Vitamin Well AB’s Success in the Nordic Functional Bottled Water Market Shows Power of Localisation

Vitamin Well AB, a Swedish producer of functional bottled water, has been able to grow its presence in Western Europe’s US$515 million functional bottled water market by increasing its retail value share from 7% in 2010 to 29% in 2015.

The Vitamin Well brand has become the number one functional bottled water brand by retail value sales in the region by outperforming rival The Coca-Cola Co (TCCC)’s Glacéau VitaminWater and Bonaqua Emotion brands despite having a strong presence in only a few markets – Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden – and without access to TCCC’s extensive distribution network. In contrast, TCCC saw sales of its Glacéau VitaminWater brand decline in Finland and Sweden in 2014 and withdrew the brand from these markets in mid-2015. TCCC had also withdrawn its Bonaqua Emotion brand from Sweden in 2010. Looking at Vitamin Well’s success in the Nordic functional bottled water market shows how a smaller company can succeed against a larger rival by meeting the needs of a specific market. In addition to benefiting from early-mover advantage, Vitamin Well has been able to use Nordic consumers’ strong interest in design, quality ingredients, and physical fitness to position its functional waters as a premium beverage for active consumers.

Localisation through strong design and high quality

A key contributor to Vitamin Well’s success in the Nordic region has been its sleek and simplified product design and emphasis on quality. The clean, almost pharmaceutical-like nature of Vitamin Well’s bottles reflects Sweden’s clean, simple design heritage seen in the country’s IKEA and Orrefors furniture and crystal brands. The clean look of Vitamin Well’s packaging was designed to create a premium image to appeal to active consumers. Vitamin Well emphasises high quality and healthy properties and its premium, healthy positioning is reflected in its use of water extracted from the Guttsta spring Västmanland for its Vitamin Well Sparkling Water product. In contrast to Vitamin Well’s simple packaging and lightly tinted waters, Glacéau Vitamin Water’s bright packaging is designed to appeal to young consumers and does not look premium. VitaminWater’s use of boldly tinted water may have also made it look too similar to carbonates and juice drinks that it is designed to replace. While TCCC used the same packaging design for Glacéau VitaminWater in the Nordic countries as it did elsewhere, Vitamin Well has kept the minimalist style of Nordic consumers in mind in its packaging design. The company gave its bottles a slight makeover in 2010 to clarify its message, only one year after entering wider distribution.

Vitamin Well positions itself as an early-mover with fitness credentials

In addition to strong design, Vitamin Well has benefited from early-mover advantage, as Vitamin Well AB was one of the earliest entrants into the Swedish functional bottled water market when the company was started in 2006. Vitamin Well gained a strong following and built up its fitness image by selling its functional bottled water through non-traditional distribution channels such as golf clubs, chemists/pharmacies, cafes, and gymnasiums. In 2009, Vitamin Well entered into wider distribution including grocery retailers in Sweden. By the time Glacéau VitaminWater entered Sweden in 2010, Swedish consumers were already familiar with Vitamin Well as a high quality beverage for active people.

Vitamin Well’s fitness credentials have contributed to the brand’s success as an aspirational brand for active consumers. There is strong interest in athletic endeavours among consumers in the Nordic region. Working out has also become fashionable among Nordic residents as well-toned bodies and athleisure apparel are now viewed as status symbols. The mingling of physical fitness with style aids companies such as Vitamin Well that combine fitness credentials with stylish packaging. Vitamin Well has worked to associate its brand with physical fitness through brand ambassadors and event sponsorships. The company signed Swedish football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a brand ambassador in December 2014. To capitalise on Ibrahimovic’s appeal among Swedish soccer fans, the company launched Vitamin Well Upgrade in March 2015 in a lemon and cactus flavour and held the “Upgrade like Zlatan” contest. The company’s latest initiative in sports marketing is its April 2016 announcement that its Vitamin Well+ is now the Swedish Football Association’s official sports drink. In contrast to Vitamin Well’s extensive investment in marketing in the Nordic region, TCCC has not devoted as much energy to promoting its Glacéau VitaminWater and Bonaqua Emotion brands since it derives most of its revenue from Coca-Cola and other carbonate brands. An exception is Norway where Coca-Cola Norge AS is targeting active lifestyle consumers by adapting its Bonaqua range to include one version with fruit puree (Frukt-i) and Bonaqua Pluss with added vitamins B5 + B6.

Using event sponsorships and limited edition flavours to create more interest

Sponsoring sporting events is a way for Vitamin Well to enhance its fitness credentials among affluent and active professionals watching the game. The company has sponsored events including the Stockholm Open, the Ski Star Swedish Open, and the Criterium Vitamin Well Copenhagen. While many beverage companies use event sponsorships to promote their brands, Vitamin Well takes the additional step of introducing limited edition flavours for big sporting events. The company launched new variants of the brand for each of the sports events that it sponsored in 2015, including Vitamin Well Tennis for the Collector Swedish Open. It launched Vitamin Well Guldtuben for Guldtuben, the biggest YouTube gala in the Nordic countries, held in April 2015. Continually introducing new flavours helps to create excitement for the Vitamin Well brand, gain media exposure, and prevent boredom among its consumers.

Future growth expected despite consumers’ environmental concerns

In addition to beating rival TCCC in sales, Vitamin Well’s success in the Nordic region is noteworthy because the company has been able to grow demand for functional bottled water in a region that highly values environmental sustainability. Swedish people are known for the attention they pay to taking care of the environment and conserving nature. Other Nordic countries also place high importance on the environment. In 2014, the Oslo municipality undertook an awareness campaign to make people appreciate the high quality of tap water, with similar campaigns conducted in Norway’s biggest cities. Many consumers in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden consider tap water to be good quality and generally view bottled water as wasteful. But by positioning its bottled waters as healthy, functional products with good taste and offering it in a beautiful design, Vitamin Well has been able to win over many Nordic consumers. As Vitamin Well becomes a larger company with more fans and critics, it is seeking to address consumers’ environmental and social concerns by working to reduce its environmental impact. Vitamin Well states on its website that since 2015 its bottles contain 25% recycled plastic, with only 29g of plastic per bottle. To offset carbon emissions during transport, the company works with ZeroMission, Svenska Solvatten, and Trees for Global Benefit in Uganda to offer water purification and the planting of trees. Corporate social responsibility initiatives such as these should help the company continue to grow sales in the region despite consumers’ concerns about the environmental impact of bottled water. Vitamin Well’s CSR activities as well as its continued focus on event sponsorships and new flavour varieties are expected to contribute to total functional bottled water in Western Europe to show a 9% constant retail value CAGR to reach US$775 million in 2020.

Potential for small companies to succeed through a local approach

Vitamin Well’s success story in the Nordic region illustrates that a small company can surpass a bigger company by using a localised approach. Small companies can succeed by carefully observing what local consumers are looking for and tailoring their packaging and formulation to meet these consumers’ needs. Though multinationals such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have extensive distribution networks and strong relationships with large grocery retailers, Vitamin Well shows that a company can prove itself in unorthodox distribution channels such as golf clubs and gymnasiums and establish a sales track record before entering grocery retailers that are more difficult to enter. A new company finding difficulty getting distribution in mainstream retailers may decide to start in farmers markets or through e-commerce to get started. In the case of Vitamin Well, the company leveraged the interest in design, quality, and fitness among Nordic consumers. For another small company, it may be able to leverage a country’s interest in herbal medicine and local ingredients to market its products.