To boycott or not to boycott… that’s the Oatly question
If you’re not too familiar with Oatly, the vegan milk company, you probably will have seen their marketing campaigns that always seem to get people talking, for example, “It’s like Milk but Made for Humans”. Their witty and eye-catching style is what gained them attention and potentially what’s caused their latest backlash.
At the start of this month social media blew up with #boycottoatly and for myself and many others, we were confused… Oatly? The vegan milk company? Known for doing good things? Why?!
It turned out that back in July they sold a $200 million stake to a group of investors who are led by private equity firm Blackstone. Why is this an issue?
Here are the most important factors:
Oatly have sustainability at the core of their business and oat milk is one of the most sustainable plant milks in terms of its impact on the environment – little carbon emissions, land and water use. In contrast, Blackstone has been accused multiple times of investing in companies that link to deforestation.
Blackstone’s CEO has donated $3.7million to Donald Trump's campaign to be re-elected. Someone who in the past has called climate change a hoax (amongst all the other things we could comment on). Of course, we’re all entitled to our own political views…
People are worried that their money will be funding deforestation and impact the environment negatively which conflicts with their reasoning of buying plant milk.
Oatly have defended themselves by saying that Blackstone’s investment will help them to grow their sustainable mission and help expand the company as well as getting Blackstone to invest in sustainability and become ‘greener’.
“We understand that partnering with Blackstone is an unexpected choice, however through this partnership we are able to get the leading player in private equity to invest in sustainability and to align their goals and values with our own which we believe is a massive positive step forward. It also steers capital that would’ve otherwise gone into another commercial investment into sustainability instead, making their investments greener…”
From our industry, we’ve learnt just how much trust is an important characteristic that customers want from brands. There’s a lot said for comfort and confidence in a company; we’ve all experienced a sense of joy when we’ve found a brand that matches our values and consistently matches their claims. In fact, our Dimensions Project found that 53% of people who live life by their values strongly agreed with the statement ‘I am happy’. Creating a strong brand culture comes from being authentic and truthful about all parts of the business, good or bad, sharing the successes and the failures. Transparency is important, there’s a fine line between gaining trust and losing trust and Oatly could have and snapped the string of customer loyalty here.
However, if we flipped this scenario slightly and imagined it was Facebook that had been invested in by Blackstone would the reaction be the same? Would people care as much? It feels like companies known for being less ethical often get brushed off when working with other unethical companies when really, we should be pushing all brands to strive for better core values and contribute to a better world... It feels like Oatly are facing a harsher backlash because of the perception that they’ve gone against their own values and those of many customers who choose their milk. If you talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk otherwise brands risk alienating their customers who are choosing them specifically because they help them live their values.
This doesn't just hold true for the more ethical and fair values but across all values spaces… if someone is connecting with your brand because it’s all about enjoyment and having a good time and suddenly it switches to become serious without any continuity to fun, then that’s going to become an issue.
Some accuse Blackstone of just using Oatly as a way of greenwashing whilst others have said that Oatly care more about money than the loyalty of the customers. Oatly really could be using this as an opportunity to help companies make more sustainable choices but why not explain this from the start? Transparency in business is key and this seems to have left a sour taste.
Until next time,
Shems - Research Assistant at One Minute To Midnight