Innocent has blazed a trail in the smoothie category but as these drinks have become more popular, juice companies have looked to capitalise by launching their own products. Now Innocent has retaliated by creating its own juice brand and, writes Annette Farr, the company has once again demonstrated considerable self-confidence by launching a new premium product at a time when consumers are tightening their belts.

You have to admire the chutzpah. In an increasingly competitive category, Innocent, the UK's No 1 smoothie producer, has thrown down the gauntlet to its juice producing competitors with the launch of a 100% orange juice.

The 100% juice, which comes in two variants, one 'with bits' and one without, is a blend of not-from-concentrate (NFC) and freshly squeezed oranges sourced seasonally. Innocent says rather than using just one kind of orange, from one country, it will "follow the sun around the world to seek out the juiciest, tastiest oranges".

Heather Callan, the company's head of innovation, says: "We're really excited about our new OJ range. We've used our blending and sourcing expertise to perfect a unique recipe, using different NFC and freshly squeezed oranges, that consistently wins in taste tests versus other popular orange juices. We're hoping it is going to become a major player in the juice market and drive category growth."

Orange is a safe choice to launch into pure juices. Despite the current popularity of superfruits, orange remains the UK's core flavour with a 54% market share, according to British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) 2008 data, followed by apple with 13%, tropical with 8%, berried fruit with 6% and pineapple at 5%. Innocent's choice of NFC and freshly squeezed is a good one too since sales of NFC account for 22% of all chilled juice sold, ahead of from-concentrate which has 20%. Furthermore, Nielsen statistics to the end of April 2008 show that 100% fresh juice is outperforming longlife (ambient) and juice drinks with 5% year-on-year growth.

Innocent's 100% orange juice brand

Innocent has entered the 100% juice category, led by Tropicana, at a time when the chiller cabinet and ambient shelves are overflowing with juices. Tropicana achieved a 9% growth in sales last year to GBP225m (US$420.8m) to become the UK's No 1. It also sources its oranges worldwide; of the existing 60 varieties, Tropicana only uses four of "exceptional quality", namely Valencia, Hamlyn, Pera and Rubi.

More competition comes from Coca-Cola Enterprises with its 100% pure juice, Minute Maid, Grove Organics, Ocean Spray, Ribena's 100% juices, Princes, Del Monte and new entrants such as GoodNatured Pure Orange and Pure Tropical drinks. The latter has sourced the 100% Valencia oranges used in its juices from the Del Oro farm in Costa Rica, the first citrus grove in the world to be Rainforest Alliance Certified.

But, crucially, own-label supermarket products dominate the UK market with 60% of total value (Britvic Soft Drinks Report 2008). These juices are keenly priced, offer value for money and appeal to consumers on a tight budget. And with this month's headline inflation figure of 4.4%, household budgets are going to be squeezed even further. Consumers will be looking for bargains, seeking out the discounts, BOGOFS (buy one, get one free) and other promotional deals.

So in the current environment, there is every likelihood that premium-priced brands will suffer. On the face of it then perhaps not the best time to launch a new premium-priced juice, but Innocent is clearly a company with confidence in its brand. To attract consumers, Innocent says its marketing strategy will focus on in-store activity, merchandising, POS and sampling.

Will Innocent's boldness pay off? Over ten years it has established itself as something of an iconic brand, blazing the trail for the smoothie category and amassing a loyal customer base. The company has the blueprint in place to distribute and market its orange juice and although it says there are no current plans to add new flavours to the range, it's a safe bet that if OJ is successful there will be more flavours in the pipeline.

Innocent's uncomplicated and almost naïve corporate identity belies its manifestly shrewd commercial awareness. While pursuing its goal of becoming Europe's No 1 smoothie maker and expanding distribution of its This Water brand, the company has now delivered a shot across the bows of the juice manufacturers who have muscled in on its smoothie territory.

Unlike bottled water, carbonates and juice drinks, the 100% juice variants are not as dependent on a hot summer to boost sales. The juice, whole juice and nothing but the juice variants are drunk not only to quench thirsts, but also to provide nutrition and goodness, carrying, as many do, a 'one of the five-a-day' message.

To date this summer's weather has been mercurial and, unless the UK has a glorious Indian summer, 2008 will likely see the 100% juice category outperform others. This year could also go down in soft drinks history as heralding the start of the juice wars. And battles are likely to be won by the brand offering the best value for money.