Despite the maturity of the vitamins market, sales of multivitamins grew by 4.6 percent in 2003, compared to 2.3 percent over the sector as a whole, according to market researcher Euromonitor.
This performance has been largely driven by market leaders like Wyeth Consumer Healthcare and Bayer launching age-, gender-, or condition-specific line extensions - Centrum Silver and Carb Assist in the case of Wyeth and Men's Health Formula, Active, Women's, 50 Plus, WeightSmart and CarbSmart from Bayer.
But last week's news from GM indicates that innovation is not all about extensions. The vitamin debut of Wheaties and Total from licensee Leiner Healthcare could have a profound impact on the category's future.
"We hope to bring new consumers to the category," GM director of licensing Pam Kirmisch told NutraIngredients-USA.com. "But we know that millions of people are already taking multivitamins, and we think that the strong brands and the formula may draw consumers away from other brands."
Certainly Wheaties and Total products are competitively priced, both with a suggested retail price of $5.99 for 30 tablets, or as daily vitamin packs containing a multivitamin and three other supplements that may further address the needs of some consumers costing $13.99.
Centrum Advanced Formula costs $6.49 for 50 and Bayers One-A-Day Active Energy $8.99 for 50.
A little healthy competition could be just what the industry needs to keep it on its toes, thinks Judy Blatman, VP, communications for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), which counts Leiner Healthcare amongst its members.
"Members that will compete head on will have to up their game to explain to consumers why they should be using their products," she said.
Nonetheless, Blatman hopes the new entrants will draw new consumers to multivitamins: "We hope it would increase the size of the pie, rather than dividing the pie as it is at the moment into smaller pieces."
And of course the "pie" she talks of isn't just shared out between the brand owners and their licensees. A bigger pie also means bigger opportunities for the ingredients suppliers and private label manufacturers who make up CRN's membership.
Brian Morgan, US research analyst at Euromonitor, agrees that the industry's aim should be to reach out to a new consumer demographic that has not been interested in multivitamins up until now.
In the competition stakes, though, he doesn't think GM's brands hold a torch to the tried and tested players of the multivitamin world. "If they are trying to target the same people as are taking Centrum, I don't think they will be that successful," he told NutraIngredients-USA.com.
Even though the Wheaties and Total brands both have an enviable legacy in cereals, with 40- and 80- year histories respectively, by selling the multivitamins in the vitamin aisle rather than alongside cereal products GM is taking them out of an environment where the have instant recognition.
It is a problem that Procter & Gamble (P&G) avoided when it introduced Olay Vitamins, one of the most successful branded launches in the category in 2003, by placing it on the skin care shelf where it would be visible to consumers who already have an active interest in its claimed additional benefits.
Nonetheless Kirmisch is confident that Wheaties and Total are so ingrained in the American consciousness that the vitamin-shopper will have no difficulty in recognizing the values they represent - even if they do not usually buy cereals.
In fact, cereal-eaters are not necessarily the target for the multivitamins. If they were, it would create an interesting marketing conundrum, since Total is said to contain 100 percent of the recommended daily value of 12 vitamins and minerals.
"We recognize that food is the best source of nutrients," said Kirmisch, "but we know that there are a lot of consumers who aren't able to get the nutrients they need from their food".
Instead, Total multivitamins are aimed at consumers aged 35 and over with an "active, healthy lifestyle" and Wheaties at adults aged 25 to 44, "to help achieve everyday performance goals".
Although the popularity of functional foods has contributed to the pressure placed on the vitamins industry, Blatman believes that GM's entry into the market reinforces the validity of the category.
"It could have chosen just to continue with its functional foods products, but it recognize the benefits of supplements," she said.
"To have companies like GM and P&G [enter the market] shows that they recognize that consumers are interested in incorporating supplements in a healthy diet."
That as may be, but whether consumers are interested in taking the leap of faith from the breakfast table to the vitamin cupboard remains to be seen.