Califia Farms debuts oatmilk line – but what will distinguish the winners from the losers in the category?

Califia Farms – best known for its almond, coconut, and cashew milks – has moved into the rapidly-growing oatmilk category with a barista blend launching in February, and an unsweetened oatmilk launching in April.

Both products are made from North American whole grain, gluten free oats, and contain no added sugar (the sugar comes naturally from the oats), with the barista blend containing 3g sugar, 1g protein, 7g fat, and 130 calories per 240ml; and the unsweetened oatmilk containing 2g sugar, 2g protein, 7g fat and 100 calories/240ml.

The ingredients list in both products is the same – Oatmilk (water, oats), sunflower oil, minerals (dipotassium phosphate, calcium carbonate, tricalcium phosphate, sea salt) – and includes no gums or stabilizers, delivering a clean label and a creamy taste, said the company.

“The difference in nutritional panels is because we use different oat bases in each product to deliver individual functionalities such as foaming in the Barista Blend and higher protein and fiber in the Oatmilk.”​

“In many ways, the global barista community leads cultural changes in coffee and milk consumption, and were early adopters to almondmilk and now oatmilk​,” said Greg Steltenpohl, founder and CEO of Califia Farms​​, which will be sampling the barista blend at the Winter Fancy Food Show next week.

Are all oatmilks the same?​

While oatmilk has garnered a sizeable chunk of the plant-based milk category in some European markets, it’s new to many consumers in the US, where there has been a flurry of recent launches from Danone North America (Silk Oat Yeah​​), HP Hood (Planet Oat​​), Oatly​​​, Elmhurst, Thrive Market, Pacific Foods, Happy Planet, and Quaker​​, coupled with thicker products such as ‘oatgurt’ from Hälsa​​​.

So which brands could emerge as winners in this new subsegment of the plant-based milk category?

Oatmilk product formulations vary a fair amount, and there will likely be a period of trial and experimentation as consumers decide which brand they prefer from a taste, texture, and nutrition perspective.

Most brands choose to fortify oatmilk with vitamins and/or minerals, although some have opted not to in favor of a shorter ingredients list (Elmhurst Milked). Some brands add vegetable oils such as sunflower or canola, while others do not; some add sugar, while others say oats are naturally sweet enough; some add natural flavors; and some add gums and stabilizers, while others make a virtue of avoiding them.

‘What’s needed as a category grows, is a point of view and differentiation’​

Oatly​​, meanwhile, is ​focusing more on building a quirky brand backed up by some distinctive marketing campaigns (“It’s like milk, but made for humans​​…”), Fred Hart, creative director and partner at Boulder-based branding and packaging studio Interact, told FoodNavigator-USA.

“Building a brand, and a category is a lot like a horse race – each jockey has to pick their horse, to position themselves amongst the ensuing chaos, in a race to consumers hearts and minds.​

“Each jockey has to ask themselves what position to they want, and can, own? The most functional (Quaker​​)? The cleanest (Califia)? The most natural (Elmhurst)? The quirkiest (Oatly)? The most positive (Silk Oat Yeah)? The most everyman (Pacific).​

“What’s needed as a category grows, is a point of view and differentiation. Oat milk is oat milk to the busy consumer – how you make them feel is totally up to you.”​

‘Consumers will innately perceive Califia’s latest offering to be the best tasting and most premium of the bunch’

Asked for his take on packaging design in the space, Hart said:

“Quaker has invited itself to the oat party (rightfully so) and is showing up as the chaperone, communicating function and health claims with its rigid, clinical looking bottle and AHA-inspired badge. Meanwhile, the cool kids by the oat-pong table promise broader appeal – taste and quality. Silk is stepping up its personality and energy with its OAT YEAH subbrand and comes closest of all competitors to Oatly’s territory.”​

While Oatly “may have the industry’s reputation as best in class oat milk​,” he said, “consumers will innately perceive Califia’s latest offering to be the best tasting and most premium of the bunch, as a direct result of its bottle. Califia’s structural design does for each of it product lines what Method Cleanings bottle did amongst conventional cleaning products or Voss water to traditional ribbed bottles. Califia’s elegant, custom bottle rises above the carton-filled category to a place few can compete.​

Ultimately, what Oatly owns “isn’t oat milk​,” he added, “it owns attitude. It owns an entirely unique perspective, fueled by people, plants and the environment. They’re wonderfully offbeat, quirky and individualistic in a world filled with polite and pedestrian competitors, unwilling o ruffle a single feather. If the best brands are like people, then Oatly is the best friend you always wanted.”​

‘Oatly is the only one with personality’

Simon Thorneycroft, founder at design agency Perspective Branding, agreed that Oatly’s packaging and branding stands out in the sea of white packages: “It just leaves me wondering why I would buy one over the other. It’s all just so functional. It tells me its Oats … but so what?!! Who cares? ​

“Oatly is the only one with personality and feels like I could get the brand story. The rest just make me fall asleep. There is nothing wrong with their designs, they are all well done .. but just don’t make me care.”​

‘They’ve adopted a shared design aesthetic …’

Peter Allen, VP Perspective Branding, added, “Individually, many of these brands have friendly, appealing designs. They look modern and fresh, and they pose a welcome departure from traditional milk branding, which is industrial, commoditized, and out-of-touch for many Millennials.​”

However, when you look at several of them together, as a competitive set, he said, “Much of that distinction goes away. Frankly, there’s a lot of sameness in the category. The semiotics are pretty boilerplate…plenty of white, splashes of color, whimsical illustrations and handwritten fonts.​

“So, although the plant-based beverage category has done a good job of standing apart from traditional dairy, in the process they’ve gravitated to the same visual space. In the zeal to ‘stand out’, they’ve instead adopted a shared design aesthetic that puts them at risk of indifference and irrelevancy. This is especially true for upstart, less-established brands who are fighting for shelf space. There’s very little in their branding that would compel a retail buyer to choose one over another.”​

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