Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 February 2020

Before there was oil, this region discovered Vimto

Justin Thomas explores the Gulf's love of a soft drink from the north of England
People shopping for Vimto at Lulu HyperMarket in Al Mushrif Mall. Asmaa Al Hameli / The National
People shopping for Vimto at Lulu HyperMarket in Al Mushrif Mall. Asmaa Al Hameli / The National

It’s remarkable how a blood- coloured beverage, born more than a century ago in England's industrial north (Granby Row, Manchester), has managed to capture the hearts and mouths of almost the entire Arabian Gulf. Ask any one in the region what drinks they most associate with iftar and Vimto will almost certainly be one of the top answers.

Once again this year, part of the big Vimto push includes personalised bottles. You can now have your own name on the iconic Vimto bottle. If that’s not enough, Swarovski, the Austrian company famed for its crystals, is also involved, and personalised Vimto bottles are now also available in bling. I don’t know any other drink, anywhere, that is afforded such celebrity status and star treatment.

Vimto undoubtedly remains the undisputed king of the iftar table. Its seasonal popularity is confirmed by internet search statistics. Enter the term “Vimto” into Google Trends, and run a report for any Gulf country, and a huge annual spike will appear. After Ramadan, the search volume drops back to a flat line, reflecting the beverage’s rapid return to relative obscurity.

Vimto sales data also confirms this Ramadan spike. In recent years, the UK soft drinks group Nichols, Vimto's maker, posted a 39 per cent rise in profits, a hike it attributed to a surge in shipments to the Middle East in the run-up to Ramadan. Other reports suggest that more than half of Vimto's annual sales are made during the Ramadan period.

Just visit any hypermarket in the Gulf, and you will be hard pressed to find one that hasn’t given Vimto a prominent in-store placement. This preferential treatment is typically reserved for new products, or stuff that is going to go out of date soon, but Vimto, the seasonal sweetheart, always gets prime placement during the holy month.

While hypermarkets are relative newcomers to the region, Vimto is not. The syrupy purple nectar first arrived in the region in 1927, when Abdulla Aujan & Brothers, Saudi commodity traders, expanded into beverages and acquired the exclusive rights to import and distribute Vimto. The fact that Vimto has been in the region for so long arguably adds to its wide-scale acceptance and popularity. Vimto is not a newcomer. Before there was oil, there was Vimto.

Although not a newcomer, Vimto is still unmistakably, and perhaps attractively, foreign. Arabic has no letter V, so a special letter needs to be created by adding additional dots. This is kind of like when English writers have to customise the “é” for those fancy French words. Perhaps this strange and hard to pronounce letter adds to the beverage's appeal, making it obviously foreign and thereby special, exotic and alluring. I have friends in the UK who take similar delight in their ability to correctly pronounce Hermès (Parisian fashion brand) with an authentic French accent.

One of the biggest factors in Vimto’s regional success however, must stem from the beverage’s roots in the UK temperance movement. Temperance was a popular social movement advocating restrictions, and in some cases the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Vimto, or vim tonic as is was known back in 1908, was initially concocted as a healthy alternative to liquor. Manchester, the birthplace of Vimto, was a leading light in the UK temperance movement.

For example, Maine Road, the former home of Manchester City football club, was reputedly named to honour the US state of Maine, the first state to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages. The Maine Liquor Law, passed in 1851, was viewed as a huge victory for the temperance movement. Vimto’s early association with the temperance movement certainly wouldn’t have harmed the drink’s appeal in this region.

Some of Vimto’s regional popularity, however, must also be attributed to artful advertising and aggressive marketing. Blinged-out and personalised bottles are just the latest examples in a long line of initiatives aimed at engaging potential customers. I’m not a fan of the commercialisation of religious occasions. However, perhaps Vimto, with its origins in temperance movement, deserves its annual moment in the sun.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas

Updated: June 5, 2016 04:00 AM



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