Food And Drink Copywriting Of The Week #10: Oatly’s and Minor Figures’ Billboards

(17 May, 2021)

Billboards are the McMansions of advertising, and they're awful for two reasons. One, they can obstruct the beauty of the built world. Two (and this is the main reason), more often than not the creative work is crap.

Here's one I've driven past recently in my hometown:

There was another one for a family law company. It had a picture of a severe wolf with the copy 'Our Vigilance Keeps You Safe.' The tag line isn't the worst, though 'vigilance' is kind of pompous. But in the end the wolf kills any subtly anyway.

Hey! I also found some other fails on the internet for you:

Why billboards anyway?

In Don Draper's era, advertising including the following. An agency created a national campaign centering around clever storytelling. Or an idea. Then the agency would adapt that story to various mediums. Like TV, radio, print, direct mail, and billboards. And that's it, I believe.

So billboards had a couple of roles: brand or product awareness. And positioning in the market. That usually took the form of a tagline and an image. And if the agency did its job, there would be a spike in sales.

Why billboards are sometimes good

Today of course, brand storytelling is different. We're not limited to a few mediums. And we don't have to buy media space for long periods. Rather we have a zillion communication mediums which we can update daily.

So we no longer have to rely on billboards to position our brand in the market. So in many ways it’s a lousy and expensive way of communicating to our audience.


If we do use them, we must understand their role.

As far as storytelling and immediacy go, it can't compete with a video, newsletter or blog post.

So arguably, they have only one role: awareness. Its sole purpose is to stick a logo or announcement in front of as many eyeballs as possible. The hope is people will then a) buy the product when facing a crowded shelf. Or, b) search them up on socials or Google to learn more about them.

In turn, there are rules for a successful billboard today:

A) You have $10,000 extra in the marketing budget. B) Have a product the masses travelling on a highway could get around. C) Unless you have more money to spend on creative genius, say what you need to say and get out.

It's the approach many brands are using today:

So if I were to give a 1-minute consult to make that lawyer poster I mentioned above better, I'd say this. Scrap the vigilance line and the wolf. Instead, put your name, logo, what you do (family law), and your address (it's a local firm). All that on a big white background. It'd be elegant and achieve the goal of a billboard. Then I'd say, stick your vigilance line on your about page.

Okay, given all that, check out the well-loved oat milk brand Minor Figure's approach to billboards:

See? Clean, elegant, not opposing. In fact, the restraint even inspires curiosity. It's ambiguous, but not so vague I couldn't understand what was going on in two seconds.

Okay, remember when I said billboards often obstruct the beauty of the built world? Well, I scrolled on Minor Figures' Instagram. They had installed a billboard in Philadelphia, and unfortunately, it covered a mural by a local artist. The community was outraged, and the brand had to make a public apology. (The link to the post is HERE.)

The lesson? It's a small mistake, but with expensive consequences. I'm not giving Minor Figure's a hard time here. The realities are that a marketing manager has to organise a million things at once nationwide and probably wouldn't have even known that this particular billboard covered a beautiful mural.

Still, as a teachable moment, these mistakes come from oversights when the goal is to get attention instead of connecting with people. In my experience, when you do marketing from a place of empathy, you're able to take a deep breath and see those errors in judgement before they happen.

The exception

The only goal of a billboard is awareness. But there is an exception. If you're a clever copywriter (or can hire one *suggestive cough*), delight people too. Your brand will benefit from association.

Speaking of, check out the other well-loved oat milk brand Oatly's approach to billboards.

Why does reading that feel good?

The copywriters have understood the context of their reader. Brilliantly they have framed the copy to connect with that person.

Oatly's primary audience, I'm guessing, are millennials, who respond to irony well, depending on what we're selling, of course. In this case, though, it's fitting and charming.  

Main take-aways

  • Billboards are like mainly for the 70s era
  • They are good when you have a good-sized marketing budget
  • They’re about awareness, so get in, be clear, get out. 
  • Also, try to delight. That always works.
  • Don’t hire the lawyer dude with the dogs

Okay, that’s a wrap. 

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Jayden O'Neil


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