Sweetener Competition Heats Up

Stevia Extract In The Raw, one of the three major competitors in the zero-calorie, all natural sweetener category, is launching a campaign next week touting the purity of its ingredients.

The push comes as major beverage makers like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola roll out new product introductions using the sugar substitute. Last December, shortly before gaining FDA approval, Coke said it would sell stevia-sweetened Odwalla juices. (Stevia had long been used as a dietary supplement, but until recently, the FDA had prohibited its use as a sweetener for health reasons.) Rival Pepsi said it would hold off — but following FDA approval, it is readying a social and traditional media campaign for its SoBe line of new age beverages.

Now Stevia Extract In The Raw is looking to jump in on the action. Parent Cumberland Packaging Corp. of New York has bought full-page ads in July issues of major women’s publications hitting shelves next week. An ad in the Conde Nast title Lucky asks, “How pure is your stevia sweetener?”

Cumberland Packaging, which also manufactures Sweet ‘N Low, is spending a minimum of $2 million on the effort, said marketing director Michael Decker. Despite that modest media budget, the family-owned company hopes to capitalize on the recent stevia buzz, along with new sweetener introductions by rivals, to call attention to its brand.

Monday’s print salvo seeks to leverage competitors’ efforts by pointing out the key differences between Stevia Extract In The Raw and others. Working toward that end, the same ad in Lucky goes on to say: “Stevia Extract In The Raw is the purest national brand [of] stevia sweetener available. Other stevia products add erythritol and isomaltulose.”

The latter are subtle, yet comparative references to Truvia and Purevia, Stevia Extract In The Raw’s two biggest competitors. The differences among the three stem from the purity of the stevia plant as well as the type of carbohydrate used in the binding process. (Stevia, in its raw form, is too sweet to consume.)

Decker said the campaign intends to establish the brand’s “credibility” over other natural sweeteners on shelves. “We feel like this consumer is now starting to get to know what stevia is all about, but they need more information on what makes our product superior to others,” he said.

Other print titles carrying the ads include Real Simple, Self, Us Weekly and Body + Soul. There are also in-store shelf and coupon machines to generate trials between now and the end of the year.

The company is also distributing free samples at health and wellness-oriented locations including gyms, spas, beaches and marathon events. Its Twitter page, @SteviaInTheRaw, contains daily tweets on the product, stevia-incorporated recipes and healthy living. Manhattan-based advertising agency Pedone handles creative duties.

The campaign marks the brand’s first major launch since reaching national distribution. Like its competitors, Decker said Stevia Extract In The Raw targets active, health-conscious women age 18 to 49.

Sugar substitutes are currently a $375 million category, per data from Information Resources Inc. The latest round of data, ending May 17, shows Stevia Extract In The Raw garnering $1.3 million in food, drug and mass merchandise sales. (Such data excludes Walmart.) PureVia and Truvia have $815,447 and $9 million in sales, respectively.

In the zero calorie, all natural sweetener category, taste, not purity, is key, said Lynn Dornblaser, new products expert at market research firm Mintel. Consumers using stevia as a sweetener often complain about its “bitter” or licorice-like aftertaste, she said.

The ads, though, neither address nor attempt to resolve the category’s central problem, but instead focus on “purity.” Which is a clever way of skirting the issue, Dornblaser adds. “You know what stevia is, but you don’t know what these other chemical things are,” she said, referring to the use of terms like “erythritol” and “isomaltulose.”