Artificial intelligence

13 June, 2008

Producers unveil the next generation of innovative soft drinks. Jaq Bayles reports


s if it didn't have enough on its plate with the health lobby against it, the soft drinks category was swamped by one of the worst summers in living memory last year.

Yet the £3.5 billion sector (according to TNS Worldpanel, year to Jan 27) remains resilient, still showing 1.9% growth, with fruit juice the major player - up 8.2% to £1.1 billion, mainly driven by health-motivated consumers paying a higher price per litre.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the health trend, mineral water and fruit squashes were in decline. Both these, however, are heavily weather-dependent and their performance reflects the poor summer.

Despite being slightly down (-0.4%), colas remain the second biggest player and are currently the arena for one of the year's most interesting battles as Pepsi and Red Bull go head to head with their new "natural" products, Pepsi Raw and Red Bull Simply Cola .

These products represent the trend across all grocery categories away from artificial ingredients, although in soft drinks, it's not just about what's taken out - it's also about what's being put in.

That's where the rapidly growing sports and energy sector comes in. Functional and "evolved" drinks have carved a niche for themselves in recent years and their rise is only going to continue.

Hancocks Cash & Carry purchasing director Richard Brittle says: "A sector with great potential, the market is likely to see new variants of energy drinks during the year. Key players Lucozade and Red Bull both saw huge sales growth at Hancocks during 2007 - Lucozade (38cl) by 74% and Red Bull by an astounding 472%. Independents really should pay close attention to this drinks sector."

TNS data put sales of sports and energy drinks at the end of last year at £144 million - up 18.5% - while the annual Britvic industry review said: "Soft drinks that offer added benefits, such as vitamins, minerals and energy-boosting ingredients, fuelled value growth in the soft drinks market in 2007."

In April, Lucozade launched its mental stimulation Alert brand, highlighting the latest innovation in the energy category, while PepsiCo's Gatorade - claimed to be the world's best selling sports drink - also arrived in the UK this year.

Other players in the category include Boost Drinks, which has revamped its range and introduced a light variant and low-calorie cranberry flavour in line with health trends.

Even water has been getting in on the act, with the move away from sugary carbonated drinks and towards juices and water creating an opening for "juicy waters", with the likes of Britivc's Fruit Shoot H20, which has no sugar or preservatives, and Firefly Waters, which contain "functional" ingredients such as green tea and Yerba Mate.

The opportunities for independents are many in soft drinks, with impulse being an important factor. Hancocks' Brittle says: "This year is going to see a strong focus on the sports and energy sector of the category - the fastest-growing area." But he points out that 42% of the independent's "drink now" category is accounted for by cola and carbonates.

Brittle highlights several brands that are showing more than 20% growth:

7UP, Red Bull Energy, Vimto, Robinsons Fruit Shoot H20, Capri-Sun and Irn-Bru.

And at least one of those brands testifies to the longevity of the sector -

Vimto celebrates its 100th birthday this year, with an online interactive Cluedo game and the chance for one consumer to win £10,000.

Health will continue to be an issue over the coming months as the obesity debate shows no sign of abating and producers continue to get to grips with the ramifications of the Food Standards Agency's regulations on additives; these were recently amended to recommend the voluntary phasing-out of six artificial colours, shown in a study funded by the organisation showed to be likely to have a negative effect on children's behaviour.

But even while they continue to innovate to deal with such issues, soft drinks producers will be praying, above all else,

for a hot summer this year.

Hancocks Cash & Carry's advice for retailers

Focus on the "drink now" sector - that is the biggest opportunity for independent retailers of all sizes

Know your local customers' needs and seek to meet them

Don't discount the carbonates sector, there are still big profits to be made, especially by independents where this is a major part of the drinks mix

Shop wisely and take advantage of strong cash and carry promotions to maximise your profits

Be proactive with new products,

which are usually promoted well and widely advertised

Pay attention to growth sectors, such as energy drinks and pure juices, try different products and see what sells to your customer profile

Watch the weather. The Met Office predicts slightly more frequent cool spells compared to recent summers prior to 2007, but mean temperatures are likely to be above the 1971-2000 average.

Natural born fizzers

The cola wars are on again as Pepsi Raw and Red Bull Simply Cola battle it out to become the nation's favourite "natural" cola.

Both offerings claim to be made with all-natural ingredients and no artificial preservatives, colourings or flavours, and both

are being pitched as representing a return

to the "traditional"

cola flavour.

Pepsi Raw was initially rolled out in

the on-trade, but will

hit the off-trade later this year, while Red

Bull Simply Cola was launched with a fanfare of sampling and a £1 million poster campaign.

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