Sales of ice cream decreased by 0.4 per cent to US$20.3bn in 2004 in the region, according to a report released this week by Euromonitor.Processors are focusing on introducing unusual flavors and premium brands to hold on to their market shares.
The trend is known in the industry as the "premiumisation of flavour".
More demanding consumers are willing both to experiment with new taste sensations and to pay a higher price for more sophisticated and less traditional products.
However food processors need to keep a finger on fickle tastes. They must be willing to push out new flavours and replace them quickly.
Exotic flavours tend to be short-lived in popularity and need to be replaced immediately by new, more fashionable ones, Euromonitor noted.
The stagnant growth is the result of maturity of demand, concern over health and increasing competition from private labels within the grocery sector, analyst Francisco Redruello stated in herreport.
"With private label manufacturers increasingly focusing on single, traditional flavoured ice cream, Western Europe manufacturers are opting to increase differentiation for premium productsby introducing new lines featuring unusual combinations of flavours," she stated this week.
The new concept of mixed sensation-based pleasure is reflected in the names of recent flavour releases. The standouts in in 2004 include Frigo's 'Cornetto Love passion' in Spain and Unilever's'Seven Sins intense pleasure' in the Netherlands.
Words evoking sensuality and pleasure sensations are becoming, therefore, an integral part in the labelling of the new flavoured lines.
While companies are producing cream with flavours geared toward regional tastes, the introduction of new flavours follows a common strategy.
The new flavours are often used as ingredients in other products such as chilled desserts and thus they are not totally unknown to the consumer. By combining flavours, processors are creating mixedsensations that are difficult to identify, adding allure for the consumer.
For example Cornetto Love Passion offers versions such as hazelnut-stracciatella and tiramisú-cinnamon, combining nut and herbal flavours with traditional Italian ingredients used in ice cream.
Combinations of familiar and unfamiliar flavours are also a growing trend in Germany. Nestle's Schokolade Orange is an example, mixing chocolate and orange along with spices.
"Though the inclusion of exotic flavours is gaining ground in most Western European countries, its survival is highly dependent on fashion," Euromonitor warns.
With consumers tending to be more health conscious, food processors should also consider meeting the rising demand for fruity flavours. The trend is more pronounced in France and the UK.
Euromonitor's research shows that in Spain, artisanal and industrially produced ice creams are perceived differently by the consumer and do not always show the same trends as the the rest of thecontinent.
The Spanish are sticking with chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, lemon, traditional "turron" (a type of nougat) and coffee flavoured ice creams. However the Spanish are less keen onindustrially produced coffee ice cream.
"Nevertheless, the greater sophistication of super-premium bulk ice cream is increasingly changing Spaniards' preferences, and cookie-flavoured ice cream is gaining in popularity,"Redruello stated.
Pink pepper, chilli and nutmeg, are increasing in popularity in Spain, according to a survey conducted by the Italian Ice Cream Trade Association. Nuts and chocolate are among the mixed flavoursmost in-demand. Exotic flavours introduced a few years ago, such as kiwi, papaya and coconut, are reportedly declining.
Over the border the French don't seem to mind who makes their ice cream, whether it is artisanal or industrial. They prefer chocolate, vanilla and fruits of the forest.
Meanwhile the British prefer vanilla. It is the most popular ice cream flavour in the UK. Versatility is the key selling point. They use it served on its own, with another dessert, or with otherflavours of ice cream.
The next most popular flavour is chocolate and its variants, such as double choc chip. Chocolate flavoured ice cream accounted for a 26% share of volume sales in 2004, according to Euromonitor.
Italians are more into nutty flavours in the artisianal segment, followed by a taste for chocolate, coffee, lemon, strawberry and stracciatella (vanilla studded with chocolate chips).
In the industrial segment Italians go for vanilla and chocolate, followed at a distance by nuts and coffee.
Belgians tend to scoop into very traditional flavours like vanilla, chocolate, mocha and caramel, both in the artisanal and industrial ice cream segments.
In parallel with the introduction of more sophisticated flavours, the industry has been focusing on the development of transparent packaging, showing better the combination of colours and toppingsof the novelties presented.
The trend applies particularly to Italy, but Euromonitor expect processors to rapidly extend such packaging to the rest of Western Europe.