F*ck Oatly? Why the latest ‘honest’ brand campaign flunks my PR sniff test
Swedish drinks manufacturer Oatly has finally confirmed the obvious: that it’s responsible for a website called F*ck Oatly. Created last October, this is a “time machine of all things bad about an oat drink company”, listing some of the biggest controversies surrounding the brand.
They range from TikTok videos claiming that Oatly’s products contain toxic ingredients to calls for a boycott after private equity house Blackstone took a 10% stake in the business. Environmental campaigners had said that Blackstone’s alleged links to deforestation in the Amazon were undermining Oatly’s mission to cut carbon emissions from dairy production.
“We’re not the type of company to hide from moments like these,” the site explains. “We see all the negative headlines, posts and petitions as an inevitable consequence of trying to create positive societal change.”
The firm’s executive vice-president for global comms and public affairs, Brendan Lewis, adds: “We’ve said everything we need to say about certain things, so why not put it all in one place?”
If you have a problem with that, you can follow links to a series of other websites – fckfckoatly.com, fckfckfckoatly.com and so on – to register your disapproval with a click of a button (as thousands of people already have done).
I always find it interesting when companies take risks. And this campaign’s confrontational tone is consistent with that of Oatly’s “anti-advertising” branding. For instance, when Swedish dairy farmers sued the firm for using a “misleading” slogan – “Milk, but made for humans” – it responded with a campaign entitled “Are you stupid?”
But, even though I’m squarely in Oatly’s target market of eco-conscious, flat-white-sipping urban millennials (this article was written with the aid of three Barista Edition Oat Drink-topped coffees), something about this campaign feels distasteful to me.
Maybe it’s because the snark is directed at those who generally share the firm’s progressive views.
Yes, it might be ridiculous to compare selling oat residue as pig feed to supporting slavery – as some vegan activists apparently did – but it also strikes me as petty to create a whole page devoted to having the last word in an Instagram comment war. Although such accusations are irritating if you run a firm’s social media account, they’re usually best ignored.
Then there’s the time the firm sued independent oat milk producer Glebe Farm, which makes a drink called PureOaty. Oatly seemingly wants to depict the resulting outrage as the work of keyboard warriors, ignorant of trademark law, who blindly backed the underdog against it. Even though Glebe Farm won the case, F*ck Oatly shows no empathy for its owners, who were hit by legal fees totalling about £300,000.
It’s also interesting to note what the website omits. Last year, for instance, the UK Advertising Standards Authority ruled that advertising by Oatly had misled consumers about the brand’s environmental credentials.
Despite Oatly’s claims that this is a new approach to marketing, it’s not even the first time that a millennial-focused brand has done something of this nature. In 2021, buy-now-pay-later giant Klarna “set the record straight” on a glitzy website that countered “misconceptions” about the company. While not as funny as Oatly’s version, it took a similar approach to addressing its critics. (Klarna’s valuation plunged by 85% a year later.)
But I think the biggest problem I have with F*ck Oatly might be the most obvious one: the fact that it neatly compiles a host of negatives that most consumers have probably long forgotten. And, despite its best efforts to argue otherwise, Oatly doesn’t emerge from these smelling nearly as sweet as it seems to think.
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