This month, Ray Rowlands of Drinksinfo Ltd revisits the energy drinks category to see what has been going on in the evolution of what has been the soft drinks industry's star performer in recent years.

Energy drinks have a long history. One of the earliest products we are familiar with in the UK is Lucozade, which made its debut in the 1920s.

But, the broader energy drinks category as we generally perceive it today has its origins in Asia. The region still provides an important contribution to the global energy drinks market, accounting for well over a third of total volumes. However, the packaging composition of the market there is somewhat different to the almost ubiquitous metal can that is found in the West: Traditional Asian energy drinks come in medicine sized bottles.

It was the well-documented arrival of Austrian-born Dietrich Mateschitz in Thailand in the 1980s that led to the development and spread of the 25cl can that still represents a large core of world sales. However, times are changing. In an article written last year, I paid tribute to the rise of energy shots and the 50cl can.

Much has happened since then. 

Energy shots are basically concentrated energy drinks. The concept has similarities to traditional Asian energy drinks, but employs 5cl and 6cl PET as opposed to the 10cl and 15cl glass bottles used, for example, in Thailand. 5-Hour Energy, manufactured by Living Essentials in the US, reputedly started the craze back in 2004. Since then, various other brands have adopted the format, including The Coca-Cola Co's Burn, GSK's Lucozade and Red Bull.

However, in many markets, energy shots proved a short-lived phenomenon that never really captured the consumer imagination. Many products are still going strong in the US, but Red Bull is said to be in the process of withdrawing its offering, and in the UK, Coca-Cola and Cott Beverages also culled energy shots last year. Delistings are evident in a number of other markets, which does not bode well for their international survival.

The strength of the category appears to lie with mainstream presentations and there seems little fear of their failure, at least in the foreseeable future. Energy drinks may be one of the smallest of the soft drink categories by volume, but although the explosive expansion of earlier years has eased, these drinks are still proving extremely dynamic.

There is room for new initiatives, however, to encourage forward development. To date, much of this innovation has come in the form of packing. It was back in 2008 that Coca-Cola Amatil in Australia launched its Mother energy drink in a relatively novel can size. This was amongst the first 50cl cans to appear on the global market. Frucor Beverages, based in Auckland quickly followed suit and gradually more and more in brands adopted the concept.

Red Bull has followed a different path in respect of upsizing by introducing a 33.5cl can in 2007 followed by a 47.3cl size a couple of years later. A more recent packaging venture is the release of a 33cl PET bottle, which appeared last year. But, taking the energy drinks category as a whole, there are a multitude of pack types and sizes now available. These are employed in order to satisfy a broad range of drinking occasions, to provide a point of product difference and directly or indirectly to raise average consumption levels.

In the key US market, responsible for 25% of worldwide energy drink volumes, metal cans continue to dominate. However, much has changed since Red Bull first made its presence felt with the launch of the 25cl can. This size now only represents around a quarter of country sales having been overtaken by the 47.4cl can, as employed by the likes of Monster, Rockstar and, indeed, Red Bull itself. This is now the most popular pack in the US on a per litre of consumption basis. Indeed, larger packs are helping to drive category growth: The 71cl can (Monster, Rockstar) is popular and has been joined by a 94.7cl size.

Although not entirely new, this upsizing is tending to turn the concept of 'energy drinks as individual drinking on single occasions' on its head. This, in turn, is leading to further packaging innovation. Whilst PET and glass bottles obviously allow containers to be resealed, this feature has been lacking in the can, which still represents by far the most popular format worldwide.

In 2010, the Hansen Natural Corporation (which changed its name to Monster Beverage Corporation in 2012) introduced the recloseable can in the US. Other brands have followed this lead on the international stage, including Burn. No doubt, more will follow.

So, where is category development to go from here?

Sugar-free variants are already in existence. It was the launch of sugar-free versions of V (Frucor Beverages) and Red Bull in Australia in 2003 that reportedly added stimulus to the uptake of glass bottles ‘down under’, where they were taken up by female consumers concerned with weight control. However, on a global level low calorie products have not really made much of a mark on category performance.

Maybe the calorie content of energy drinks is not perceived as such a big issue?

Flavour development (with or without added vitamins) seems to be the next innovative approach, with juice mixes currently at the forefront. Thus, we have brands like Courage Juice, Monster Chaos, Rockstar Juiced and now flavoured Red Bull (limited editions of Red Bull with blueberry, cranberry or lime were recently released in Holland). And so, the energy drink category continues to evolve as it maintains its forward momentum.

The big question is, what happens when the ideas dry up?