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Boost Glucose Control

April 23, 2007
Novartis has taken the Mead Johnson nutritionals line and developed a condition-specific, snack replacement product.

Diabetes has been with mankind for a very long time. The earliest known record of diabetes was mentioned in Egyptian papyrus by physician Hesy-Ra in 1552 BC. Early evaluators (people who drank the urine of those suspected to have diabetes) reported the urine to be sweet.

From the 1990s to today, the focus has been on prevention of type 2 diabetes (which is not hereditary) via diet and glucose level control. Key principles of dietary control are managing weight, reducing intake of dietary fat and monitoring carbohydrate intake. The last focuses on an even distribution of carbohydrates or replacement of some carbohydrate with monounsaturated fats.

Diabetes is growing alarmingly in the U.S. From 1980 through 2004, the number of Americans with diabetes has more than doubled. People aged 65 years or older account for almost 40 percent of the population with diabetes. Today, an estimated 21 million Americans and 195 million people worldwide have the disease.

As functional beverages move closer to providing true health-enhancing proprieties and medical/ nutritional foods are sold over the counter to consumers, how to position a brand in this self-managed health product world?

Boost has been identified with various life stages, specifically among seniors and baby boomers. After Novartis purchased the brand from Mead Johnson & Co. in 2004, the acquirer looked at how to marry the core competencies of Novartis with the brand equity of Boost.

One answer came last September in Boost Glucose Control. Similar in concept to 100-calorie packs, these give users a simple, easy-to-use unit of nutrition to ensure they control their glucose levels. For this review, we looked at Boost Glucose Control vanilla flavor.

For many users of nutritional beverages or meal replacements, there is a chalky, bland taste to them. Boost has provided a better tasting version with enhanced nutritionals (fewer carbohydrates and more protein) to minimize the blood glucose response.

Understanding the marketplace

The nutritional supplement category's 2006 sales were approximately $4.7 billion through all channels, a 6 percent increase overall from 2002. Market leaders are Ensure, Balance, Boost, Nutrament (also from Novartis), Slim-Fast and several other meal supplement-type beverages. Key drivers in this category have been the demographic growth of baby boomers, who are developing health problems as they age and are willing to buy health and wellness products to stem aging.

This target group has high expectations of good taste and benefit delivery, so Novartis has begun to leverage the Boost brand not only to include energy and nutrition, but now condition specific benefits -- along with good taste.

Strange aftertastes and unfamiliar aromas and textures are the main barriers for those needing to incorporate better-for-you products and nutritional supplements. The target group for these products is energetic people who need glucose control and do not want to slow down. Novartis is trying to shift the paradigm for consumption of nutritional beverages to more of a mainstream product while at the same time provide condition-specific health benefits. This is a fine line to walk.

Our Healthy You! and Drink It! studies find the key attributes for consumption of meal replacement, fiber and energy beverages are taste, price, healthy ingredients, "good for me" and texture. Getting the nutritional components right is critical but so is taste and texture in a value proposition.

The key attributes that consumers will trade off for are fiber and protein, flavors, nutrition, vitamins and minerals and variations of a product that are good tasting. This is not a product class that consumers are likely to get emotional over or will seek an emotional reason to consume. These are products that are more about the functional benefits and the product itself. People prefer the sensory and health benefits of the beverage over emotional reassurances.

These beverages are consumed once a day or more, typically at breakfast, mid-morning or mid- afternoon. These are beverages that consumers are using instead of snacks and therefore they must meet the snack-level taste expectation.

Key trends that impact this idea are convenience, flavor and healthfulness.

Convenience: Single-serve bottles sold in multi-packs is a given; otherwise, there has not been innovation to improve convenience. Consumers are still expected to chill and shake the beverage. Additional uses have been suggested by using the product as a base for other recipes (i.e., frozen treats, smoothies, etc.).

Flavors: Flavor is driving interest in this category. It used to be that you purchased chocolate, because, manufacturers could not mess up that flavor. Then came berry flavors, although some consumers consider these a little too sweet. New flavors are designed to be richer to evoke a fat content that these beverages may or may not have in them.

