The market-leading alt milk is making plant-based food mainstream with its latest campaign, The New Norm&Al Show. Creative director Michael Lee tells Laura Swinton about the egalitarian, Scandinavian mindset that’s made the brand such a creative juggernaut around the world
To understand Oatly, you need to understand the Scandinavian ideal of ‘Jantelagen’ - the Law of Jante. Formalised by the satirical Norwegian-Danish author Aksel Sandermose, these social ‘laws’ go deep in Sweden, where the oat milk brand originated. Showing about oneself is verboten, and tall poppies will find themselves swiftly lopped down to a more egalitarian size.
According to Michael Lee, who is a creative director at Oatly’s notorious Department of Mind Control, explains: “There is a humility to our brand, which comes from our Swedish heritage and the idea of ‘Jantelagen’ which is basically never think too much of yourself. Which we don’t. When we go out into the world, we just get excited that people actually want to talk to us about something as boring as an oat drink.”
Indeed, the brand’s playfully frank tone of voice balances the silliness with a straight-talking pragmatism and it’s a combination that’s made its outdoor campaigns some of the most talked-about ads within the marketing industry. And though its roots are very much Swedish, it’s a voice that’s found resonance and relevance internationally. It’s the top selling oat milk in the US, Germany and the UK - and at last year’s Super Bowl the brand scored a touchdown with a recycled TV ad that had not even been made for the US market.
When it comes to translating that voice to different cultures and languages, the team focuses on attitude and personality and approaches each country on its own merits. That means there’s no hard and fast rule. “It is very tricky. So the voice flexes from country to country because every language processes attitude differently, and it is that attitude that really underpins the voice. As long as that attitude is there, then we’re cool.”
But as powerful as that tonality is, this isn’t something that the internal team has created rigid frameworks around.
“You can say that we’re more of a voice than a brand,” says Michael. “There is no strategic document or ‘brand guideline’ because it always changes and always remains the same. I was listening to a podcast the other day and someone was talking about comedy that sits at the intersection of smart and stupid, and I thought that felt pretty close to us. Probably more on the stupid side though.”
That intersection of smart and stupid is at the core of Oatly’s latest campaign, THE NEW NORM&AL SHOW, an online flatmate sitcom with a puppet-y twist. In a bid to bring dairy alternatives and plant-based eating from the health-conscious fringe to the mainstream, they’ve deliberately designed the characters and vibe of the show to be approachable and eye-catching, unusual but strangely familiar.
“Our mission has always been to encourage people to move away from dairy and embrace more plant-based options - something we made a clear stance on during our Ditch Milk campaign a few years back. With THE NEW NORM&AL SHOW we’re showcasing the experience of two dorky oat drink carton puppets, who just like the rest of us are trying to navigate their way through the plant-based world. We still want people to ditch milk, that hasn’t changed. But if they can’t ditch milk all of the time then that’s okay. Our puppets Norm & Al just want to encourage people to live a more plant-based lifestyle and to do so in whatever way works for them.”
This campaign was created in The Department of Mind Control, in tandem with production company Nexus Studios and director Conor Finnegan. The making of the campaign provides an insight into the unconventional and collaborative way The Department likes to work. And in their open-minded approach to taking on ideas and input from other artists and creators, it seems that the spirit of Jantelagan also informs how Oatly works as much as it shapes the output.
“We chose to work with Nexus Studios because of their stellar reputation in the film and puppetry space. It was a collaborative effort from start to finish,” says Michael. “We wrote the initial scripts but then ping-ponged ideas back and forth. Even the cast got involved and were encouraged to adlib and improvise their lines (some of which ended up in the final execution). This helped keep the performances energetic and fresh.”
It was that unconventional and creative-first set up that appealed to Michael. Having known CEO Toni Petersson and global CCO John Schoolcraft before they went to Oatly, Michael had watched their work at the brand from afar. “I had always kept an eye on the crazy stuff they were doing from the side-lines until one day, John called me up and asked if I wanted to start a war with the dairy industry all over the world, and I was like, ‘sure that sounds cool’,” says Michael.
And that 'war with the dairy industry' isn't just a glib quip - Oatly's upfront, straight-talking ads have certainly been noticed by the dairy lobby. In Sweden the dairy lobby attempted to sue the brand in 2014 - and though they were successful, Oatly made hay, taking out newspaper ads around the judgement. And as a result, sales grew 45%.
That war is being fought on multiple fronts - against the dairy industry but also against marketing convention. In fact, the brand doesn’t have a marketing department at all. “Oatly is led by creatives and our work isn’t filtered and diluted by a marketing department, because we don’t have one,” explains Michael. “We create our own strategies, our own briefs and deliver our own work. We even approve it ourselves. Nothing really gets in the way. So because we work differently, the work feels different. Hopefully.”
While the creatives are bringing the brand to the world, it turns out that Oatly is an alchemical blend of science and creativity. Its roots are in academia, and the business itself is not a Johnny-come-lately newcomer. It was founded by Rickard Öste and his brother Björn Öste in the early ‘90s using research from Lund University. And that background gives substance to the silliness. “Our academic and scientific heritage is the foundation for the company and gives our voice its credibility. It allows us to go out into the world and just kind of be that brand that people want to hang out with, and once they get to know us they tend to dig a bit deeper into our commitment to science and sustainability and nutrition and health and that’s when people start to become really intrigued with us.”
Over the four and a half years that Michael has been with the Department of Mind Control he’s had the chance to do all sorts of provocative creative things in the name of challenging Big Dairy - and all throughout bringing that highly distinctive attitude to open-minded milk drinkers around the globe. So, what has he enjoyed most?
“Really, just having fun with the voice of the brand and having the freedom and responsibility to be naively fearless about the stuff we do, from petitioning governments, to writing nonsensical headlines that most marketing directors would kill and all the while acting in a consistently inconsistent way that for some reason seems to resonate with people out in the world… yeah that sounds about right.”