Aloe appeal: the rise of aloe vera soft drinks
Although aloe vera drinks remain a niche in the West, both the market and awareness of health benefits is growing. Elly Earls learned more from ALO Drink founder Henry Chen.
Aloe vera drink products are already extremely popular in Asia Pacific and range from pure aloe vera juice to aloe-flavoured water and even quirky yoghurt drinks, all of which have gone down a treat with Asian consumers looking to improve both their health and the condition of their skin.
Korea-based OKF Corp, which manufacturers Aloe Vera King, is the clear market leader, but the range of brands increases every year, with competitors including Philippines-based RFM Corp, China's Happy Lemon International and South Korean beverages company Keumkang B&F.
In Western markets, however, consumers have not been so quick to embrace aloe vera and the few products are mainly confined to health food shops, delis and specialist stores. Unlike some superfood ingredients, aloe vera - despite its many health benefits - has failed to penetrate mainstream stores due to its unfortunate taste and a lack of awareness about the benefits of consuming it.
Strong growth: aloe vera in the West
Slowly but surely, however, the West is getting onboard with aloe vera, an ingredient that offers health benefits ranging from improving immune and digestive health to enhancing skin elasticity and reducing inflammation. Indeed, data from research specialists Canadean suggests strong double digit growth in 2011 and 2012 for products where aloe is either the sole or main ingredient, with Russia in particular standing out.
In incidences where aloe is the secondary flavour, there has also been strong growth, particularly in Eastern Europe, and Canadean analysts have also noticed more aloe variants in products such as iced tea drinks, as well as syrups, squashes, sports drinks, carbonates and packaged water.
OKF, which exports over 300 products to more than 150 markets, is the aloe drink market leader in the West and Asia Pacific, but other drinks manufacturers are also doing well. Korea-based Lotte Chilsung and Tulip International, for example, were cited by Canadean as two of the top performers in this category in 2012. While US-based ALO Drink, which launched in 2009, has already become the number one ready-to-drink aloe vera beverage in the US natural market and has won multiple awards internationally for its products.
Secrets to success: aloe vera taste and health benefits
There are two things that the majority of drinks manufacturers succeeding in the West have in common: their focus on masking the unsavoury taste of aloe vera that has historically put consumers off, and their commitment to making their drinks as natural and healthy as possible.
For Henry Chen, founder of ALO Drink, this combination has been absolutely key to his company's rapid growth in the US.
"To introduce this kind of drink to the mainstream US consumer channels, we felt it was critical for us to build a better beverage than what was already out there," he says. "We wanted to highlight all the great benefits of the aloe vera plant but also give the mainstream American consumer something different and healthier. It was important for us to distinguish our drinks from other lower quality drinks that also contained aloe vera. While many of those brands used artificial colours and ingredients, we felt it was critical not to compromise on quality. So we came up with our own blends and formulations that were all natural and included real aloe vera pulp and juice straight from the aloe vera leaf."
"We also felt it was critical to come up with unique, great-tasting flavour profiles to set us apart from the other beverages in the natural drinks category. And the idea that you could enjoy a great tasting alternative to sodas and other high-sugar drinks that also provided some great benefits to the body really resonated with consumers."
According to Canadean product development manager Antonella Reda, OKF's success in the West has been largely down to the same two factors. "OKF Aloe Vera series is the global leader on the strength of its natural, original and organic proposition, as well as its range, flavour extensions and diversification (for example, aloe water)," she explains.
Key challenges: education and drink formulations
Finding the balance between great taste and an authentic, healthy drink, however, is not an easy task. "We try scores of different formulations each year and nearly all are rejected," Chen admits. "In fact, several years ago, we decided we wanted to develop an even lower sugar line-up for our fans that were clamouring for it, but it took us well over two years to find just the right combination of ingredients that did not compromise on taste and satisfied our standards."
It was worth it in the end though. "We launched the ALO Light line just a few months ago," Chen remarks. "And it's already winning awards."
Another challenge aloe vera drinks manufacturers are facing as they try to break into the mainstream market in the West is that although consumers are becoming more health-conscious, many are not aware of the specific health benefits of consuming aloe vera, which, studies have shown, range from levelling out blood sugar and blood lipid levels to boosting the immune system.
"While many consumers are aware of aloe vera for its external properties - for example in creams and cooling gels, the benefits of internal consumption are less widely known," Reda confirms.
Well thought through marketing strategies are therefore key to success in this category, something Chen can testify to.
"It was important for us to clearly communicate our brand message, so we spent considerable time and energy brainstorming and nailing down what our brand's all about; we wanted to become not just a drink, but part of a 'goodness' lifestyle," he emphasises. "Working with our creative agency, our marketing team came up with our tag line: 'Goodness from Inside Out'. Our brand is about hydrating both body and mind."
Getting the message out hasn't been easy though. "Since we are still a relatively small but emerging beverage brand, we don't have a huge advertising budget. So we focus our resources on trying to get directly in front of the consumer," Chen explains. "We spend heavily on events and demos where we have the opportunity to sample our drinks and talk directly with the consumer.
It's worked: "We find that if we're able to get people to at least try our drinks and chat directly with them, an overwhelming majority will come back for more," he remarks.
With mainstream consumers becoming more and more conscious about health and natural products, aloe vera drinks manufacturers clearly have the potential - if they market their products properly and find the correct balance between taste and authenticity - to grow significantly in the coming years.
For ALO Drink, at least, this is certainly the goal. "In the US, we expect further penetration into more mainstream consumer channels," Chen concludes. "And we believe healthy drinks will continue to grow in both in the US and Europe. Not only are consumers making better decisions for their own health, but brands can't easily disguise bad quality products any longer."