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Could Sports Drinks be the Gulf’s Choice of a New Generation?

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While energy drinks continue to grow in the Middle Eastern markets of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the lack of a fitness culture in those countries has stymied the performance of sports drinks. However, as concerns over weight issues continue to build, sports drinks could be on the precipice of growth. But, in order to fully capitalise on the market’s potential, sports drink manufacturers would do well to mimic the ability of energy drinks to capture the youth market in the Middle East by sponsoring activities and creating beverages that appeal to younger consumers.

Increasing exercise culture provides opportunity for sports drinks

While energy drinks have flourished in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, sports drinks have yet to make an impression. Total volumes are stagnant with only 2.1 million litres sold in the United Arab Emirates and 300,000 litres sold in the KSA compared to 29.3 and 47.2 million litres for energy drinks, respectively. Unlike energy drinks, the functionality of sports drinks is one of hydration rather than lifestyle and caffeination. Also, sports drinks tend to flourish in exercise markets or tropical climates where sports or hours spent in humid temperatures require rapid hydration. While the climate of the Gulf States is certainly hot, most residents remain indoors during the day – such that thoughts of constant hydration are not ever present in the minds of consumers. As such, the traditional marketing avenue for sports drinks manufacturers has been via exercise.

However, exercise culture in the UAE and Saudi Arabia is fairly nascent. Most consumers use leisurely walks near dusk, when temperatures cool, as a form of exercise. And, although organized sports such as soccer and cricket are as popular as ever, they are spectator sports rather than activities in which a vast majority of citizens take part. But, as discussed in Euromonitor’s podcast on sportswear sales in the Middle East, that attitude is slowly changing. Sportswear has seen above average growth in both markets compared to the previous year. And governmental initiatives combined with media pressure regarding weight issues continue to push health and fitness. Euromonitor statistics show that 23% of men and 37% of women in Saudi Arabia are classified as obese; similarly 24% of men and 43% of women in the UAE also fall into this category.

The result has been increased investment in sport culture for these Middle Eastern nations. Both Adidas and Nike have taken note and are expected to amplify marketing efforts for footwear and sportswear. Even fitness centres are starting to emerge in the region as demonstrated by Anytime Fitness (the world’s fastest-growing fitness chain) opening its first Middle Eastern club in Qatar on 1 January 2012. Sports drink manufacturers should take heed and begin launching marketing campaigns of their own. One way to achieve this is partnering with growing apparel players such as Nike or Adidas. Another would be to offer beverages in the new fitness centres, similar to gyms in North America and Europe. But the key may lie in how energy drinks have combined function and lifestyle to target younger consumers.

Energy drink marketing can help sports drinks secure vital youth consumers

Energy drinks have been successful in the Gulf States by appealing to younger consumers seeking non-alcoholic beverages. The region’s prohibition of alcohol has created many alternative beverage choices for Middle Eastern consumers such as non-alcoholic beer and carbonate cocktails. Coffee and tea have also been traditionally popular for consumers seeking a caffeine buzz from their drinks. Knowing this, energy drink manufacturers quickly realized the potential for the unique functionality of their beverages. And, rather than market to older consumers, entrenched in traditional soft drink choices, energy drinks strived to appeal to new generations. So, similar to how energy drinks are marketed in Western cultures, brands began to actively target younger consumers by sponsoring local DJs or extreme sport events.

One example is the growth of Bison Energy Drink in Saudi Arabia. Similar to energy drink manufacturers in other markets, Bison sponsors alternative sporting events such as All Terrain Vehicle stunt competitions and rally car races. But, perhaps more interestingly, Bison’s website promotes the various non-alcoholic cocktails that can be created with the drink. Examples include the Bison Blaster, a mixture of frozen lemonade and two 250 mL Bison energy drinks or a Wake-Up Sunshine – half a can of Bison with one cup of day old coffee. These energy drink cocktails are positioned perfectly for Saudi
youth. Although non-alcoholic, the use of the energy drink as a mixer gives consumers the experience of mixing beverages and can become staples in local
cafés. Furthermore, the newness of the beverages creates a drinking experience for this particular generation, straying from traditional drink options. Spurred by popularity amongst these consumers, energy drinks continue to take share from non-alcoholic beers and other carbonate cocktails popular amongst older consumers.

Similarly, sports drink manufacturers should associate their brands with youth sporting events and activities. This can be accomplished by securing endorsements from local athletes or sponsorship of sporting events. Alternative sports that require participation rather than just spectating would be most impactful. Youth-centred sports such as parkour (the method of physical training involving running, jumping and climbing over obstacles to go from one place to another) or windsurfing would be more useful than traditional events such as camel racing and falconry. So, similar to how energy drinks presented an alternative to traditional beverages for younger consumers, sports drinks would do well to associate with a sporting culture that the new generation can claim for its own.

Bison’s focus on energy drink cocktails could also represent an opportunity for sports drinks. Weight concerns and calories are emerging as important concerns for many Middle Eastern consumers. Although sports drinks have traditionally been eschewed for high calorie content, new formulations featuring lower or zero calories have quickly addressed this perception. If sports drink manufacturers were to promote mixing with fruit and vegetable juices, they could position themselves as a creative and healthy alternative to carbonates and other sugary beverages. This would increase sales via the increase in drink occasions beyond the functionality already associated with the product.

The rise of sports culture in the Middle East has a long way to go. But if beverage manufacturers stay ahead of the changes and position themselves as a drink for healthier generations, the potential for the category is too large to ignore. And, although cultural challenges will always remain an obstacle, the rise of energy drinks demonstrates that moving with those changes in culture can be very profitable.

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