As well as being a launch pad for many European companies' new products, the SIAL show in Paris, France, this week is also a showcase for many non-European companies to look for new partners and distributors.
One such company is the US firm In Zone Brands, whose quirky drinks sold under the slightly disconcerting name of BellyWashers certainly had a stand out value. The innovative drinks have only been on the market for three years in the US, but have already made a major impact there.
What makes these drinks so striking, however, is not so much the content as the packaging. A series of expensive agreements with the major US film and TV studios has allowed the company to use some of the most popular cartoon characters on its bottles - the Simpsons, Batman, Spiderman, Loony Toons and Disney characters, to name just a few - and these have proved a major hit with the drink's target audience, five to 12 year olds.
BellyWashers are fruit drinks with added vitamin C, and while the drinks themselves do not particularly stand out from the crowd, the bottles are a major selling point. "These bottles have a major re-use factor, and that is what will persuade mothers to spend the extra money that BellyWashers cost," said Fred Blumer, president of In Zone. The drinks cost around €3 a bottle - far more than a similar sized bottle of juice or carbonate, but can be reused for packed lunches or any other occasion by children.
"We have been around for three years in the US, and are just starting to make a mark in Europe now," Blumer said. "We have reached an agreement with the Food Brands Group in the UK and they will act as our distributor there, with the launch planned for mid-November. They are the UK distributor for SoBe juices, so they have just the right kind of experience for a brand such as BellyWashers.
"We are also looking at France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Nordic region, and will probably introduce a different type of product there - almost certainly a sugar-free drink, because that is a much more important market than it is in the US."
Each set of fruit drinks within any given range of cartoon characters has the same flavour - so every member of the Simpson family is Ay Carumba Cooler flavour, for example - each with added vitamin C to help mothers feel that they are not just buying their kids "liquid candy", but the gimmick with this brand is the fact that each bottle features a different character, and that these characters are changed on a regular basis - each quarter, to be exact.
"We also introduce a collectors' edition bottle to many of the ranges for a limited period only, and these are often must-have products for BellyWashers fans," said Blumer. "In fact, we find that while it is kids that we are targeting with these drinks, it is often adults who are the most avid collectors. When we launched the drinks in Mexico, for example, we added a sticker to the bottles in Spanish, and they became instantly collectable just because of that sticker."
The bottles are ideal for convenience stores, video stores and cinemas, where they have maximum impact, but they are also widely sold in supermarkets as well. "We try to get these products stocked in the ambient product sector, rather than in the chilled drinks cooler, as this allows kids to pick them up and feel them, and that is a big part of their appeal. Coolers often have a door, which acts as a barrier to this tactile experience, so we try to avoid that if we can."
Blumer explained that the company had developed the product following a request from the Six Flags Theme Park company in the US for a branded drink packaged in handy bottle. "We had no experience of drinks, because our sister company is a plastics firm, but Six Flags put in a major order for these drinks, so we found it hard to refuse. Now we manufacture all our own products, and have four production facilities because demand has been so great."
He said that the company would look to co-brand with possible partners in Europe - as it has with the Australian arm of the UK's Cadbury Schweppes group for the latter's Cottee's brand - and that it would also look to find local cartoon characters for its bottle designs as well, even though most of its bottles will already be instantly recognisable to most kids on this side of the Atlantic.
It is also currently looking into using other bottle designs, such as famous sports stars or toy brands such as Tonka or Barbie, and has already signed an agreement to use Bob the Builder - a UK cartoon character - for its newest brand, Tummy Tickler, a 100 per cent juice drink aimed at younger drinkers up to the age of five and which will also feature other cartoon characters targeted at that age group.
Both BellyWashers and Tummy Tickler bottles are interactive, with quizzes and trivia on the former and spelling, colour or number tests for younger kids on the latter, and this has also been a major part of their appeal.
"We have never had to pay any listing fees to get these products into the stores in the US, once the companies saw how they fly off the shelves, and we are obviously confident of a similar level of success in the European market," Blumer said. "We are interested in co-packing with any European company - though we do not put other people's drinks in our bottles on their own - and anyone interested in working with us should get in touch with us at the SIAL show or through our website."