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Chewy's approach to building brand advocacy, Oatly's struggles in becoming a true rival, and Unilever's big transformation

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🐶 Chewy's approach to building brand advocacy

What they did: Chewy is an online retailer for pet food and supplies. They started over 10 years ago and are now publicly traded with over $450M in funding, so they’d fit more into the “rival brand” category rather than the “challenger brand” category at this point. But they are still doing challenger-type things…

One of those things is so simple and easy, we’re always amazed more companies don’t do it.

They put the customer first.

Check out this coverage on in the US about how Chewy sends flowers to their customers when their pet dies. The story surfaced when a woman tweeted about her experience and it went viral. You can’t buy that kind of exposure (not to mention getting on

All of these viral marketing moments we see are different, but they all come from marketing teams doing one thing: over-delivering on customer expectations. Which, unfortunately, is so easy in many categories. Most businesses put their product and/or profit first - and yes, you need to do that at times and in certain ways in order to grow. But whenever you can put the customer first, particularly in a way that they don’t expect because of how they’ve been conditioned by the category or treated by your competitors, you have the opportunity to create a real, significant impact on them. And maybe, just maybe, if you do it right, it will be strong enough for them to want to share.

Genuine advocacy from an exceptional, unexpected experience is the most powerful marketing force there is.

What it means for you: What’s an easy, simple way that you could over-deliver on expectations in an expected way for your customers?

📉 Oatly struggles to become a true rival

What they did: Oatly is an example we use all the time of a challenger brand that’s just at the point of becoming a rival. They started (way back in the 90s) as a niche, disruptive challenger - bringing oat milk to market when it was not mainstream and certainly not (yet) hipster cool. They were provocative, purpose-driven, and community-focused - showing many of the successful characterises of classic challenger brands. And they did it well! By 2021 they were turning over $643M in revenue and eventually IPO’d with a $10B market cap. They won the challenger game.

The question we’re always interested in is not who’s challenging a market, but who’s actually changing it - this is what true rival brands do. Oatly has certainly had a big impact on their category, but they’re struggling to stay in the drivers seat of change. Their share price has dropped from $17 at IPO to below $3 now and face mounting pressure from investors.

There’s a lot to like about Oatly, as a brand and company. But the transition from challenger to rival is one that’s incredibly hard. It’s not enough to just be provocative, purpose-driven and community focused - you need to expand beyond your initial niche audience and positioning to capture mainstream cultural attention and marketshare. You need to start thinking and acting like a category leader, not the upstart. Successful rivals (think Airbnb, Warby Parker, Venom) have been able to make this transition, but Oatly hasn’t quite done it yet.

The full article over on The Grocer is definitely worth a read, especially if you’re in CPG.

What it means for you: What change in your category are you trying to own? How will you control it after you do?

🛒 Unilever embarks on a big media transformation

What they did: Ok, the title of this article “Unilever embraces data-driven innovation” might turn you off if you’re allergic to corporate PR placements. BUT, it’s actually interesting to read into what they’re trying to do.

Pick your way through the minefield of buzzwords and dig into the substance below (far below…). Essentially, they’re looking to restructure their media planning and buying around the new consumer and commercial landscape for CPG and retail. They’re trying to do two things that we think are essential for any organization (particularly large organization) to grow - they’re trying to become more customer-centric and learn more faster.

Challenger businesses do these two things well because it comes so naturally to them. They’re small, fast, and long-term oriented. They’re usually much clearer about and more driven by the problem they’re trying to solve for their customers. They’re willing to take risks, many of which don’t pay off but some of which do (and cover the losses for all the others). And they’re obsessed with learning as they go - they’re constantly evolving.

Unilever is trying to do just this but in their big, corporate way. They’re “committed to investing in innovation across their media plan” - aka they’re going to take some risks. They’re “deeply injecting” test-and-learn goals into their media plans - aka they’re making sure they learn as they go.

So many of these incumbent transformation programs end up being a huge waste of time and money, but every once in a while they actually work. The principles seem to be there for Unilever, but will they be able to do it in practice?

What it means for you: Think about your org structure and team ways-of-working…Where could it be more customer-centric? How could it deliver more learnings faster?

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