How to Create a Great Brand for Your Small Business

April 16, 2018, 3:30 PM UTC
Courtesy of Oatly

You can call Oatly a 25-year-old overnight success story. Founded by a food science professor, the Swedish oat milk company spent decades as a niche player in the plant-based beverage industry. But a few years ago, its profile began to rise, first in Europe and now in the U.S. As if overnight, the company was being mentioned everywhere, including a buzzy feature in The New York Times. Not bad for a company who only fully entered the U.S. market in early 2017.

A number of factors helped facilitate Oatly’s ascent from obscure product to cultural phenomenon: the product is tasty (buttery and rich are common descriptors), and the overall plant-based milk sector is booming. But if not for a major rebranding five years ago, the company would likely still be flying under the radar.

In 2013, John Schoolcraft was brought on as creative director to breath new life into the look and feel of the company. Schoolcraft didn’t know anything about oat milk, and the company’s packaging didn’t do much to enlighten him. “It was uninspiring and boring,” he says. “It looked like everything else.”

Schoolcraft and Oatly CEO Toni Petersson worked with the Swedish agency Forsman & Bodenfors to overhaul the brand. The new aesthetic was deliberately unvarnished. “We wanted it to feel like we were making these packages in the basement,” Schoolcraft says. “The whole idea was for it to not look and feel like a corporate logo or brand.”

The type and images featured on the packaging were hand-drawn by Lars Elfman, a creative at Forsman & Bodenfors. Schoolcraft was responsible for coming up with the copy, which combined stream-of-consciousness musings with earnest but casual explanations of the product and the company’s mission.

“IT’S LIKE MILK BUT MADE FOR HUMANS,” reads one tagline, followed by a description of oat milk.

Courtesy of Oatly
Courtesy of Oatly

The team knew the product was good. They just needed to get people to try it. “We didn’t have a large budget, and we had to use the package as the main medium,” Schoolcraft says. “They were basically in-store billboards.” Every element of design — the bright colors, bubbly type-face, and exclamation and question mark-laden copy was meant to get shoppers to pick up the package (“YES, WE ARE VEGAN SO?” reads one large tagline). The quirky manifestos and descriptions would hopefully convince them to buy it — and then the product could finally speak for itself.

It worked. Sales rapidly increased in Europe, and late last year, Oatly began a strategic U.S. rollout to much fanfare. Below, Schoolcraft outlines why the rebranding was a success — as well as the pitfalls he often sees small businesses making when it comes to developing a strong brand identity.

Oatly sounds like a person — not a brand.

To this day, Schoolcraft writes the majority of the copy featured in Oatly’s ads and on its packages and website. Whereas most brands stick to polished corporate speak, Oatly’s copy is opinionated, political, and casual. (Here’s how a piece of nutritional information is communicated on the website: “If you want to send an email or stream a movie then optical fibers are way more amazing, but if you just want to get some fibers in your body so your body can get some nutritional justification, then a glass or two of our liquid oats are pretty great.”)

Schoolcraft wanted customers to know the company was being run by flesh-and-blood humans, not a robotic committee. Sometimes, he took this too far, such as when he included his personal email on the back of Oatly’s packaging. (Customers who didn’t like the product could email him and be mollified with an original poem or short story. After about six months, the backlog was unmanageable and the exchange came to an end.)

Since the re-design, Schoolcraft has continued to write new copy. He wants the brand’s messaging to feel less like marketing and more like a conversation. “You can’t just do a rebranding and leave it,” he says. “If you really believe that you are not acting like a company, that you just want to talk and have a voice and be a real person, you have to do it all the time.”

Creative decisions were made by a small team.

Oatly’s redesign was spearheaded by four people: Schoolcraft, Petersson, Elfman, and Martin Ringqvist, another creative at the agency. There was no back-and-forth with the a marketing department, and creative decisions weren’t diluted by crowdsourcing and compromise.

Schoolcraft argues that more companies should work like this: It’s hard to design a unique voice for your brand when too multiple layers of people are involved. Instead, he advises that entrepreneurs determine what their message is—if you need market research to figure this out “you should be doing something else” —and then find a trusted creative person or small team to communicate it to consumers. For brand-new startups, this might be a talented friend. For more established companies, it could be an agency or an in-house design team. The key is to find talented people, and hand over the creative reins.

Not everyone liked the redesign.

Oatly’s new packaging highlighted the company’s commitment to sustainability, in part by calling out unsustainable practices of the dairy industry. Understandably, the dairy industry wasn’t too happy. The occasionally nonsensical chatter on the back of the packaging also wasn’t for everyone.

For Schoolcraft, the positive responses generated by the brand was a mark of success — but so were the negative ones. “If you are going to break through all the clutter you’ve got to say something that people actually find interesting,” he says. “You’re not going to ever make everyone happy. But if you are just neutral no one is ever going to notice you.”