Gary Lavin’s story is an inspiring one. In the 1990s he became a professional rugby player for high-profile English club Harlequins, but a knee injury ended his career at 24 before he turned out for the side.
“I got injured in pre-season before I even played a game for them and lost my contracts, in my first season as a professional,” he tells BeverageDaily.com.
“I loved playing rugby, but I felt like a bit of sham because I wasn’t really using my brain, just doing something I really enjoyed. When I got injured I was completely distraught, but it really pushed me into the business I’m in now,” Lavin adds.
‘If I hadn’t got injured – where would I be?’
“I often look back and think, ‘if I hadn’t got injured – where would I be?’ So it was almost a fortunate thing it happened,” he says.
Lavin then moved into the beverage business, but it took 14 years of hard work and a few false starts before he hit it big with VITHIT – a range of waters with around 15% juice content, fortified with eight vitamins (100% RDA) juice, 300mg of healthy teas, other healthy ingredients (such as ginseng, guarana, L-carnitie) and fewer than 35 calories.
Flavors include Mandarin with Orange, Green Apple with Elderflower and Dragonfruit and Yuzu – Lavin says the latter has become the joint top-selling SKU inside three months, where it shows the growing Irish and English taste for exotic flavors – provided they taste great…
Launched in 2009, the self-financing brand has grown organically and now sells four million bottles per year in Lavin’s native Ireland, which has a population of 4.5m, and Lavin believes it can be similarly successful in the UK (64m people) and internationally.
VITHIT builds on UK Tesco listing
VITHIT won a UK listing with Tesco in June 2013 and now services around 480 stores nationwide, and Lavin tells us that the brand aims to score sales of £3m ($5m) within the next 12 months in the UK alone.
He also has listings with El Corte Ingles in Spain, South Africa’s Shoprite Checkers and has just shipped a container down to a PepsiCo bottling facility in Virginia, where the drink will launch on a trial basis.
“They’ve seen the success in Ireland and Tesco in the UK. But we’re growing carefully – not just firing it at every country and seeing what lands. We’re being careful and targeted with our distribution,” Lavin says.
He created VITHIT’s five flavors as a low sugar range (less than 35 calories/500ml bottle) that tastes as good as 180-calorie full-sugar alternatives – consequently formulations take 9-12 months to perfect.
Diet drinks that mix it in the mainstream
“We don’t consider ourselves a diet product. We wanted to create a low-calorie product that ended up in the mainstream, against all of the big sugary competitors. If it tastes just as good, whether you’re health-conscious or not, you’re going to make a decision to shift over,” Lavin says.
Initially he pitched the drink at men and women aged 18-45, but admits that around 65% of drinkers are women aged 16-50; although VITHIT isn’t sold as a female product, Lavin thinks women are quicker than men to embrace health trends.
Although he denies that VITHIT is a ‘vitamin water’ per se, the drink plays in that space, and Lavin has a theory as to why the category hasn’t seen the phenomenal success – zero to $500m dollars – it saw in the US.
“I think the reason Vitamin waters have not been really successful in the UK, Ireland and in Europe is that they were created for the American market and different taste buds,” he says.
Watered-down drinks don’t appeal to British taste buds
“Over here we like a juice-based taste and the sweeter flavor this brings. So watered-down drinks – I just don’t think appeal to the Irish or British public. We outsell a lot of the vitamin-water style brands in a lot of the cafes and delis we go into,” Lavin adds.
“I don’t want to mention any brands – but vitamin waters out there were created for the American market, and have done well with the money behind them, but they haven’t been the runaway success they were in the US,” he says.
Lavin says the US-first brands (clearly Glaceau and SoBe are the two biggest) were sugar-based when they first launched in the UK, which meant they got off to a bad start with calorie-conscious consumers – despite later formulation changes.
“Then the taste. I never saw anyone taste a functional water and say, ‘Wow – that tastes incredible!’ he tells me.