Business | YEN FOR LIVING

Vitamin drinks demonstrate their stamina in the market

by Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku

The marketing firm Fuji Keizai reports that the eiyo inryo (nutrition beverage) market is one of the few consumer sectors that has performed spectacularly in the past few years. Often referred to as “stamina drinks” since they are typically bought by salarymen who need a boost of energy to get them through the work day, eiyo inryo saw its market balloon from ¥114.8 billion in 2010 to ¥121.7 billion in 2011. And if sales so far this year are extrapolated, revenues should increase significantly again in fiscal 2012.

Stamina drinks usually come in two sizes: mini (less that 50ml) and regular (50-100ml). They also fall into two general categories: iyakuhin, meaning they are considered “medicinal” and thus can only be sold in drug stores; and shiteii yakuhin bugai, which do not contain controlled active ingredients and thus can be sold anywhere.

The most expensive of the four general types is mini iyakuhin, and one of the biggest sellers in this category is Yunker Koteieki, made by Sato Pharmaceutical, which retails normally for ¥840 for only 30 ml. It contains lots of herbs but also extract from the gall bladders of cows. The Yunker series also boasts the most expensive stamina drink: Yunker Star, which costs ¥4,078 for 50 ml. It contains a whopping 20 herbs. According to a Sato publicity person interviewed by the Asahi Shimbun, people buy Yunker Star “when they feel tired and know they have to do something important.”

At a Ginza branch of the Matsumoto Kiyoshi drug store chain, the manager told the Asahi reporter that sales of all stamina drinks start rising notably at the end of July, when temperatures begin increasing as well. Summer sales are 20-30 percent higher than sales in other seasons, and are “particularly high in the morning on days that are supposed to be hot,” he said. As far as effectiveness goes, he couldn’t say, though a product development representative at Taisho Pharmaceutical, which makes Lipovitan D, the market hog with a 40 percent share, confirmed the reporter’s suspicions that “people think the more expensive the drink is the more effective it is.” He didn’t provide evidence to back up the claim.

Lipovitan D, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is not medicinal and so can be sold everywhere. It’s also very cheap: 100 ml starts at ¥153. Taisho sells between 600 and 700 million bottles a year. The main ingredients, as with most of the cheaper, non-medicinal stamina drinks, are the organic acid taurine and the B group of vitamins. Taurine supposedly converts fat into energy at a faster rate, thus providing an instant but temporary pick-up. It is also said to improve liver function, which is why so many people buy drinks that contain it when they have a hangover. In drug parlance, Lipovitan is considered the “entry drink,” meaning it’s the first stamina product people purchase before eventually experimenting with harder stuff. That, along with its famously characteristic “acid-sweet” flavor, is one of the reasons it sells so well.

With success comes differentiation, and now the most topical stamina drinks are those that target middle-aged and older people, like Yakult’s Toughman series, which has seen a year-on-year sales boost of 15 percent. Also popular are drinks that contain specific ingredients well known to health food aficionados, such as royal jelly. However, the real beneficiary of the stamina drink boom is Red Bull, the famous Austrian “energy drink” that came to Japan in 2006. Red Bull didn’t cut into sales of Japanese stamina drinks because the purposes were seen to be different. Japanese drinks are for weekday mornings, while Red Bull is for nights and weekends. It is not for alleviating fatigue, but rather serves as a boost before partying or athletics. Because brand recognition was already established, it sold well immediately, and has spurred a rush among other importers to find different foreign energy drinks. In May, Asahi Beverage started selling Monster Energy from the U.S.