Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
May 8, 2019

Plant-based milks aren't a thing in Hong Kong, so Oatly made up a Chinese character for them

The invented pictogram is not a brand name; the Swedish company intends it as a conceptual signifier for plant-based milks. And it already shows signs of catching on.

Plant-based milks aren't a thing in Hong Kong, so Oatly made up a Chinese character for them

Oatly, a Swedish oat drink brand, has brought its plant-based debate from the US and Europe to Hong Kong, through a new Chinese word invented by Edelman and activated by Sunny Idea.

The newly created Chinese pictogram (shown above) overlays the element of ‘plant’ onto the original Chinese character of ‘milk’, simply because nearly every Hong Kong adult surveyed in March 2019 by Ipsos said they think of cow’s milk (96%) when they see the actual Chinese word for 'milk'. 

In fact only 2% associate the character(奶)with plant-based milk, and over half believe there is no suitable alternative to cow’s milk in the local market (51%).

Oatly's campaign, which kicked off in April, includes coffee shop and retail POS materials, print, outdoor, digital advertisements; and event activations at Coffee Agenda and Iris. The intent, according to the company: "to revolutionise milk consumption in Hong Kong" and to call on the government to better define plant-based milk for the benefit of drinkers.

Now, Oatly could have churned out a compound ideograph combining the meanings of oat (燕麦) and milk (奶) in Chinese, which would have benefited only Oatly's own brand. Interestingly, the brand instead chose to create a halo effect for itself and all its plant-based milk peers.

The brand chose to originate a Chinese version of 'mylk'—which has caught on somewhat as an informal category name for plant-derived milks, although it is also a brand name for a US-based company.

So, Oatly's first-ever Chinese word for the category is a "door-opener" to start a conversation about plant-based milk and help consumers rethink their consumption choices, said Herbert Law, Oatly's brand director for the Greater China region. 

In Europe, Oatly favours prominent outdoor ad buys with its out-of-the-box slogans "Fibrelicious", "It's Oatsome", and "Wow, no cow". But localising those for Chinese-speaking markets is difficult; simply translating them does little justice to the brand's edgy tone.

"The awareness of plant-based milk is really low," Law told Campaign. "Even when Hongkongers see a product like oat milk, they will still think it's cow's milk mixed with some oats. But this one character captures everything we would like to convey."

Despite a few market research tests where some respondents mistook the amalgated character to mean 'grass milk' or 'herbal milk', Law said it is a good start toward gearing consumer minds to comprehend the notion of a plant-based beverage.

Toni Petersson, CEO of Oatly, stated in a press release that the company sees encouraging signs in the West, where more and more people are now eating less meat or are becoming vegans. Getting foodies in Hong Kong to make radical changes to their diets may be harder, though Petersson maintains that switching from cow’s milk to more sustainable plant-based milk is an easy step for everyone. 

Oatly-commissioned research, with a sample size of 1,000, revealed the dominance of animal-based dairy produce in Hong Kong, with planned consumption on the increase:

“Encouraging people to talk about milk alternatives is a challenging task in this market where dairy consumption is increasing," said Annouchka Behrmann, head of brand at Edelman Hong Kong. "Children in Hong Kong grow up strongly associating milk with cows—even as adults it’s the first thing they think of—and with no vocabulary for plant-based milk, how do you break the pattern? Our idea to create a new Chinese word for plant-based milk by adding the ‘plant’ component to the Chinese word ‘milk’ is all about getting people to consider alternatives."

Specialty grocery startups and shops in Hong Kong such as Green Monday and Blendit have taken the initiative to use Oatly’s invention in their point of sales materials (see below).

"This word has been very well-received among the green community, who are advocates of a healthier lifestyle and who also want the public to have the same understanding of plant-based diets being a solution to slow down climate change," said Law, revealing an idea put forward by others to create similar lexicon for plant-based meat.

"This is becoming something real rather than just our advertising campaign." 

Oatly's manifesto print ad


Campaign China

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