When a product has been around for more than a century, it can be difficult for it to adapt to changing times and tastes while retaining the elements that make it unique.
Vimto, the drink synonymous with Ramadan in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf, may look like it is clinging to the past with its distinctive 1920s-style packaging, but all is not what it seems.
Challenged by the coronavirus pandemic and a health campaign against over consumption of sugar in the Gulf, the drink maker had to adapt.
The holy months in 2020 and 2021 passed under strict movement bans and social distancing regulations, presenting a difficulty for a company that achieves more than half of its sales of Vimto Cordial in the region just before and during the month of Ramadan.
Rasha Sakr, a marketing manager for Vimto at distributor Aujan Coca Cola Beverages Company, based in Dubai, said the company studied shoppers’ behavioural changes during the pandemic and found they were buying Vimto in bulk to avoid frequent trips to the supermarket.
“Our sales were slightly affected due to fewer gatherings and less gifting during the season. However, we are not only back to normal but have achieved our full target before the start of Ramadan this year,” she said.
It turned out that the coronavirus did not dull the appetite for the sticky, sweet thirst-quencher. Nichols, the maker of Vimto, said it sold 30 million bottles in the Middle East last year.
Adapt to thrive
Vimto is not resting on its laurels. It has launched strawberry, blue raspberry and cola berry varieties in the region in recent years, and slushy drinks to entice younger buyers.
The company issued a profit warning in 2019 after the UAE and Saudi Arabia instituted sugar taxes. In response, the brand began efforts to attract a more health-conscious customer and avoid having to increase prices.
It introduced Vimto Cordial Zero, with no sugar, calories or artificial colouring, as a special offering for Ramadan this year.
Ms Sakr said the company was “definitely considering” adding Vimto Cordial Zero to its regular portfolio after the new variety sold out before the middle of the month.
The zero sugar variety also plays into a trend marketers are noticing among younger Muslims towards greater focus on health during Ramadan, particularly when it comes to choosing what to eat and drink for suhoor, the predawn meal.
“There is a trend among younger Muslims to think about their health and well-being, how to use their food during the darkness hours to have less fatigue and less dehydration and to have a more successful fast from a physical perspective,” said Shelina Janmohamed, vice president of Islamic Marketing at Ogilvy Consulting.
Drinks such as coconut water and mocktails are gaining in popularity for hydration, she said.
But not everything is changing. The Vimto label has remained almost the same since the drink arrived in the Gulf, even if the British version has tried to satisfy more modern branding tastes.
The label is so well protected that marketing staff need approval from the very top for even the most minor adjustments.
“The Vimto Cordial label is quite distinctive and somehow sacred, so little or no changes have occurred since its launch,” Ms Sakr said.
But for some, only the original will do. Families even argue over the ratio of cordial to water.
Abdulrazzaq Al Khaja, an engineer from Dubai, said Ramadan is not Ramadan without Vimto.
“It’s one of those things that officially start Ramadan,” he said. “The very first thing you drink at your first iftar.”
This Ramadan is no different — the Burj Khalifa has been lit up in the crimson colour of the cordial as the drink's place as a fixture of the holy month continues.
“We’re incredibly proud of the special place Vimto has established in the hearts and minds of generations of consumers in the Middle East — not only at the iftar table during Ramadan, but throughout the year,” Matthew Nichols, international commercial director at Vimto, said.
How Vimto became the darling of Ramadan
Vimto started off as a medicinal drink created by John Noel Nichols in 1908 in Manchester, England. Then called Vimtonic, it was advertised as a herbal drink to provide “vim and vigour".
After its first overseas launch, in Guyana in 1919, Vimto made its way to India, eventually reaching an employee of Saudi distribution firm Aujan, who recommended the drink to his boss in 1928.
Demand in the Gulf region grew to such a level that 50 years later, Aujan was given permission to set up production of the drink in Saudi Arabia. There are now more than 350 people employed in the operation there.
Even after Coca Cola bought a 50 per cent stake in Aujan's beverage business in 2011, the grandchildren of the original Nichols and Aujan business partners work together on the drink.
Its association with Ramadan has no agreed origin story, but it is likely that the burst of sugar proved attractive to those breaking their fast and its reputation spread through the community.
But there is also science behind why people seek out the familiar during a transformative time in their lives.
“One of the things that Ogilvy looks at is, from a behavioural science perspective, how do habits get formed? If you are drinking something every day at a very fixed time, which is the iftar time, that becomes a habit,” Ms Janmohamed said.