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The seasonal festivities tend to give way to a period of ideas, hopes and plans. In Europe, the soft drinks industry is looking to formulate its strategies for the coming year. Before that, Richard Corbett considers last year's soft drinks and water NPD in the region, and picks his favourite.

January provides the opportunity to assess the trends and patterns which have shaped refreshment demands in the last 12 months. It is a chance to identify the acorns that were planted last year that could grow into big oak trees this year, and to explore some of the diverse range of new products that have recently entered the market.

2015 was a year when the rumblings of the anti-sugar lobby grew louder and this has proved to be influential in encouraging more low calorie, 'no added sugar', Stevia and, of course ,'Zero' products onto the shelves of European retailers. The term 'Zero' has now established itself firmly in the soft drinks lexicon and, last year, we had, to name just a few, Pepsi Max Zero, Schweppes Zero, Burn Zero, Monster Zero, Iskaffe Zero and Red Bull Zero all launching into new markets.

Meanwhile, what became very evident last year was that a number of players are sailing towards the less choppy waters of the packaged water category and are having a punt on the flavoured sparkling water segment. Nestle and Danone in particular are looking to capitalise on any consumer shift from CSDs to water.

One seed that was planted a few years ago, but is really now gaining momentum in more markets, is the Fever Tree tonic and mixer brand. For years, premium spirits have been making strong headway and it made sense that drinkers would want to use high-quality mixers to justify their extra spend. Suntory has raised its game as a result with an upgrading of its Schweppes mixers range. A deluxe range of exotic-sounding mixers appeared last year in new markets, including a pink peppercorn tonic, a ginger & cardamom mixer and a lavender & orange blossom mixer - all packaged in a glamorous-looking bottle to give them status. Other high-end tonics and mixers have also begun to spring up across the region as a result of the popularity of Fever Tree.

Classic cocktail mixers, like pina colada, mojito and strawberry saquiri, have again been utilised by adventurous operators in Europe. Mojito is a very popular cocktail flavour that seems to have migrated from the ready-to-drink alcohol sector to become a soft drink flavour in its own right. In Germany we even saw a 7-Up Mojito flavour launch, and the lime and mint formula has been adopted by a number of other brands who recognise its refreshing qualities.

Flavours in general remain the key focal point of innovation. In Germany, a new term to describe a set of flavours was born; 'Garden Fruits' include apple, pear, red and blackcurrant, cherries, rhubarb, and homemade lemonade. It has a nice, homely feel about it and I think it will stick. It feels 'local' and there is definitely a trend towards locally-sourced fruits. In both Italy and France, consumers enjoy buying domestically-sourced drinks because, not only do they trust them, but they also feel they are supporting their own local economies in a challenging economic environment.

Last year, we saw beetroot very much in vogue both as a blend and as a stand-alone flavor. Scandinavian juice supplier Rynkeby even brought out a beetroot sports drink, Rynkeby sport power boost drink. Coconut has again featured prominently helped by a new summer European marketing offensive from Vita-Coco. In East Europe, elderflower has raised its presence, with Coca-Cola's elderflower & lemon Fanta Shokata one of a number of new elderflower products appearing in the region. In North Europe, Aloe Vera is riding the crest of a wave and is featuring in a plethora of new drinks.

As ever, there are the flavours I would be less willing to sample. I did not warm to the idea of the cola & apricot drink launched by the Kofola group in the Slovak Republic, and the caramel carbonate from Saku in Estonia certainly sounded interesting. The flavour I would however be most wary of trying would be Sacla's apple, gherkin & lettuce juice – although I have no doubt it would add five years to my life.

One of the most innovative brands last year was again Unilever's Lipton. The brand's cocktail-themed range landed on new shores with the addition of red fruits, raspberry, pomegranate and lemon Zero variants to new markets and even a honey & melon flavour in Turkey. In Portugal, the company launched a concentrate version of the brand. Rival Nestea has not stood still and continues to add variants including a thought-provoking elderflower & grape flavour in Hungary.

The iced tea category has seen plenty of investment with a number of new products capitalising on tea's link with wellbeing. North American import Arizona is now in a number of European countries, and is clocking up respectable volumes while a relatively new wellness iced tea from the UK, Little Miracles, is being sold in a number of new places including France. Unilever is looking to capitalise on the interest in high-end, tea-based refreshment and introduced their own version of an up-market iced tea, Pure Leaf, in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Relaxation drinks remain niche but, in France, the Canadian iced tea Slow Cow and Bee Zen and, in Germany, Tran Quini are good examples of tea-based products that have made some noise.

It was not just iced teas where we witnessed a surge in organic and other top-end drinks last year. Like many, I was taken by surprise by the emergence in Germany of an organic water segment. Indeed, it took the courts to give the go-ahead to several new organic waters in the country. Germany is often the origin of some of the more unorthodox concepts in the drinks market and last year the nation delivered once again with the development of a new market segment, vegan drinks. I was sceptical, but it turns out that some juices use animal products to filter juices from nectars.

For me, last year's standout is not a new brand, yet it has been very active in NPD and shown pioneering initiative in 2015. My winner is Innocent, which has not only helped realise Coca-Cola's ambition to have a premium juice brand across the region, but in 2015 demonstrated its versatility to meet the evolving demands of Europe's drinkers. Launched in August, Innocent's new Light & Juicy contains 30% less sugar, whilst still maintaining the brand's 'natural' integrity. Then, there's Innocent Coconut Water, which was well-pitched to exploit the growing coconut segment. The super smoothie range entered new territories this year and Energise, in particular, was very well-received - a natural energy drink that enabled more health conscious drinkers to access the energy drink category. Finally, the brand even added some sparkle in April, with the introduction of Innocent Bubbles.

There was plenty of new stuff in 2015 to keep the soft drinks and water category fresh. So, here's to more in 2016.

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