No passport to Swiss success

At first glance, it is surprising a healthy Swiss drink could not find a place in the UK market. But failure to achieve goals is often a result of having set the wrong goals, writes John Shannon.

For marketers, being Swiss can have its advantages. The country enjoys a strong reputation for quality which, coupled with alpine connotations of health, can provide a strong underpinning for certain exports – particularly in the areas of food and healthcare.

Yet it does not constitute a passport to success, as one recent example shows. Rivella, a fruit-flavoured, milk-based soft drink produced in Switzerland, ranks second only to Coca-Cola in its home market.

The Swiss market, however, is small, and to achieve significant revenue growth the company concluded it would need to build sales overseas. It selected the UK as its target market.

Initial signs were good. The product, both healthy and convenient, conforms to two of the dominant trends in the international consumer goods market.

In addition, the UK is receptive to foreign products and boasts a drinks market over six times the size of Switzerland’s.

Finally, questioning of potential consumers produced extremely positive responses. “The research is on our side,” export director Robert Barth told the press. “Seventy-two per cent of those questioned said they would ‘definitely’ or ‘most probably’ try the product.”

One year on, however, its product largely delisted due to disappointing sales, Rivella’s owner is wondering what went wrong.

Obviously, all the facts are not available but there are some clues. The company’s stated aim was to establish Rivella as a premium, mainstream soft drink, placing it in stiff competition with established brands such as 7-Up or Lilt.

By examining research closer to home, however, they might have reconsidered their ambition. Retail buyers surveyed by the University of St Gallen reported that, of brands currently on supermarket shelves, just 42 per cent were considered “more or less essential”, 22 per cent “could probably be excluded at no great loss” and the remaining 36 per cent “could easily be replaced”. In the UK, the odds are probably even less favourable, particularly to unfamiliar brands.

Failure to reach one’s goals is often a result of having set the wrong goals in the first place. To claim a place among the “must haves” in the mainstream UK retail trade requires the right product, concerted investment, astute positioning and communications to match.

It is difficult to believe that a healthy, convenient drink of Swiss origin could not find a place in the UK market, yet it may be that a bottom-up rather than top-down approach was more appropriate.

Fragmentation of the media, coupled with the development of specialist and alternative distribution, multiplies the opportunities to appeal to consumers with specific interests – and even to build a more mainstream brand from a niche basis. Just ask the people at Chupa Chups, Red Bull, any number of “niche” fashion labels such as Quiksilver or, indeed, the makers of the micro skate scooter – another Swiss export.

John Shannon is president of Grey International

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