Oatly Makes Food Science Look Oh-So Delicious

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 07/01/2019 | 4 Minute Read

Once upon a time, ordering a coffee was a simple process. 

One cup of joe, maybe some sugar, and then, if you’d like, some cream or milk. Now, you have oodles of options in the milk category alone, from skim to whole to soy to almond. And if you’re lucky you may see another dairy alternative popping up on cafe menus soon, if you haven’t noticed it already: oat milk. 

While oat milk’s popularity is just gaining momentum here in the US, it got its start in Sweden back in the early 1990s. Rickard Öste, a food scientist at Lund University, researched options for a milk replacement that could provide a more sustainable solution and also be suitable for those with lactose intolerance. Essentially, he discovered a way to make the fibers of oats into a liquid, and shortly afterward he founded Oatly.

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So why didn’t oat milk get added to cafe menus back in the 90s when it first became available? 

“Design-wise, it was sort of in the lactose intolerance category, so it wasn’t really considered food for everyone,” explained Lars Elfman, Design Director at Oatly. So when Toni Petersson was appointed CEO of Oatly in 2012—nearly two decades after the invention of oat milk—the first thing he did was hire one of the Creative Directors to turn the brand around.

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Oatly naturally fell into the alternative milk category, but Lars admitted there wasn’t a brand around their product. So rather than have consumers view them as a food and drink company, they wanted to make Oatly a lifestyle company. With this in mind, a packaging redesign would be the first big task.

“The packaging before looked terrible,” confessed Lars, “but everything in the store at the time was terrible. So we found it easy to do something different.” 

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Oatly began as a small, Swedish company, so they wanted the packs to reflect that. It needed to feel wholesome, but at the same time not clichéd (i.e., no cows prancing through green pastures or white splashes of milk on the packaging). The brand also found itself in the unique position of being an industrial product created thanks to science, so as a food tech company, the packaging had to give it that “human” quality.

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“We are into food science and how to make food for the masses without ruining nature at the same time,” said Lars. “Everyone wants to eat natural and clean, but science is often perceived as the opposite of that.” 

The team certainly had their work cut out for them, after all, when they started they were an ad agency, not a design company. “I hadn’t made food packaging before,” confessed Lars. Still, they looked at the challenge as an opportunity to do something different—so different, in fact, that when they first approached Tetra Pak about printing the design they’d created, the packaging company initially said no. “They looked at it and were like, ‘You’re not going to be happy.’ They were worried about smearing and about some of the large dots becoming too big. So we bought a big roll of paper to have them do a test print first.”

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The result? It came out perfectly. Lars said they’d done something no one else had done before, and that Tetra Pak had worked wonders with their packaging—although it was a good learning process for Oatly overall.

In going against the expectations of what food packaging should be (as well as what other brands gravitate towards), Lars and the team instead positioned Oatly as a handmade product. The brand’s packaging has a screen printed appearance with a more “scruffy background,” as he described it, making it feel like a custom crafted beverage and just another milk alternative.

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“I’ve always been quite into type,” Lars added. “I love hand-drawn type, so I drew everything myself except for the small font.”

And while Oatly is a Swedish brand, most people won’t look at the packaging and realize it. There aren’t any particularly Swedish or Scandinavian design elements, and that’s for a good reason. While you’ll find the full Oatly product line in Sweden with no problem (from a spreadable cheese and “oatgurt,” to cold brew lattes), the brand wants to look beyond their home country. In the US, for example, you’ll soon find their non-dairy frozen desserts in stores, and you can even nab Oatly products in other parts of Europe and in select countries in Asia. Their target market was never just Sweden.

“We didn’t want to make the design to look that way,” Lars explained. “Yes, we are a Swedish company, but we have global ambitions.”

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