The Irish beverage producer last week launched a sparkling version of its flagship vitamin juice drink, taking VitHit into premium adult carbonated soft drinks, a space that is largely dominated by sugar-sweetened offerings.
“If you look at countries such as the UK, obesity is a serious problem, partly because of all the sugars people eat. VitHit Bubbly allows people to switch to a product that contains a lot less sugars and calories without compromising on taste. I’m very particular on flavour, because if a product doesn’t taste great, people revert to sugary products,” rugby professional turned entrepreneur Gary Lavin told NutraIngredients.
Like their still counterparts, the VitHit Bubbly drinks are sweetened with stevia and contain no added sugar, keeping the energy value to under 35 calories per serving. However, due to the upper limit of 80 ppm steviol equivalents or 240 ppm rebaudioside imposed by the EU, the stevia is supplemented with 4-5% fruit juice to achieve the desired sweetness.
More stevia please
“We use as much stevia as is allowed, but EU legislation doesn’t allow us to use as much as we would like, nor does it permit the use of other natural sweeteners like monk fruit. I think that the EU should quicken its step in this respect - everyone needs to keep their sugar intake as low as is humanly possible. It would be good to be able to pair stevia with other natural ingredients,” said Lavin.
VitHit Bubbly has a health dimension too: each can contains 100% of the RDA (recommended daily amount) of folic acid, biotin, niacin, vitamin B1, vitamin B5, and vitamin B12 as well as tea.
Despite potentially meeting the criteria for several EU-approved claims, VitHit drinks don’t make any - a conscious decision by Lavin.
“I don’t find them necessary. I think if the brand offering and the packaging is right, you don’t need to make claims. The name ‘VitHit’ says enough. People only have a few seconds to grab a drink - they don’t have time to read complicated wording,” he explained.
It is an approach and attitude that has served VitHit well so far. In its domestic market, VitHit is the biggest selling health drink.
“Ireland only has a population of 4.4 million people and we sell over 200,000 bottles a week,” said Lavin.
Cracking the UK market
The company’s goal is to replicate this success in the UK, but it has found this a much tougher market to penetrate.
“In the Irish retail market, if you prove yourself at one level, you will get to the next level quite easily. In the UK we had several instances where we were proving ourselves on a small scale, but buyers didn’t take it to the next level. The problem is that unless you are with one of the top five or six large distributors, it is hard to get the attention of buyers. I think everyone misses out - not just the buyers - as how do you find the next Innocent or Red Bull unless you look at independent brands?”
However, he said that VitHit had “finally broken the back of it”, and is now listed with Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Boots, WHSmith and Superdrug.
This has been a major strategic achievement, not least because Lavin believes that “if you get a good foothold in the UK, a lot of other countries around Europe take their lead from that”.
VitHit is now present in several other European markets, namely Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Norway and Iceland, and is taking on the US “state by state”.
“Ultimately I would like VitHit to be as strong per capita in other countries as it is in Ireland. In the UK our goal is to be the biggest health drink in the country, and the same in the US - although that is obviously a much bigger task,” said Lavin.
Gaining retail listings is clearly key to these ambitions, but Lavin has also learned not to overlook the food service channel.
“I ignored food service for the first four to five years because I didn’t understand how it operated. Now this channel represents 20-25% of our business in Ireland, and VitHit is sold in schools, hospitals, company canteens and colleges,” he said.
Lavin views distribution as king, a maxim that has helped grow sales by between 30% and 50% annually for the past six years.
“The product hasn’t changed in the last six years. This growth is purely down to distribution. You can have the best product in the world, but if you don’t have distribution, it won’t sell. This has been my crusade for the last six years. I can see this growth continuing and maybe even getting stronger.”