Will Yakult regret sticking to a sober scientific message while its rivals thrive on a slicker approach? Stefan Chomka thinks not

Imagine Coca-Cola losing its market dominance in the UK to Virgin Cola, or Pringles falling to number two in tubed crisps. Unlikely? Maybe, but that’s what has happened to Yakult, which, after creating the probiotic drinks market in the UK in 1996, has since had the rug swept from under its feet by Danone’s Actimel and Müller Vitality, number one and two respectively in the probiotic drinks market [ACNielsen October 1, 2005].
Actimel has done such a good job that it even entered the top 10 soft drinks ranking earlier this year.
Much of why brands such as Actimel and Müller have been so successful, while Yakult has been pushed to the fringes in the UK can be put down to marketing strategies. While Yakult has chosen to steep its product in science, expounding the beneficial nature of its bacteria, the more successful approach has been that of creating a more general ‘vitality’ message as well as focusing on flavour and packaging.
Yet despite this, Yakult has left behind its popular ‘geek’ advertisements, and with its latest, £3.7m TV, radio and press campaign for Yakult and Yakult Light has once again taken a sober approach, talking up the microbiological benefits and criticising its competitors. The advertisements even admit that ‘Yakult is not a taste sensation’ and ‘not the most attractive colour in the world’.
Javier Orti, Yakult UK’s marketing manager, says: “It’s a noisy and increasingly confusing world of multiple flavours, price promotions and ambiguous health claims.
“Consumers serious about probiotics want a brand that they can trust and respect and this new campaign is about celebrating the fact that Yakult is clearly differentiated from its competitors.
“It’s not about the flavours, it’s about convincing people about the importance of health.”
Orti says that while new entrants have grown the market, they are also making an uncertain future for the category. “Probiotics has grown exponentially, but many of these new entrants and flavours have damaged the market.
“For many competitors, growth has been achieved only via continual price promotions and most of these SKUs are now generating less revenue than a year ago.”
Yakult claims to generate the highest average revenue per sku than any other probiotic in the UK and Orti says the company will not go down the classic fmcg route of discounting. “Everybody can do two for £3, but when the tide of popularity goes down we will still be standing. We have never done and never will do promotion.”
Nor is Yakult interested in packaging revamps. The closest it has come to responding to any sort of faddier consumer trend has been the launch of Yakult Light in 2001.
“The most common question we get is ‘why don’t you change?’,” says Orti. “Our single focus is on bacteria. The packaging is not going to make the bacteria work any harder, neither are lots of new flavours. We don’t want to be gimmicky.”
Yakult predicts that as the category becomes cluttered, with more entrants claiming to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, consumers will eventually need one clear message from the sector.
Chris Grantham, consultant at Dragon, for one believes that Yakult has adopted the correct strategy. While he admits that both Danone and Müller stole a march on Yakult through their generic vitality positioning, he says that this could be a stumbling block.
“The danger is that there are an awful lot of products in adjacent categories offering broad vitality benefits, so consumers will find it harder to see a vitality offering as anything different.”
Yakult’s scientific positioning could indeed have stamina, he says. “The functional message is a good place for it to stay. It is in a solid, credible position based on looking more closely at what the product does for the consumer. We are moving out of an age of ignorance and people are hungry for information about how products work.”
Yakult certainly believes so. “In five years, when the market has moved into more faddy areas, we will still be there,” says Orti.
“Yakult will again be the clear market leader in probiotics.”