The bittersweet truth about artificial sweeteners

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(Published in Aurora Magazine, May-June, 2009)

By Jahanzaib Haque

In this new, health obsessed world we live in, natural sugar has become a natural punching bag for the growing horde of alternative sweeteners available in the market.

Sugar is an easy enemy to target. It has been implicated in causing tooth decay, diabetes, hypertension and obesity amongst other serious health-related issues. However, a new brand, Stivya, launched nationwide by Biovista in February aims to take the fight one step further.

The brand’s communication highlights not only the harmful effects of natural sugar, but also the less-known and more controversial harmful effects of artificial sweeteners themselves. Irfan Sattar, CEO, Biovista explains:

“Worldwide there is an increasing awareness regarding the harmful effects of artificial sweeteners coming from two main ingredients – aspartame, used in brands like Canderel, and Equal, and sucralose, which is found in brands like Splenda and Sucral. Independent organisations and medical bodies across the globe have identified that aspartame can cause the early onset of degenerative brain diseases, while sucralose brands have led the most misleading marketing campaign of the century as the compound contains chlorine which is a dangerous carcinogen.”

A global shift: Alongside such studies, Sattar identifies global trends which indicate that ‘Stevia,’ a plant found in South America which is the raw material for Stivya, has slowly gained acceptance. The US Food & Drug Administration approved Stevia in December 2008, while in health conscious Japan, stevia already accounts for over 50% of the sweetener market share. Major brands such as Pepsi and Coke have also released Stevia-based soft drinks.

Hoping to build on this trend, Biovista has begun the slow process of developing a campaign which generates awareness regarding the product’s health benefits as the only all-natural, zero-calorie sweetener in Pakistan – a claim fortified through subtle hits at the competition.

The campaign has been divided into two phases. The first aims to generate awareness regarding the brand, and the second phase will address the harmful effects of artificial sweeteners directly.

According to Sattar, the strategy is necessary as Pakistani consumers have “low trust” regarding new brands, so making “tall claims” and going on the offensive in the initial stages would have had a negative impact.

Being a small company working on a limited budget has also forced Biovista to rely on in-house production for its ads and promotional efforts. This has led to some interesting choices in terms of determining the channels of communication.

Stivya online: Aside from the expected ATL advertising in print and on TV, Stivya has been marketed aggressively through multiple vehicles on the internet.

Facebook ads and an active community have been used to target a younger, health conscious generation of Pakistanis. Similarly a Twitter account offers its followers regular updates on Stivya, while the website for the brand provides a useful collection of facts, figures and related links (including the ominous, ‘Artificial sweeteners: fact file!’ section).

Add to this the charm of Ejaz Aslam as the official model for the brand and you have a mix that could be tailor made for young people from the upper strata of society. For Sattar, the emphasis on the internet is vital for tapping such an audience:

“I think it is wrong for people to say that the internet is not an effective media vehicle in Pakistan because in reality, many people are using the internet. I believe it is the best media to work with when it comes to products which are high priced and of premium quality. We are expecting people to Google Stevia and find out more about the product.”

The ripple effect of the internet has already led to Stivya generating interest in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka – markets which Sattar says his brand will be moving into within the next six months.

While numerous print ads and TVCs have also been part of the campaign, Sattar says such efforts were made to target the older generation who are not in touch with new media. Additionally, traditional advertising is aimed to encourage retailers to stock and display the product on their shelves.

Hip and savvy campaign aside, Sattar believes getting people to move beyond awareness to the actual purchase decision will reside in generating the ‘Stivya experience’ by means of getting potential consumers to sample the product.

To maximise this sampling process, Stivya has turned to innovation on the internet, offering a free trial sample of Stivya sweetener to anyone who visits their website and submits a request. Once again, Facebook ads and Twitter updates are being used to highlight this offer.

Additionally, Stivya is also marketed directly to doctors. Although Stivya is not a medicinal product, Sattar believe that its health benefits will give doctors a chance to recommend a new alternative to patients who cannot consume either sugar, aspartame or sucralose based sweeteners.

Stivya will also be introduced to coffee houses and cafes for sampling and generating word of mouth recommendations which Sattar believes will be key to capturing market share.

High priced health: Soon to be out in tablet and jar format, Stivya is currently available in a 50 sachet box for Rs 335. A limited survey of shops across Karachi reveals that the brand is the price leader in this SKU.

Brands such as Equal, Splenda and Sucral range from the 100-250 rupee mark for 50 sachets, while Canderel (identified as a top seller by most retailers) sells for a mere Rs 75.

Retailers indicated that customers on the look out for artificial sweeteners usually ask the vendor to identify which brands are local and which are foreign. As a local brand that is priced higher than the foreign sweeteners, Stivya faces a tough challenge in the marketplace – something which Sattar accepts as a reality:

“Someone who is a Sucral user because of price first and health second would not switch to Stivya. Even if I bring the price down why would they switch? It is only for people who are aware, and ready to pay extra for their health. That will take time to build in Pakistan.”

Keeping this in mind, the Stivya campaign will be reducing its ad spend, relying mainly on PR activities, BTL efforts and the internet to continue generating word of mouth throughout the year.

“With our limited marketing budget it will take time to reach meaningful numbers,” says Sattar.

“There will always be a market for everything and the price elasticity of demand will always be there, but low volumes does not mean no volume. Our concern is spreading health consciousness and reaching the right audience.”

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