Richard Corbett is keen to kick off the end-of-year review season. In this month's column, he looks back at the new product development arena in soft drinks in Europe.

With the end of the year approaching, the time is right to look back at the last 12 months and the soft drinks innovations and new products that have attracted my attention in Europe. It’s my own sort of awards night without the gala dinner, the glitz and glamour. No, I am afraid I am the judge and the one handing out the prizes; in fact, there will be no prizes, just the satisfaction of my recognition.

The first observation to make is that, under the shadow of austerity, NPD budgets have been slashed as soft drinks players have again looked to consolidate their existing portfolios. Also, there is less innovation evident in the marketplace than there was a few years ago, as companies are reluctant to take a gamble on launching new products or concepts. 

The best - or worst - example of the financial risks involved in introducing a new innovation is Britvic’s ill-fated spill-proof cap on its Fruit Shoot brand. The award-winning design came unstuck when a ‘packaging safety issue’ prompted a recall, plunging the company into crisis. I think Fruit Shoot’s spill proof cap wins the award for the year’s most unfortunate innovation.

The year has seen soft drink sales continue to stagnate in Europe but the energy drink category has maintained its vibrancy and continues to be a hot bed of NPD. Following on from 2011, when energy drink shots were the vogue, energy drinks in 2012 have gone large this year. The ‘classic’ 25cl can is now increasingly being usurped in favour of bigger formats, in part triggered by the rising presence of the American brands Monster and - to a lesser extent - RockStar. The energy drink category in general continues to throw up an assortment of bizarre, wacky and often extraordinarily-named new products. Global leader Red Bull has had to respond to these emerging threats and three new flavours have featured in a number of markets this year; cranberry, lime and blueberry.

One energy drink concept I liked was unveiled in Germany in the summer. Inodrink AG brought out GoMo Instant Energy, a powdered energy drink that delivers an energy hit by mixing the product with other drinks either hot and cold. I like the versatility of it and the fact that it is a more unconventional and pioneering addition to the category. Whether it will catch on or not is debatable, but Inodrink has certainly come at the energy drink concept from a different angle.

The European Commission's approval of stevia sweeteners late last year has triggered an explosion in Stevia-sweetened products this year. The ‘natural’ sweetener may still have some question marks over taste but it has certainly been the driver behind a plethora of new products. My award for the best use of Stevia goes to Procordia Foods of Sweden, who introduced an extension to their Fun Light range with Fun Light Green, which positions itself exclusively on its use of the non-artificial sweetener. The use of artificial sweeteners in Sweden has become an issue for many consumers and Fun Light Green addresses these concerns. The use of Stevia combined with the use of a cosmopolitan range of flavours mean this product is well-pitched at its target market of young professional women. Unfortunately, Sweden’s National Food Administration is less impressed and has raised objections to the labelling on the front of the bottles.

As you would expect, flavour continues to be the focal point of much of this year's NPD. Fruits with naturally ‘functional’ or ‘enhanced’ side-effects have been a theme for much of the innovation in the juice, nectar and still drink categories this year. Cranberry, pomegranate and blueberry are as popular as ever, but we are seeing more acerola, aronia, acai berry and even beetroot. Coconut water also ticks a lot of the wellbeing boxes and the number of new coconut products suggests we are seeing the green shoots of a coconut water boom.

Seasonal flavours and limited additions are gaining popularity, giving operators the chance to put their brands in the short-term limelight. Otherwise ginger, lime, mint and rhubarb are emerging flavours in European NPD. Soft drinks producers in Europe are having to cater for increasingly sophisticated consumer tastes.

The award for my favourite new flavour range goes to Austrian company Pago’s new ‘World of Nature’ range. The use of continents to segment the range is not necessarily original, but I've been impressed by the use of naturally-enhanced fruit with an amplified nutritional benefit in the ‘Pago Asia’, ‘Pago Amazon’, and ‘Pago Africa’ drinks. I think the concept is very contemporary and should have a regional appeal.

I am now clutching the gold envelope. While my winner is not necessarily new to Europe this year, it was launched in many European markets in 2012. This product has helped to put the iced coffee category into double digit growth this year, according to researchers Canadean and has gained considerable visibility in the convenience channel since its arrival in a packaged format. The packaging is stylish and the product is sold in glass bottles, cups or can. This product has enjoyed a very positive response in many of the markets it has featured in – in Norway there were even reported to be initial supply issues. My winner is Starbucks iced coffee.

What I like about the packaged version of Starbucks iced coffee is not just that it has been well received, but that the brand has made the successful transition from the on- to the off-trade. Consumers have not been deterred by high unit prices hinting that the product may have some momentum in contrast to some other iced coffee products which have initially proved popular.

Time will tell.