The Growth Of The Plant-Based Milk Category

Grocery Gazette reached out for my take on the growth of the plant-based milk category, the success of Oatly and why Marketing might be the driving force behind the consumer behaviour change. Below are my full answers.

I offer my take on:

  • Why Oatly has become the market leader
  • Generational shifts and disconnects impacting quicker adoption
  • why the alternatives aka plant-based milk have such a long way to go
  • Why many forget that intolerance is why people have to make the switch.

Read the Grocery Gazette full article here

While demand for plant-based milk is already growing, do you think that rising dairy milk prices will encourage more shoppers to opt for milk alternative products?

No, I believe we are very much still in the ‘try phase’, many are just ready to try plant-based alternatives, before the mid-term trial phase (trial it to see if you can replace milk in tea’s, coffees, cereal and cooking) and then the longer-term ‘replace phase’. 

Although the price of dairy milk increasing will nudge some to try more plant-based milk, there is still a higher price difference (on average plant-based is still twice the price per litre) and many won’t break long-term habits based on small price increases. Individual values and motivations for switching will be based on price. 

Convenience wins, alongside I’ve always eaten or drunk “milk” will trump price increases. 

Are plant-based milks growing in popularity for sustainable reasons, ethical reasons, or financial reasons? Or is it the perfect storm?

Many will have switched for intolerances, and some switchers for sustainable and ethical reasons, however, there will be more switching for environmental reasons in the near future, the more momentum around environmental concerns. There needs to be more education and more documentaries that hit home rather than a few celebrated Marketing campaigns and stockists picking up some brands. 

Younger audiences are rightly teaching those around as they switch personally and this will have a steady long-term positive impact on the plant-based providers. The unfortunate truth, the fittest always survive, these actions won’t accelerate the move quickly enough for most plant-based brands to survive. 

I would typically suggest that plant-based milk has been on a consistent two-decade journey, growing the alternative market has been somewhat successful, while a couple of brands have bubbled to the top and helped to accelerate the market. Oatly has been in the UK since 2013 and a decade on has become the brand of plant-based milk. I question whether plant-based milk could ever be cheap enough to help those struggling financially to make the leap. 

An important trend, there are major health concerns around the high sugar and rapeseed oil content in oat milk and I expect this to become a potential Marketing battleground for plant-based milks to fight over the next two years. 

Do you think plant-based milk could eventually overtake dairy milk in the amount of UK consumers purchasing the products?

I struggle to see dairy being overtaken by plant-based milk. We have at least two generations who have lived their whole lives with dairy milk and it is a staple in their life and still make comments about non-dairy-based milk. We are at least a decade away from this change.

Like in most Marketing and Advertising, the storytelling has been creative, strong and memorable from alternative products and will have to continue for many years to come for the mass consumer to understand and get to a place to consider replacing their dairy-based products not just milk. 

If we were to revisit this in five years’ time, there will be some more market share taken by non-dairy-based milk, however, not the huge double-digit leaps many have been predicting.  

Plant-based milk brands such as Oatly have pushed some bold marketing campaigns in the past. Do you think this is the best way to approach the public sector in promoting plant-based milk? Are there any key stand out’s that you’ve seen across campaigns that are particularly useful in growing the demand? What more do you think plant-based milk brands can do to support this growth?

For every category, you need an outlier who has a strong point of view and a brand that goes against everything the standard consumer knows. You become the hero or embrace the villain, Oatly makes you choose sides in almost everything they did and that was some of the savviest ways to market their products. 

Oatly was super smart in targeting the barista (within speciality coffee shops) as the hero and enabling them to build coffee around their milk brand, this helped the barista to support them as a brand and support the try plant-based milk drive. 

My recommendation would be for Plant-based milk brands to join the It’s “like milk but made for humans” tactical play from Oatly and really help drive home one important cross generational message. 

Mass advertising is too expensive for most of the smaller brands and international brands entering the market struggle to make a dent, therefore many will have to stand out with big-bang campaigns or super creative multi-channel campaigns. 

It wouldn’t surprise me if there is some planning in creating a branded chain of non-dairy coffee shops. That’s what I would recommend.

Next time you are in line at your favourite big brand coffee shop listen to people’s orders, no one yet orders an Oatly latte, it’s an oat latte or coconut cappuccino, once we hear the brand names we know we have seen a huge shift. 

Last week, it was announced that the government would ban dairy descriptor names on plant-based brands which will result in many products having to be removed from supermarket shelves. How damaging do you think this could be to the sector? Do you think marketing of this will become even more important now than ever before?

When it comes to distribution and availability it is going to have a short-term impact on the sector. Many brands are going to have to create bigger campaigns and convince stockists to place them in different aisles under different category branding.  

Marketing is going to be essential, many will have to retreat back and consider how they fight back for longer-term success. In this current macro environment, it will be a quick copy paste of the first mover and the market will align. 

Some important questions to ask yourself as a Brand and Product lead is, what is going to make us stand out and offer something unique? Is it a new direct-to-consumer offering? A new reframing or rebrand? 

How do you re-market ourselves into distribution? 

One factor is the standard consumer won’t be affected by the change, those impacted by intolerance(s) will want to find their preferred brand and its stockists, brands have the opportunity to build new features and ways to connect deeper than just the product they buy. 

Many brands will have to be proactive in building the category (or is in some cases a new category) again (not just their product) and be provocative (call out the issue or call out how they have been removed) to really land their missions. 

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