Last year was one of record sales for the Swiss ice cream industry, with total volumes increasing by 9.4 per cent to 55.55 million litres, the biggest year-on-year increase for more than 30 years and the first increase of any sort since 2000.
Most of the increase, of course, came as a result of the hot summer weather, with the heatwave contributing to a sharp rise in impulse sales in particular. According to data from the Swiss Ice Cream Manufacturers' Association, impulse products such as ice lollies and cornets registered a 19 per cent increase in sales in 2003 to 13 million litres as Swiss consumers sought respite from the heat.
Ice cream has always been a product whose fortunes are tied to the weather, with a good summer generally regarded as vital for the well being of the industry. And with total ice cream sales in Switzerland hovering around the 50 million litre mark for nearly 20 years now, manufacturers have clearly found it hard to stimulate growth in years when the weather is not so good.
Indeed, since 1985, sales have risen year-on-year just eight times, and only once (1988 and 1999) for two consecutive years.
So, in order to try and maintain last year's impressive growth levels, manufacturers are focusing on new product development in a bid to stimulate consumer interest in the sector even if the weather is not particularly conducive to ice cream sales (as it ahs been so far this year).
According to the latest release from the Association, demand this year will be stimulated by "coloured, original and fashionable ice creams', but while a look at some of the product launches planned for the summer reveals some interesting developments, there is little to suggest that last year's growth will be maintained without the help of another hot summer.
It is also telling that the same Association release suggests that the best that companies can hope for is a stable market in the long term.
Nonetheless, companies appear to be doing their best to stimulate demand, focusing on several key areas: children, event tie-ins and ethical products.
For example, the Frisco ice cream unit of Nestlé is launching Smarties Pop Up, an ice cream variant of its popular chocolate brand with the added interest of push-up packaging (children, at whom the product is targeted, have to push the ice cream through its wrapping tube in order to finish it).
Some companies, meanwhile, are attempting to cash in on events during the summer with tie-in products. The Emmi dairy group has launched ChocoBall, an ice cream-filled chocolate football complete with its own spoon, which is being launched in various countries to coincide with the European football championships in Portugal.
Retailer Migros, meanwhile, has launched impulse ice creams in the shape of cartoon cat Garfield to tie in with the release of a new movie this summer, again aimed at children, according to Mintel's Global New Products Database (GNPD).
Extensions of well-known brands are also an increasingly popular method of maintaining interest in the market. Nestlé, for example, has launched new impulse versions of several of its most popular ice creams: Pralinato has been launched in larger format, presumably to give even greater refreshment in the summer heat, while the Maxibon brand has gone in the other direction, launching a mini ice cream sandwich snack for convenient refreshment.
In a similar vein, the Swiss arm of Unilever ice creams, Lusso, has launched a 'light' version of its Solero brand - a "particularly refreshing sorbet in two flavours (orange and blood orange) which contains 0 per cent fat" - an attempt to appeal to both the desire for refreshment and healthiness.
At the other end of the spectrum, Lusso has launched a limited edition version of its luxury ice cream brand Magnum under the 7 Deadly Sins brand - seven different ice cream flavours for each of the seven sin. Each variety will be sold on multi-packs of six, all of the same flavour, with Lusso clearly hoping to stimulate demand throughout the summer for all seven varieties in this way - once supplies of one flavour have run out, they will be replaced with the next variety.
Unilever's unit has also tried to bring one of its main take-home ice cream brands into the impulse sector with the creation of Gelateria Carte d'Or, mini ice cream parlours selling 15 flavours of the Carte d'Or brand for immediate consumption.
Switzerland's ice cream producers are clearly hopeful that such novelties will drive further growth this year, but history would seem to be against them, with 20 years of near stagnation punctuated by the odd period of rapid, weather-related growth.
Innovative as some of the new products planned for 2004 clearly are, none are likely to lead to significant market growth unless the summer weather conditions are right - an expensive gamble but one which ice cream producers are obliged to make, even if most years it simply allows them to maintain the status quo.