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Rivella quenches Swiss thirst

Rivella: a soft drink with a history spanning more than 50 years

(Keystone)

Rivella may not be well known outside Switzerland, but here it's the second most popular soft drink, with a market share of just over 14 per cent. As part of an occasional series on local firms, Michael Hollingdale profiles a uniquely Swiss company.

The story of Rivella began more than 50 years ago in the town of Zug, when a doctor's widow offered to sell the formula for a whey-based drink. The idea was taken up by Robert Barth and after much testing and tasting, the drink now known as Rivella emerged.

In 1952, Barth began producing his product in Stäfa on Lake Zurich with a team of just 14 people. He soon had more than 250 customers on the right bank of the lake. Demand soon spread and in 1954, the company relocated to its present site at Rothrist in canton Aargau.

Today, more than 107 million litres of the drink are sold each year - 11 litres per head in Switzerland - and the company has earnings of more than SFr130 million.

The secret of its success in Switzerland appears to be its association with a healthy outdoor lifestyle.

"At the beginning it made its mark on the sports community," says the head of the company's board, Alexander Barth. "The fact that it contains all the water-soluble minerals of milk makes Rivella an excellent thirst quencher. It replaces not only the liquids you lose when sweating but the minerals, too."

Rivella is often the first soft drink Swiss mothers give to their children, says Barth, because the lactic acid it contains is easy to digest.

The original Rivella Red contains 35 per cent lacto serum derived from whey, with the rest of the drink based on fruit and herb flavourings and sugar. In 1959, Rivella Blue was launched with artificial sweeteners replacing the sugar. This was the first "light" drink, beating the fashion for sugar-free beverages by some 25 years.

Two years ago Rivella Green joined the family. It still has the 35 per cent lacto serum base but also contains green tea for an added energy boost.

In the 1980s Rivella took over the Michel drinks company and added mineral-enhanced fruit juices to its palette.

"Functional foods are quite an item for people at the moment," says Barth. "They want to know that what they eat and drink has some health benefits for them so it's interesting for us to be in that sector."

Rivella is preparing to launch a new product in September called Michel Harmony, a juice based on red fruits such as plums and grapes.

A media blitz and advertising campaign will aim for an explosive entry into the market but it isn't easy to introduce a new item these days.

"On the on-premises market we are very successful with Michel but it's much more difficult to get into the retail sector," says Barth. "Having a new product on the shelf means an old one has to come off and retailers don't do that lightly."

Rivella hasn't been without its problems. Although well known in the Netherlands, other successes abroad have been elusive and the company ended up with egg on its face when it had to abort a failed launch in Britain.

"The Swiss home market is quite small and doesn't create the profits necessary to make a big media campaign in, say, Germany," says Barth. "And since we'd rather spend our own money than borrow it we'll just take our time and do it step by step."

This reluctance to expand is reflected in the fact that Rivella remains very much a family firm. Alexander Barth is the son of the founder, Dr Robert Barth, and says there are no plans to go public.

It may seem a strange strategy in this era of mega-mergers and consolidation, but Rivella appears happy to remain a big fish in a small pond.

Next year, the company celebrates its 50th anniversary and in keeping with its modest temperament, Barth says there'll be a small but pleasant party at the company's site at Rothrist.

by Michael Hollingdale


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