Apple juice industry rides popularity of a 'natural' product

''It's so much better than soda,'' boasts the television ad. How can anything top today's soft drinks, which are trying so hard to improve themselves with no artificial colors and flavors, no caffeine or sugar - and now less saccharine?

Apple juice makers think their product can, because it's 100 percent natural from the start. At least that's the reasoning New England Apple Products uses to promote its Veryfine brand on television. It's that ''natural'' characteristic that sparked ''tremendous growth over the last six or seven years'' in apple juice sales nationwide, says David Rowse, president of this family-run company here.

Veryfine has only been a TV star for two years. After the company began making the juice in the 1940s, it simply counted on general buyer awareness to sell it. But more recently, big-name companies have entered the business, increasing the competition and prompting the industry to develop more marketing savvy.

''Three years ago, you never saw an apple juice ad, and now four of us (in the region) are beating away at it,'' Mr. Rowse says. Even so, in the last 10 years Veryfine has become nationally distributed and does well in convenience-store coolers, where it competes against Coca-Cola, Seven-Up, and Pepsi-Cola, as well as other juices. Rowse says his company has been outperforming the national growth rate of apple-juice sales, which he puts at about 15 percent a year.

In the New England area, Pepperidge Farm Inc. is the new kid on the block, peddling Farm Style apple juice, a blend of five kinds of apples. The company began testing the product on the Hartford, Conn., market just over a year ago. Now Farm Style, and a newer Pepperidge Farm apple juice, Country Gold, line supermarket shelves as far south as Roanoke, Va., and as far west as Cleveland, Ohio.

''Plans are to expand distribution and roll out through all of the Eastern area and the Midwest,'' says Jack Tierney, company spokesman.

Other newcomers to apple juice include General Mills, Ocean Spray, and Borden. Part of the reason they have entered the market is new aseptic, paper-box packaging. Any beverage sold in these packs seems to do well, says Larry Davenport, executive director of the Processed Apple Institute in Atlanta. But Mr. Davenport also points to another reason: ''Apple juice just has darn good consumer drawing power.''

The year consumers rediscovered apple juice and cider was 1978, when sales ran up 150 percent from the year before - to $306.4 million. Last year, sales reached $562 million, according to Supermarket Business magazine. During these recent years many American consumers have become interested in healthier foods, industry executives say, and the natural sweetness and pure content of apple juice pulls in these buyers.

With the new entrants, it's more important than ever for companies to get their products displayed, explains Patrick Winn, director of marketing for Treetop Inc., the largest apple-products cooperative in the country. But getting prominent display space - and shelf space - now means giving the retailer a better deal on price. This translates into better prices for the consumer:

''If you look at the average price people have paid for apple juice over the last couple of years, it's been coming down,'' Mr. Winn says. On the flip side, ''We have seen the softness in pricing affecting us,'' he adds.

''In our own area, there'll be a different brand on sale every week,'' agrees Mr. Davenport, director of the Atlanta institute.

Winn sees harder times ahead for regional manufacturers of apple juice. ''The little regional guys are the ones that will probably be hurt,'' he says. With that in mind, Treetop has been steadily pushing its distribution from west to east. Since 1970, it has increased sales 13-fold.

Over the last two years, the pace of apple juice sales has slowed somewhat, and Winn believes there is too much supply on the market right now. He says these conditions mean the industry will have to get more serious about marketing and more serious about price cuts:

''Before 1980, we had no need to market. Some years we ran out of a crop. But the environment is such now that a number of companies have come in with sophisticated marketing. We have to do more advertising and offer more purchase incentives like couponing, premiums, and tie-ins with other products.''

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