of early adopters of plant-based lifestyles, but is now seeking to expand beyond the direct-to-consumer nutrition and fitness market with its nut milk range.

To achieve this, Plenish recruited former co-founder and strategy director of Mother Design, Dan Broadwood, as marketing director in January. Broadwood worked on the Plenish visual identity while still at Mother, where he tried to create a design that would enable the brand to move into adjacent categories without losing its sense of self. The look is hooked on a vertical logo and use of bright colours, seeking to tap into the aesthetic of lifestyle brands such as Apple and Nike.

“One of the things you see a lot in this space is this sort of handmade, homespun style that characterises a lot of the wellness craft food world,” explains Broadwood.

“We very deliberately made the decision that we didn’t want to be a brand like that. This is a very modern, progressive, cutting edge kind of brand, that’s why we didn’t use the very soft natural hues and illustrations. It’s all big, bright bold colours, sharp lines and a really strident tone of voice.”

Plenish’s visual identity is all about bold colour and sophistication.

Coming from an ad agency background, Broadwood believes in the power of mass advertising to raise awareness. However, rather than using advertising in a “self-indulgent” way to talk about the brand, Plenish wants its ads to challenge society’s relationship with food.

“If you look at the recent studies by the University of Oxford, the single biggest thing you can do to reduce your impact on the planet is to switch to a plant-based diet. Bigger that buying a Tesla, recycling everything you ever touch or never using plastic again,” says Broadwood.

“That’s not a message that’s out there and it’s not a message that people know about. Truthfully, it’s not a message a lot of people want to hear.”

To help break down the barriers, Plenish has integrated a calculator on its website that consumers can use to work out the environmental impact if they switched from dairy milk to almond milk. In this way Plenish takes a dual-pronged health and environmental stance, using its current ‘Start Somewhere’ campaign as a platform to make a positive change.

The fact that people tried our product in a great café with a perfectly poured cappuccino or latte was just the best way to sample our milk.

Michael Lee, Oatly

“Part of the reason why we’re naturally focused more on the environment is standing out as a brand. There’s a lot of messaging and communication out there about diet and health, it’s sometimes very confusing for people to know what they’re supposed to be eating and when,” Broadwood adds.

“Our feeling is rather than add to that cacophony of noise perhaps we could talk to people in a different way by focusing more on the environmental impact and using the health benefits as a secondary message.”

Choice is king

The approach at Rude Health is all about nourishment and enjoying foods that can be made from your store cupboard. The brand started life in 2006 when co-founder and marketing director Camilla Barnard joined forces with her husband and another couple to launch the Ultimate Muesli, made with 23 ingredients.

The idea for alt-milks came along in 2013 when, doing tastings of its cereals in-store, the team started to get requests from shoppers for non-dairy milks. Looking at the supermarket aisles Barnard realised that the ‘free from’ products out there were full of additives, which felt like a compromise.

Rude Health is committed to connecting with its consumers in real life at events and festivals.

Based on a gut feel this was the direction the market was headed, Rude Health rolled out a range of oat, brown rice and almond milks, focusing on making the packaging as attractive as possible to stand out on the shelves.

“At the time we could have done almond, coconut or hazelnut and we had to pick one. We picked almond on the advice of the Planet Organic and Sainsbury’s buyers, not because it was selling very much, but because it was growing fastest. We took the right advice,” Barnard explains.

Milks are now Rude Health’s best-selling category and with tastes becoming more sophisticated there is heightened consumer interest in unusual flavours such as peanut and tiger nut. Crucially, Barnard believes the brand’s position is unique in that it does not demonise diary, but is instead all about quality.

“The way the food industry has gone, weirdly, is you have to be for or against things and I don’t know where that’s come from,” she questions. “We’re not telling you what you should have. We’re not saying swap it, it’s what works for you.”

Focused on building a connection with its wider community, Rude Health prefers to meet consumers face-to-face with sampling at events and festivals, building up strong word of mouth advocacy. Every Rude Health product is designed with a focus on enjoyment, beautiful packaging and resisting the urge to preach to consumers. Barnard is frankly concerned about the high level of anxiety around food and fears over whether something is ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’.

“I don’t want that,” she states. “We have to eat three times a day and to not enjoy that, and have a bad relationship with food, is a major disaster in your life. To be able to sit down and enjoy your meal is a great starting point.”