The Oat Wars teach us that successful businesses choose cooperation over rivalry


Friday, June 10, 2022 6:15 a.m.

Oatly lost its legal battle against rival Glebe Farm.

The David and Goliath feud over vegan oat products continued when last month Glebe Farm, the independent British family business that grows gluten-free oats, unveiled a poster campaign at the London Victoria station to promote a major brand change across its entire product line. One of the slogans read: ‘Oatly sued us. We won. Because you can’t beat true. British. Oatmilk” and encouraged consumers to support his brand and buy British. Another read: ‘Oatly sued us. We won. Now help us pay our lawyers”.

For those unfamiliar with the Oat Wars, almost two years ago Swedish company Oatly filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Glebe Farm. The case was eventually dismissed by the Intellectual Property Court after a judge found there was no likelihood of confusion between Glebe Farm’s PureOaty brand and Oatly’s trademarks.

The brand matters. Companies must therefore be able to protect their intellectual property. Any potential confusion around brand design and attempts to “pass off” similar products must be defended, for the benefit of brand owners and the consumers they serve. But such challenges should be backed by reliable consumer information, rather than following your intuition.

The Glebe Farm billboard may have unintentionally failed. While mentioning their competitor Oatly in the billboard provided free publicity, it also pointed to them as the giant villain of the business. Oatly’s answer was perfect. While acknowledging the cry, he also stressed that he was looking forward to opening his new UK factory in Peterborough next year, buying oats from UK farmers and creating 200 new jobs. Oatly also wished good luck to its future neighbors.

In fact, he managed to neutralize Glebe Farm’s unique selling points of ‘Britishness’ and ‘local provenance’, while emphasizing the common goal of creating a more sustainable food system.

There are more effective ways for targeted brands to achieve the same goals. For example, Dutch chocolate manufacturer Tony’s Chocolonely has been championing the Fairtrade movement since 2005 to make slavery-free chocolate the industry standard. Fast forward several years and CEO Henk Jan Beltman found himself sharing a stage with Nestlé, one of his biggest rivals, who only joined the same cause this year. As the rivals discussed the future of the chocolate manufacturing industry, they demonstrated the power of cohesion in vision – even among competitors.

Purpose can have positive results for those who lead a particular cause and for those who follow, regardless of their market share.

Global research from our own Value Shift report found that protecting the environment while working towards a new sustainable future was consumers’ top value.

Consumers around the world agree that as sustainability becomes more and more an integral part of how consumers want to live their lives, companies and brands will need to demonstrate their role in this shared responsibility.

It is certainly better for companies and brands to work together towards a common goal – especially those so valued by conscious consumers such as sustainability, animal welfare and human rights – than to trying to usurp your competitors with adversarial ad campaigns.


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