Why a social media uproar won’t hurt Oatly’s bottom line

Twitter was aflame, as it often is, when it became more widely known recently that Oatly had done A Bad Thing. The alternative milk brand received a $200 million investment from Blackstone, a controversial private equity firm – and major Republican Party donor – accused of indirectly contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon through financial links to a Brazilian infrastructure development (Blackstone strongly denies the allegations). Oatly brands itself as being committed to sustainability, so their involvement with Blackstone went down about as well as you’d expect on social media.

But research we released last week suggests Oatly’s money men needn’t worry. While boycotts were a recurring theme on Twitter and Instagram, people in the 18-24 age bracket – the generation generally assumed to be fond of a boycott – aren’t likely to abandon Oatly in favour of other brands riding the alternative milk train.

Our survey of 1,000 people aged 18-24, students and non-students alike, revealed that only 6% would ‘boycott a brand whose social values don’t align with my own’. So, in any given group of 30 to 35 young people, only two would potentially boycott Oatly even if all of them disagreed with their new partnership. That contrasts pretty sharply to what you will have heard on Twitter.

When it comes to public opinion, however, social and society aren’t in unison. This is a difficult time for Oatly’s social media team, certainly, but not for their finance team. Social mustn’t be considered the touchstone of how consumers consume. Twitter is almost a neutrality-free zone; anyone seen tweeting,: “Oatly have teamed up with Blackstone and I’ve no strong opinions on the matter” should be exposed as a bot (and not a very good one).

If you’re angry, you tweet. If you’re nonplussed, you don’t. And the story’s nature meant Oatly would never have expected to receive a welcoming party of thumbs-up hand-clap emoji.

We asked some of our young poll respondents for their reaction. They were oblivious, unfussed, or oblivious and then unfussed.

“I drink Oatly and I won’t be boycotting them, because it’s too hard to find alternatives even if I was that bothered,” said Kate (22) at Leeds University. Chloe (22) at Imperial College, told us: “I think people would be more likely to boycott if there were more brands available, but the alternative milk market is still being developed and it’s becoming more popular.”

Kamsi (20) at Queen Mary, shared similar views. “Taking a step back,” he said, “companies do a lot of things somewhere in their supply chain that contributes to deforestation, but boycotting them isn’t so easy. If another company were just as accessible as Oatly, then a boycott could be more successful.”

Although ethical consumerism is a subject for another blog, or the final season of The Good Place, this broader view also explains why Oatly, in particular, have taken such heat on social media. Oatly, however, proudly claim to prioritise sustainability and do their business ethically. Brand purpose is at the forefront of everything they do. They have a comparatively high proportion of purpose-driven consumers. They use a nice font. The words, “We promise to be a good company” are emblazoned on their milk cartons.

That’s probably why they haven’t shied away from the furore. Good PR still matters, of course – it’s vital to match a brand’s communications with its business objectives. And Oatly decided to take ownership of the controversy. They’re responding to negative tweets and Instagram posts in a very open manner, and the statement on their website is transparent even about the finances involved. Their homepage even proclaims ‘WELCOME BLACKSTONE’ on a giant, jaunty moving banner.

Oatly’s defence is that partnering with Blackstone “steers capital that would’ve otherwise gone into another commercial investment into sustainability instead”, and that, “If we just shut out the companies that may make less sustainable choices, we won’t give them a chance to improve”. Some critics may be placated; others won’t.

Ultimately, though, Oatly won’t suffer greatly from any boycott proposed on Twitter. They just owe their social media team a week off.

Written by Simon Lucey, founder of Hype Collective


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