Stevia is the new golden child when it comes to healthy sweeteners – no calories and no carbohydrates. Sugar has become increasingly demonised and stevia is touted as a new weapon in the fight against obesity. Against this backdrop there has been a global increase of 400% in stevia based products from 2008 to 2012. Brand innovation teams are identifying clear opportunities to utilise stevia over other sugar substitutes but how is it being positioned and communicated differently?
Brand innovation utilising stevia is happening in lots of countries and in lots of types of products… dietary supplements, flavourings, yogurts, jams, health products and chocolate to name a few. To date, here at The Strategy Distillery we have identified 4 main approaches to innovating with stevia:
Some brands are using stevia as an ingredient RTB, sometimes in conjunction with a sugar-free claim. They are relying on consumers to understand what this means in terms of health and taste, but is this realistic? Is everyone aware and knowledgeable about such a “young” ingredient? Would it be more impactful to talk about stevia as a claim such as nature’s sweetener, sweetness of nature, natural sweetness or as natural and tasty as sugar but with no calories?
As stevia doesn’t contain any calories, a strong and obvious positioning is low calorie or diet which some chocolate, sugar replacements, dietary supplements and soft drinks have used. But without calling out all the benefits of stevia, is this simply another diet option? Chocolate is the exception where a lighter product is actually ground breaking but how does it taste? Critics of stevia complain about the bitter aftertaste and so find the taste less pleasant. Do consumers worry about the taste compromise vs. sugar? How does the balance between function (healthy) and emotion (taste enjoyment) work? Are brands missing a trick by not providing taste reassurance as well as low calorie claims?
An alternative positioning is naturalness. Given the increasing concerns over how much artificial food stuffs we consume; this feels like a powerful positioning to take. It really taps into consumers current need to find something more natural and healthy. It is also a very simple and clear message to communicate. Zevia, in particular, has used no artificial sweeteners in conjunction with zero calories to great effect and is the number 14 low calorie/diet soft drink in the US.
A more risky positioning is building an innovation solely around taste due to the bitter aftertaste of stevia. Zevia has countered this by combining stevia with 2 other natural ingredients to improve the taste. Coca Cola had mixed results when they reformulated Sprite and Vitaminwaters, reducing the sugar content by 30% and replacing it with stevia. In the UK, Sprite was supported by a ‘rediscover the taste of Sprite’ campaign and consumers accepted the taste change – perhaps the possible bitter aftertaste gave the drink an extra zing? However, while the reformulated Vitaminwater was accepted in the UK, US consumers protested to such an extent that the old formula was reintroduced in the States a few months later. This demonstrates the risks associated with reformulating an existing brand with set taste expectations rather than launching a new product.
In summary there are a variety of ways of innovating with stevia. The possible strategies need to be clearly thought through and it is critical to understand which one best fits with your brand. This can be dependent on your innovation, whether it is a line extension, new brand or reformulating an existing product/brand. Within this, consumers’ appetite for the taste/health trade off will be crucial to explore.
One thing is sure, consumers’ understanding of stevia and what it brings to the table will continue to grow so you don’t want to be left behind, feeling bitter!