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Oatly’s creative boss on why he could never be a CMO

Oatly oat milkKnown for its distinctive product and advertising, alt-milk brand Oatly does not have a nominal marketing department. Chief creative officer John Schoolcraft told the audience at Kantar’s Ignite event today (14 March) that on joining the business in 2012 he asked then-CEO Toni Petersson to “kill the marketing department”.

Oatly has instead chosen to “put a bunch of creatives in the centre” of its business.

“I could never be a CMO,” he told Marketing Week. In past organisations he recalled finding the marketing department obstructed his creativity.

We don’t have guardrails. But if you look at the brand, there’s some consistency in its inconsistency.

John Schoolcraft, Oatly

“We just don’t spend a lot of time doing business, you know, like marketing business,” said Schoolcraft. “We streamline it and keep it simple. We spend time trying to understand people and make things for people.”

Rather than briefing an agency to produce creative work, Schoolcraft believes putting a creative team at the centre allows them to produce ads and content with much better knowledge of the business and context.

“We’re in the middle of marketing meetings, sales meetings, innovation meetings, product development meetings, supply chain meetings,” he said.

This positions the creative team to better “solve business problems”, Schoolcraft claimed, rather than relying on collaboration with external agencies who spend time divided across different accounts.

‘Consistently inconsistent’

Oatly’s unconventional approach to marketing also sees it impose a ‘no-rules’ rule upon its brand.

“We don’t talk about a red thread,” Schoolcraft said. “We don’t have guardrails. But if you look at the brand, there’s some consistency in its inconsistency.”

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The brand combines “scientific and fact-based” information, such as putting its products’ “climate footprint” on the front of its packaging, with what Schoolcraft termed “nonsensical and stupid” communications, like advertising for a date for one of its staff on its packs.

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There’s a need to do the unexpected to keep consumers engaged, he stated, especially with a product like oat milk “that is not that interesting inherently”.

Schoolcraft criticised marketers’ obsession with testing advertising and looking for results before they launch creative.

“I’m sure there is a time and a place for tailoring your online little ads…But we’re working much more on a long-term perspective,” he said.

He gave the example of Oatly’s campaign to persuade the EU to change its mind on how it labels milk alternatives.

“You can’t test your way to that,” he claimed. The greatest test for the success of a brand’s ads is how it sells on shelf, he stated.

The importance of trust

Trust between Schoolcraft, his team and senior leadership has been essential for Oatly’s success, he stated.

Schoolcraft described how he and former CEO Petersson would have meetings where they would be unafraid to contradict each other and say the other was wrong. While some might be scared off by this head-on approach, Schoolcraft claimed this way of working helped the brand arrive at some of its best work.

Indeed, Schoolcraft and Petersson were “best friends” before the former even joined Oatly.

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Speaking during the earlier panel, Schoolcraft claimed brands are holding back growth by “taking themselves too seriously” and thinking of themselves as brands rather than “real things”.

He did, however, acknowledge that Oatly is unique in its set-up.

“I’m not saying I have the only way to do this,” said Schoolcraft. “If your CEO is very good at marketing and understands what you’re doing, if you’re allowed to make mistakes, you can do something that’s really great.”

He pointed to the likes of Guinness, which at Diageo has a “completely different set-up” and still produces fresh, engaging work.

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