Number of lines: 1
Listings: Sainsbury’s, Asda, Spar
Andrew Robinson’s mantra is ‘life’s good when it sucks’ - not because the 29-year-old is prone to wallowing in misery, but because he’s the boss of Strawtech, the licence-holder for one of the most exciting new brands to hit supermarket shelves in the past year.
Sipahh flavoured straws, which contain hundreds of beads that flavour milk as it is sucked up, are now stocked in Sainsbury’s, Asda, BP forecourts, Spar and stores in Ireland.
Launched last year in four flavours - chocolate, banana, strawberry and caramel - the straws are described as a healthy alternative to traditional milkshakes and a novel way of encouraging children to drink milk. The company is confident it will be able to secure listings at other big retailers including Tesco, Morrisons and Waitrose. Not bad for a company only founded in 2006.
Robinson launched the business, which holds the licence for Sipahh in the UK, Ireland, Southern Africa Development Communities and the Indian Ocean Islands, when Unistraw, the Australian company that invented Sipahh, approached the investment bank he was working for in the UK for funding to roll out its product globally.
The company said it was also looking to sell worldwide licences for its products. As impressed as the judges at international food and drink show Anuga had been the previous year, when Unistraw won an award for innovation, Robinson immediately flew out to Australia.
He acknowledges it was a bold move. “I came out of the investment banking world to sell straws because the concept was so exciting,” he says. “I can count the number of people who said I should go for it on one hand, but I’ve lost count of the number of people who told me I was mad.”
Fortunately, Unistraw was equally impressed with Robinson and Strawtech became the only start-up company to be given a licence to sell the new brand. “I was the first guy knocking on their door,” says Robinson. “Many of the world’s biggest food and drink companies now own the licences in the rest of the world, so as a small company we are in a unique position.”
So far his faith in the product has been justified, but his business has faced unwelcome competition from Nestlé’s Nesquik Magic Straws. Unistraw had already taken Nestlé to court in 2006, claiming it copied its design, although an out-of-court settlement was reached (see The Challenge). Robinson says he is acutely aware just how proactive Strawtech needs to be to stay ahead of its much larger rival.
One way it has tried to establish an edge is through promoting the health credentials of Sipahh, which it boasts contributes only half a teaspoon of sugar to a 250ml glass of milk. Strawtech is now working closely with Dairy Farmers of Britain to provide samples of Sipahh for schools, and it is sold as part of doorstep deliveries to encourage parents to give children milk.
“Fruit juice can rot the teeth, but the straw makes the drink go straight to the back of the throat so sugar does not come into contact with the teeth,” says Robinson. “The straws encourage children to drink milk and to get the benefits from it, such as calcium.”
To keep children interested, innovation is essential, says Robinson. There are currently about 15 flavours of straws across the world, and many of these could reach UK shelves soon, he says. Flavours including cookies & cream, chocolate mint, vanilla and honeycomb will be launched, and iced coffee flavours, which were launched in Australia six months ago, are also planned for the UK.
“Children get bored quickly, so we need to keep on innovating and bringing out new flavours about every six months,” he says. “Sipahh is about getting children to drink milk, but they will only want to if we keep it interesting.
“Cookies & cream is an incredible technology because it combines different flavours in one straw, and we will do more of this type of double flavour.”
There are other innovations planned. First will be a straw that delivers fruit flavours to water, scheduled for launch in the second quarter of the year. A probiotic health straw, that will deliver nutrients such as Omega-3 and a sports straw that replenishes lost electrolytes are also in the pipeline.
“We are looking at changing the way that people consume beverages,” says Robinson. “There is still a lot of research and development going on, so this is just the start. These are exciting times for us.” For some people life really is good when it sucks.
Sipahh’s entrance into the UK market is a modern day David and Goliath story. It was launched there early in 2007, but its Australian inventor Unistraw had been making waves there well before then, taking on the world’s biggest food manufacturer.
In January 2006, Unistraw took Nestlé to the High Court, claiming it had copied Sipahh for its Nesquik Magic Straws, which use similar bead technology. Unistraw alleged this happened after negotiations exploring Nestlé’s UK commercialisation of Sipahh broke down.
Nestlé denied the allegations, and in mid 2006 the case was settled out of court, but the stage had been set for a battle of the straws.
Magic Straws’ launch at the start of 2006 was backed with a £3m marketing campaign, including TV. Sipahh hit the market a year later, backed by a campaign that concentrated more on sampling, and has so far managed to hold its own.
Andrew Robinson of UK licence-holder Strawtech says he is not concerned about competing with a large multinational. “We have a lot more flavours to roll out in the UK, which will put us in a good place against Magic Straws,” he says.
Robinson thinks his strong position is down to Unistraw’s pioneering work. His NPD budget is limited, but Unistraw has a research and development facility in Australia, and has already developed a number of new concepts for which he will given a licence to sell. “Unistraw develops the products for Europe at its manufacturing base in China, and then companies from across the globe send in their own artwork. It’s a simple process.”
The company’s UK operations are also more straightforward than other countries, he says. “In the UK, if you want to list a product with a retailer, you deal with one buyer to get a national listing. In South Africa, retailers are split up into different regions, and you have to go to each region and negotiate with each buyer.
We also have to employ people there to ensure that the merchandising is done correctly in stores, while over here it is an internal job for the supermarkets. This makes the UK a much easier to market to work in.”
Just the facts
Australian company Unistraw first started to develop its straw concept in 1997, but the product took a further seven years to perfect. In July 2002 the company produced 60,000 hand-made straws for a six-month trial in US restaurant chain Denny’s, and the product was eventually launched across Australia.
Strawtech was founded in 2006 when South African-born Andrew Robinson bought the rights to sell the brand in his native country. Within 18 months the company had gained listings in most of the major multiples in South Africa. Strawtech launched the brand in the UK at the start of 2007 and other Unistraw partners now sell the straws in dozens of countries around the world.
Because of the number of countries in which Strawtech sells Sipahh, and the small size of the business, Robinson is constantly on the move. Each month he spends two weeks in the UK, one in Africa and one in South Africa.
“I do a lot of travelling for my job, so I don’t count any one place as my base,” he says. “Home is where I plug my mobile phone in.”