Healthfulness: Nutritional supplements have both the halo of health and reality of health. The focus on key health conditions allows for SKU variation based on key health ingredients. Healthy ingredients that drive interest are: calcium, antioxidants, fiber, specific vitamins, high protein and low fat. These components reflect many of the diet trends we see today.

The experience

Boost Glucose Control is available in an 8-oz. container at $7.99-$10.19 for a six-pack. They are designed for holding and easy consumption with a ribbed hourglass bottle. They come in vanilla, chocolate and strawberry (the three most traditional flavors for nutritional drinks). For this review we chose vanilla.

The bottle graphics reflect the health condition in large script. "Helps maintain stable blood glucose levels" is in a burst along with protein, carb and fat grams. Further nutritional formulation benefits are on the side panel. Another burst suggests to "Use under medical supervision," which does not fully make sense with an over-the-counter purchase.

Opening the bottle is not difficult with the screw top lid, but the tamper-evident seal over the mouth of the bottle requires a tool and could remind the consumer she is using a quasi-drug.

This is not a beverage that you should chug out of the bottle. The mouth opening is slightly too wide, the product a little too creamy. You are forced to slow down and savor the product as you would an indulgent product (or was it made to be poured in a glass?).

Flavor and texture are critical to the perception of quality. The flavor impressed us. It is strongly vanilla, the texture is creamy with no chalkiness. Unlike some beverages where aroma can delight, there is a slight aroma but not one that enhances the flavor experience.

The product is an indulgent, rich beverage. Given that the consumer typically is trading off a snack for this beverage, this richness is key to the perception of satisfaction and satiety.

The ingredient statement and nutrition values are good: 190 calories, 16g of carbohydrates, Benefiber (another Novartis brand) supplementation and 250mg of sodium.

Does the product deliver?

The Boost brand is about the energy to embrace life. Energy that comes from great-tasting nutrition. As Boost moves toward more condition-specific versions, the message of energy becomes less clear although the message of nutrition is clearer (and more condition-specific). These contrasts can create some confusion for consumers.

This product may not deliver on energy -- certainly not in the current Red Bull way. The perception of nutrition is dependent on belief in the claims on the bottle for diabetics trying to manage their disease.

How to make the idea bigger: The original Boost brand was about getting energy through nutrition. This new direction is about dealing with health conditions through nutrition. This new direction still fits its user base.

The product is indulgent and can be traded off against snacks. It has excellent nutritionals, but can be a little scary when looking at the ingredient label. Milk, tapioca, vegetable oil and a whole bunch of ingredients you can not pronounce do suggest this is a product made in the lab. Not all consumers who are dealing with health conditions are looking for that.

Novartis has developed a proprietary nutritional blend to deliver smaller peaks in blood glucose, fewer carbs and more protein, plus a special fat blend that includes omega-3, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats to help reduce cardiovascular risk factors. These are all factors that consumers may not think about in terms of managing their diseases, but will help them further down the road.

While all this is very helpful, consumers may be looking for something that is more real rather than lab-created. A stronger positive aroma experience would help. Moving beyond the traditional flavors would also help. Those flavors are strongly associated with medical products, so having a trendy flavor could give this an added "boost."

Rating: Boost Glucose Control Vanilla delivers on the nutrition and taste promises. It delivers an indulgent experience that can be traded off versus a snack. The concern is the shout of health and focus on medical supervision. But for the many Americans looking for snack alternatives to help them with their diabetes, the taste profile is a great step forward.

Market Potential: Good, for the brand, good for the category. As a means to expand the overall brand, this is a good start in delivering more specific nutritional formulations against target consumers. Moving the product into mainstream distribution and store locations takes some of the stigma out of managing a disease like diabetes.

Hollis Ashman is chief strategist and Jacqueline Beckley is president of the Understanding & Insight Group, a strategy, business and product development firm that connects with consumers using qualitative and quantitative approaches. For more information, see www.theuandigroup.com.

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