It is always prudent to learn from success stories from anywhere in the world. There is nothing new under the sun so other people’s experiences are learning opportunities. Is it not amazing that despite the different contexts, geo-locations, specializations, and circumstances, the principles to success are the same? They might not take the same shape but look closely you will notice there really is nothing new under the sun. Today I want us to explore the success of Oatly, a Swedish-based global titan of alternatives to dairy products from oats. You will walk away from this article with a solid lesson on marketing plus more.


Oatly struggled to grow for roughly 2 decades. During all those years they could not figure out why they were not growing. Sure enough, they were realizing annual revenue in the millions of US dollars. However, there was stagnancy; little to zero revenue growth in many years. It was literally as if they had hit a ceiling they could not break past. What was wrong then? Come to think of it, their product range was great. You may not appreciate this but so many people, especially in developed nations, are lactose-intolerant.

Oatly had ingeniously come up with a milk alternative that had no lactose. They were amongst the pioneering brands to do that. They even added vitamins and other essential nutrients. This made their product a perfect fit for health-conscious folk. This was the main selling point in their marketing drives. So why was there stagnancy despite having a seemingly superior and unique value proposition? It turned out later that the error was in their marketing strategy.

Their Multi-Layered Error

For all those years they were hung up on the wrong marketing strategy. Oatly did not realize that there were several things they had overlooked all along. One, several formidable brands were offering plant-based alternatives – solid competition! Two, already established dairy brands were into lactose-free milk – solid competition yet again! Three, they were operating in a market that was just so small. Their niche was at most 15 per cent of the whole dairy industry or market. This means their sales hit a ceiling simply because their niche was small. Four, they were coming in as a generalized brand so they could not stand out. Five, they heavily relied on competitive pricing to attract customers. This was not a good game plan as it led to stress on their profitability. So this was their 5-part error that was causing the prolonged stagnancy for 20 years.

The Shift

When it dawned on them they knew it was time for a paradigm shift. They had realized that the lactose-intolerant market pool was too limited. Thus they shifted to the vegan market pool. They chose to shift by riding on the health-consciousness trend. They figured that vegans were big on health and sustainability. This meant that of course, vegans would buy their oat milk. However, a more strategic shift would be to become a sustainable lifestyle brand. That way they would beyond just selling oat milk.

What They Did Next

In rolling out the shift they started by redefining their branding and packaging. They made sure to distinguish themselves from other brands in the industry. The thing is most other brands had more or less the same type of packaging. Oatly decided to think outside the box and come up with unique packaging.

Next, they brought in sustainable alternatives and approaches to what other dairy brands were offering. They were downplaying cow milk saying they offered something better – that was the focus of their marketing. This made them stand out and more preferable due to the lack of sustainability in most competitor brands.

Another unique thing they did was to make the CEO the face of the brand. This is not usually the case for most brands and this made Oatly stand out even more. They also concentrated most of their distribution in coffee shops rather than supermarkets. Why you might wonder? This was meant to drive faster conversion since coffee shops would recommend Oatly to their patrons.

They also spiced up their marketing by investing in the putting up of murals at strategic outdoor spots. So good was the overall strategy that they got invested by influential figures such as Oprah Winfrey, Natalie Portman (a famous actress), and Howard Schultz (Starbucks CEO). This again was an additional boost to their brand authority.

All of this paid off because afterwards, they went for an IPO with a valuation of US$10 billion in 2020. In 2012 they had done roughly US$27 million in revenue. Yet in 2020, they brought in over US$420 million in revenue – a 1456 per cent jump in 8 years. This is clear proof of how the shift turned around their fortunes. The lessons from this story are pertinent for any business or startup, especially here in Zimbabwe. Always be sure that you have correctly defined and are focusing on the right ideal customer (or buyer) profile. Do not be rigid with your niching; growth might necessitate the need for a change in niching. Selling a lifestyle is way more profitable than selling a mere product or service. Creativity, thinking outside the box, and daring to be different can pay off. These are some of the powerful lessons you must draw from this Oatly success story.