How Does an Oatmeal Brand Reinvent Itself for a New Generation?

These may be your grandma's oats, but dishes like Vietnamese Porridge are probably not the way your grandma prepared them. (Photo: Flahavan's)

Oats are a staple in many homes. They're the comfort food of cold mornings, the quick breakfast before school, and the ingredient that gives a little nutrition boost to a cookie. They've been around forever. Is there really anything new to say about them?

Apparently, yes. Flahavan's Irish Oats, an oat mill in Kilmacthomas, County Waterford, Ireland, can trace its origins to 1785 and entered the U.S. market in 2010. Less than a decade later, it's changing its packaging to communicate its values to consumers who have known little about the brand except that it's Irish and sells oats.

The oats are good. The brand sent me samples a few years along with recipes like their version of a Shamrock Shake made with oats, avocado, mango, lime juice and coconut milk. I liked what I sampled enough to purchase them at the store. The company can't send out samples to every shopper, so they're trying to get the attention of consumers in other ways.

Their market research revealed what consumers value in a brand, including those oh-so-important millennial consumers. Flahavan's found they have several things consumers value, including two that appeal to millennials, particularly millennial moms: an authentic story about a quality, a locally produced product and a way to make oats "new."

The stories behind the oats

Flahavan's oatmeal
Flahavan's new packaging puts the spotlight on the small-scale farmers who grow oats for the company. (Photo: Flahavan's)

Flahavan's is emphasizing the stories of those who grow their oats along with the company's own story. The company has been in the same family for seven generations, and defines itself as a heritage food brand. It's Ireland's favorite porridge brand, and goes back to a time before brands became brands. Some of the brand's older consumers have nostalgic memories of the oats from a time when not everyone had central heating. Porridge, or oatmeal as call it in the U.S., was part of the warming morning ritual after the first fires of the morning were lit.

Consumers in the U.S. don't have that collective cultural memory, so Flahavan's is telling its story directly on its packaging.

As I write this, I have a metal canister of Flahavan's Irish Steel Cut Oatmeal on my desk. On the front of the canister is a photo of Harry Gray. Gray is one of the small-scale farmers who Flahavan's partners with to source their oats. On the back of the canister, there's more information about Gray. His family has been growing oats for the brand for over 100 years — since 1911 to be exact, as that's when his grandfather entered into a partnership with Flahavan's. Gray's sons now carry on the tradition, making it four generations in one family that have grown and sold oats to the company.

Also on the back of the canister is a bit of the brand's story, highlighting its heritage and its partnership with small-scale farmers who grow non-GMO oats.

Making oats new

"We kiln our oats differently to the way U.S. producers do it," said James Flahavan, business development manager (and seventh generation family member in the business). "We do it the old-fashioned way which is to kiln the oats with the husk on. After it comes out of the kiln we remove the husk. The oats get up to a higher temperature for a longer time and generate flavor and color and nuttiness."

The brand is also focusing on recipes that aren't just for breakfast. They're creating innovative dishes for lunch and dinner. In addition to putting recipes on their website, they're adding them to their social media channels, too, where a photo plus the complete recipe can catch consumers' eyes as they're scrolling and make them think, "I wonder what oats might taste like this kind of a dish."

Not part of the particular marketing push that Flahavan's is doing, but something I find important, is the sustainability of the company's operations. Nearly 70 percent of the mill's energy is generated by green methods. A combination of electricity from a generator that's hooked up to water wheel in a stream that runs through their building, steam power for the kiln created from burning the outer husks of the oats, and power from wind turbines and solar panels make up the bulk of their energy use. The rest of their power they purchase from sustainable sources.

I'm a big advocate for consumer's knowing what's in their food and what a brand is all about, and many consumers are making their choices based on a company's ability to convey these things. Flahavan's is giving consumers what they want. I'd like to see more brands go this route.