Beyond Milk #5: Oat Milk And The Importance of Packaging Design To Japanese Consumers

Daniel Kwintner joined our table to talk about plant-based milk, the Japanese market, and his work on OATme’s packaging design.

Hello, Market Shakers! 

Today, Daniel Kwintner is with us to talk about plant-based milk, the Japanese market, and his work on OATme’s packaging design.

OATme is the latest oat milk brand launched in Japan, and its unique eco-packaging will make you thirsty for more! Before we jump in, here’s more information about Daniel’s professional background. 

Daniel Kwintner

Daniel has over 23 years of international experience as a Brand and Marketing Strategy Consultant. He was heavily involved in business development and strategic implementation of Design and Marketing innovation for numerous billion-dollar brands of Fortune 100 companies. Leveraging 15 years of immersion in Japan’s Food & Beverage industry, he has helped multiple Japanese companies export their products abroad and worked at Sopexa Japan as Client Services Director to support European and international key accounts for their 360 campaigns in Japan. Today, he’s running his own Brand & Consulting Design agency in Tokyo & Singapore, helping clients from around the world copping with their brand in Japan and APAC.

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Oat milk success in Japan is a matter of time

The pandemic opened the door to a greener diet.

Around the world, consumers embrace a greener diet for various reasons—the Earth, the animals, health. The past year has shown an increase in awareness for food sustainability and a sense of urgency to come up with new, better, and healthier food sources. 

I believe the environment will be the key driver, followed by health concerns. I think animal cruelty comes last.

In Japan, where veganism is still very niche, animal welfare is not yet on consumers’ radar. Japanese people have a selective and narrow appreciation for nature, indifferent to species with little emotional value. Promoted by the government, meat consumption has increased in the past years while still below the United States or Europe. But today, Japan is at a tipping point, and the meat industry could be on the verge of taking a dive.

The pandemic has been a trigger for more consumers to realize the impact of the meat industry on both environment and health. They stay at home and have the time to think about what they eat.” 

This ‘new normal’ brought by the coronavirus helped vegan trends and alternative products progress in Japan. The shift impacts the dairy industry too. As consumers seek to eat better food, plant-based milk found its way to the market as an alternative to milk. 

People are more conscious about eating better, and in a way, the money they save by not going out goes into purchasing better products for their health.” 

Is that to say we’re more thoughtful about our food choices today?

Well, the keyword here is time. We have more time to think about what we put in our bodies.

The time is ripe for oat milk in Japan. 

In past years, the Japanese soy milk market has been steadily growing and shows no signs of slowing down. But Japan already counts too many players for a newcomer to hope for a way in. Competition aside, soy milk brings up the issue of GMOs, about which Japanese consumers are pretty sensitive.

Next to soy, the almond milk market, which had explosive growth since 2017, is on the descending trend. Many companies jumped on the almond milk boom and did well, but on the consumer side, the craze is declining. Almond milk has a strong flavor, plus it isn’t the most sustainable option. 

On the other hand, oat milk has been taking off slowly. Large companies are investing a massive amount of money in launching products such as Alpro on the Japanese market. Their interest is a good indicator that oat milk is bound to sustain.

For foreign companies eyeing the plant-based milk market in Japan, oat milk is probably the best bet at the moment.

Oat milk has been available in Japan for a couple of years but was well under the radar until Alpro soft-landed in Japanese supermarkets. The market shows signs of growth, so time is now of the essence for players to grab this opportunity.

Danone has been coming strong. But the competition from other international brands such as Oatly isn’t there quite yet. It’s only the beginning, and the potential is great.” 

Oat milk has the potential to become the third milk choice, next to soy and dairy. With Japanese people consuming less and less cow milk due to health concerns, could the future be soy and oat? 

I’ve been advocating for a vegan and plant-based diet to develop in Japan, and I firmly believe it’s about time for dairy to step back gradually. I don’t see other types of plant-based milk other than oat make it next to soy.

OATme’s story

A 100% Japan-made oat milk 

OATme is a brand developed by Stephane Beaulieu, CEO of First Step Japan, in partnership with a natural ingredient development company in Japan. Sensing a demand growth, the company looked into bringing a healthier alternative to what’s already on the market. For them, the choice was clear, and it was oat milk all the way. The project started in summer 2020, and while total production isn’t quite there yet, it’ll soon hit the market. 

