Food and drink brands have a strong record of identifying a niche and making it mainstream. While success stories such as Bottlegreen, Dorset Cereals and Innocent built their brands in more prosperous times, there is plenty of evidence that those that tap into the right niche with a strong proposition can still win prized space on retailers' shelves.
Last month, US healthy frozen-food brand Amy's Kitchen gained listings in Asda and Sainsbury's after creating a UK-specific identity (Marketing, 13 April). Family-owned Amy's has been exporting to the UK for eight years, but hitherto its products had been sold predominantly in independents and health-food stores.
Amy's is looking to carve itself a niche as a natural, home-cooked and gluten-free brand in a frozen category that has long suffered from a perception of negative quality. 'We want to break down the barrier in consumers' minds between fresh and frozen,' says Damien Threadgold, UK sales director for Amy's Kitchen. 'There's nobody else apart from Birds Eye doing that over here and we see that as a huge opportunity.'
To break into the mainstream, the company needed to 'evolve without losing the relevance of the brand,' explains Doug James, managing director of Honey, the branding agency that revamped Amy's packaging. 'The specialist whole foods market can be far more artisan in America - over here, it had to become much more refined to have widespread appeal.'
In Asda, the Amy's range will sit alongside the supermarket's gluten-free lines, a growth area in itself and a niche that Asda is looking to further capitalise on with the imminent launch of its own-label Chosen By You Free From range.
Aside from frozen and gluten-free, James believes there is scope for growth in the lunchtime convenience market. He cites Higgidy Pies and City Kitchen as niche brands that tick the key boxes of convenience, health, branding and price.
Simon Dunn, managing director of food broker and brand adviser Product Chain, identifies healthy snacking and soft drinks as areas ripe for niche NPD, with recent coconut water launches a prime example of a product 'that's sweeping the world'.
While brands are still entering the market, Dunn warns that businesses looking to launch niche food products have to think carefully about how they build their property. He suggests 'seeding' products in carefully targeted channels before taking them to the mainstream. 'We have a market that has changed so dramatically in the past three years that you can take a product today and get it listed in 250 Tesco Extra stores, but it won't do anything. Or you can take it to Tesco Express or a Sainsbury's Local and focus on central London, and in time it will fly,' he claims.
Although negotiations with retailers tend to be harder, niche brands often have a 'unique story' to tell, helping them to 'get through the door', according to Threadgold. 'With Amy's we wanted to get the retailers to see how we do things differently and we're managing to do that.'
Giles Brook knows a thing or two about taking a niche brand into the mainstream, having served as commercial director at Innocent Drinks between 2005 and 2009.
Brook left Innocent two years ago to co-found healthy fruit snacks brand Bear. He now also owns European distribution rights to Brazilian coconut water brand Vita Coco, which is benefiting from a raft of consumer PR.
Brook says it is more difficult than ever in the current economic climate to launch a brand from scratch. Nonetheless, he believes that brands with a compelling consumer proposition can still succeed. 'The category argument for Vita Coco is that it's not a duplicate offering, it's meeting a need that is not currently catered for and gives retailers the opportunity to add incremental sales,' he explains. 'Similarly, with Bear we felt nobody was doing healthy snacking well, so there was a core consumer need.'
Brook's approach has been to seed Bear and Vita Coco in the independent and impulse markets to establish consumer demand before taking them into multiples. By the middle of this year, he says Bear will be sold in virtually every major supermarket, while Vita Coco has won listings in Ocado, Tesco and Waitrose.