Making the leap from niche product to mainstream brand

Caitlin Ammann
Caitlin Ammann
February 2 . 3min read

We’ve been thinking a lot about health brands lately, particularly in FMCG, and the trend towards mass appeal of what were previously niche categories. It’s clear that our relationship with food is changing. A decade ago, you wouldn’t find oat milk, almond flour or vegan mince in an average supermarket. Today, the average consumer is for more educated about food and health, and is increasingly opting for plant-based diets, for the good of their own health as well as the planet’s. On top of all the practical reasons, these sorts of dietary changes have also become aspirational. More and more celebrities and influencers on social media are espousing a healthy lifestyle free from the perils of red meat, dairy, sugar or gluten, which has made the trend more attractive to ‘average’ consumers. The results is supermarket shelves overflowing with products which were once reserved for individuals with rare allergies or a cult-like devotion to health.

Supermarket shelves are overflowing with products which were once reserved for individuals with rare allergies or a cult-like devotion to health

We In addition to the consumer and cultural ‘pull’ factor, marketers themselves have been working to broaden the appeal of their specialty products. By definition any brand that appeals exclusively to a unique customer base (e.g. adults with gluten intolerance), can’t appeal to everyone. And as we’ve all learned from Byron Sharp by now, reach and acquisition are critical for brand growth, so finding new and bigger audiences is the best way to ensure survival.

So it stands to reason that a few of these health brands, once relegated to fringe status, are now enjoying greater popularity and appeal. Let’s have a look at one such brand – Oatly – and what marketers can learn from its success.

Don’t be afraid to be the small fish in a big traditional pond
Oatly’s Swedish founders saw an opportunity in the 1990s to cater for people who were allergic to dairy as well as vegans, who at the time were considerably rarer than they are today. As the company grew more alt-milks emerged, targeting the same small pond of dairy-avoidant consumers. So in 2016 Oatly set its sights on a far larger audience pool. They now battle Big Dairy directly in an aim to convince the milk-drinking masses to swap their traditional cow’s milk for a plant-based alternative. Their standout campaign “It’s like milk, but made for humans” – which saw them sued by Sweden’s dairy industry – directly challenged the mainstream choice and put them on path to mass success.

Tap into a tribe
Much of Oatly’s marketing strives to create a sense of being part of or leading a movement; specifically, the “post-milk generation”. By tapping into an emotionally-driven ‘tribe’ rather than a behaviourally-driven segment, Oatly appeals to a broader range of people who are united by a shared mindset. Their most recent campaign ‘Help Dad’ is a prime example of how they leverage this tribe, where young people humorously encourage their un-woke middle-aged dads to give up dairy milk.

Aim for distinctiveness with empowered creatives
Oatly isn’t the first or only oat milk on offer, but it is certainly the most distinctive. Oatly’s tone of voice, personality and visual style have become unmistakable. This is due in part to the role creativity plays within its corporate culture; namely, as its heart. According to CCO John Schoolscraft, the internal creative team is involved is every aspect of the business (bar finance), eliminating walls between functions. This creates a culture where seemingly ‘crazy’ ideas, which may never have made it past a junior brand manager in a traditional structure, flourish.

Get your product into the hands of your audience
Physical availability is one of the most important ingredients to growth. After creating a special blend designed to froth, Oatly began distributing to cafes in the US, sticking to its tribal strategy by selecting boutique local cafes the post-milk generation is likely to frequent. After hiring a few themselves, Oatly began marketing directly to baristas to secure recommendations at point of purchase through their ‘Hey Barista!’ content series and social channels.

If you’re managing a specialty brand with a very specific audience, whether health-related or not, consider how you might apply a piece of Oatly’s winning formula to break free from niche and make a play for mainstream, and unlock long-term growth.

Caitlin Ammann

Caitlin Ammann
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