Currently, the main ingredient is imported from an organic farm in China. However, First Step Japan plans to switch to Canadian organic farms shortly to make OATme a 100% Trusted organic product. 

I think what’s interesting, though, is that beyond the organic quality, we’re looking to develop an eco product. With OATme, we take care of everything, with the whole process done in Japan.

Indeed, on top of being an organic product, OATme’s packaging is an eco-friendly pack. First Step Japan could have gone for the more conservative Tetra Pak, but they decided to partner with ecolean packaging to try to be more sustainable. Choosing eco-packaging provides an edge, though, as it’s unusual in Japan. OATme has the power to trigger consumers’ curiosity.

The key to a good design packaging is to start from the consumers

Oat milk is a unique, natural, and excellent product for its fans. But for Japanese consumers already unfamiliar with oats, getting a new product in their pantry requires a bit of education. That’s when design packaging comes in, helping consumers understand what they are purchasing while not deceiving them either. Design packaging is an art and a science. It represents the last touchpoint of the brand before tasting it.

We needed a little bit of visual of oat and a refreshing aspect with the logo mark. We made it round, like a smile and a splash. It gives you the cues of milk while not being milk.

Furthermore, I worked on matching the design packaging with the taste and the expectations of the consumers. If you don’t meet their expectations, they’ll buy your product once and then never again.”

Interestingly, despite being manufactured in Japan, OATme purposefully looks like an imported product. First Step Japan seeks to convince new generations of consumers to embrace their oat milk. These consumers would typically stay away from a product with a very traditional Japanese look. But they would be open to tasting something new if they think it’s an imported product. 

It’s funny if you think about it. OATme is a Japanese product, but manufactured by foreigners for the Japanese market, with a design resembling an imported product.” 

When it comes to their product packaging, foreign companies often miss the shot with Japanese consumers.

OATme’s design packaging story is a solid reminder that for a foreign company looking to make it on the Japanese market, getting to know Japanese consumers is critical to their success. Quite often, foreign companies come and launch their products with little thought about Japanese consumers’ perceptions.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in Japan is to launch a very European or American product assuming Japanese consumers understand the brand or company’s history and background. I’ve designed so many products that state “this is our company’s history. Or this is our Philosophy and you should understand it” 

But in fact, this type of messaging will not speak to Japanese consumers who don’t know much about that company’s story and the country of origin. They face many choices when they purchase food and beverage products, so brands looking to make it must bring a compelling story to the table. One that makes sense to Japanese consumers. 

Don’t talk about where your cattle are raised—it’s not relevant. Talk about how your cream cheese tastes the best and can be spread on bread easily. And even use some onomatopoeia to reflect a feeling, like ふあふあ (fuafua) soft like a cloud) for a foamy product.

The product stays essentially the same, but companies must embrace an approach based on the local market’s context. It’s not what you present but how you present it that matters.

My company sells lemongrass-turmeric and ginger beverages. In the Philippines, our message is clear. Buying our products help support organic farming and the community behind them. But in Japan, our products are all about being freshly produced from farm to bottle in 6 hours, promoting the freshness and process —that’s because consumers here will not care at first about supporting Filipino farmers. However, they’ll want something tasty, healthy, and organic.

When working on a product design packaging, the key is to compare how the product is perceived and used in Japan versus other countries.

If you bring a product like Oatly from America, you probably expect that consumers will feel it’s cool and trendy. But actually, that’s not a cue for Japanese consumers. They’ll look for something refreshing, milky, that can be shared in different ways. Design packaging is all about tomato「tuh·mei·tow」(US) and tomato 「tuh·maa·tow」(UK).

While OATme’s eco package could be puzzling for Japanese consumers, the key is to give information on what the product is about—a daily boost of calcium and fiber, even if that’s not real milk. The package is here to answer their questions right away, showing what is oat while not telling too much. Over time, education will pay off. 

That’s all, folks!

Our Beyond Milk cycle is now reaching its end, for now. Next week, we focus on veganism in Japan with a very special guest, Gizem Sakamaki, founder of Foodie Adventure Japan.

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