Russia has a considerably higher rate of cardiovascular mortality than the United States. In 2000 the rate amongst Russians aged 30 to 59 years was 576 per 100,000 men and 179 per 100,000 women - compared to 116 and 63 respectively in the US.
According to the International Obesity Taskforce, 30.7 per cent of men aged 19 to 55 years and 27.4 per cent of women were overweight (body mass index or BMI, between 25 and 29.9) in 2000. 10.3 per cent of men and 21.6 per cent of women were obese (BMI 30+).
Moreover, in December 2005 the World Bank issued a stark warning that Russians should cut alcohol intake and smoking and improve their diet if they are to reverse the drastically declining population and keep up economic growth.
In this context, there is certainly a need for initiatives to improve the overall health of Russians and, if successful, the introduction of Benecol in the second half of this year could have a major impact.
Raisio first launched Benecol in Finland, its homeland, 11 years ago and it has since achieved outstanding brand recognition and sales around the globe.
In Finland Raisio presently holds a 50 per cent share of the functional margarine market.
But given the low awareness of the health problems that high cholesterol engenders in Russia, the latest new market could be a tough one to crack.
"It will be difficult to enter the market because awareness of cholesterol problems in our cities is low. Only a small percentage of people connect cholesterol with heart disease, and many think it only affects the elderly - not people in their 40s and 50s," brand manager Daria Demshina told NutraIngredients.com
Moreover the lack of symptoms for high cholesterol and the absence of diagnostic tools in Russia hamper awareness.
At present, there is no official education programme in place in Russia to educate the population about the dangers of high cholesterol - unlike other diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis.
Awareness is presently highest in Russia's two biggest cities, Moscow and St Petersburg.
The first hurdle to taking Benecol into Russia has been obtaining approval for the plant stanols and the finished product from the health care department and from the food authority. Demshina expects all the certification to be in place over the next few months, so that the first Benecol product - a spread - can be launched in the second half of this year in Moscow and St Petersburg.
Demshina said that the company is taking a two-pronged approach to marketing the brand: to the medical community, and directly to consumers.
It is already establishing good relations with leading cardiologists and other health care professionals, and aims to educate doctors and nurses about the dangers of high cholesterol and the benefits of Benecol. The company will be taking part in medical conferences, and also placing editorial and advertisements in medical journals.
Some awareness about cholesterol has already been raised in the medical community by pharmaceutical companies that offer prescription drugs like statins, but they are not able to market directly to consumers.
Raisio, on the other hand, has a relatively free-reign to generate consumer awareness though community activities and press campaigns, for example. It may also introduce cholesterol-checking in stores, if approval can be obtained.
The Benecol spread will be priced at about €2.65 (around R90, or US$3.2). This, Demshina said, will be affordable for people earning the average salary in Moscow and St Petersburg, which is US$1,000 (€825 or R27,670) per month.
Moreover, between 25 and 30 percent of the 15m people living in Moscow have a salary in excess of $5,000 (€4,120 or R138,335) per month.
At present, the most popular spread brand in Russia is Unilever's Rama. This claims to contain no cholesterol - but there is no spread available that actually lowers cholesterol levels. Raisio also has a large share of the spread market with its Dolina Scamdi brand.
But Demshina said that spreads do not form part of the usual Russian diet, and this market is actually decreasing.
For this reason, Raisio is planning to introduce stanol-containing dairy products under the Benecol brand - such as yoghurt and milk.
Younger generations of city dwellers tend to have higher incomes than their parents and grandparents, and in order to make Benecol relevant to them it will carry a claim of preventing high cholesterol, rather than the cholesterol-lowering claim that is used in other countries where the baby boom generation has a higher disposable income to spend on products that they believe will keep them healthy for longer.
For Russians in the older age-bracket who may already have high cholesterol, awareness will be driven more through medical professions advising them to use the products. Although they would receive no price-reduction when purchased on a doctor's recommendation, Benecol will still be cheaper than statin drugs, Demshina pointed out.
Raisio has conducted some market research and found that, for linguistic reasons, Russian consumers do not associate the name 'Benecol' with cholesterol. But in fact in the Cyrillic alphabet Benecol can also be pronounced 'Venecol' - and that carried connotations of the veins and cardiovascular system.
Beyond Moscow and St Petersburg, there are plans to introduce it in some other Russian cities in three to four years time, but Demshina said that much will depend on the first year following the launch.
By the end of the first year, Demshina's aim is for 50 percent of cardiologists to understand what Benecol is and what its benefits are, and for the products to be carried in 40 percent of all stores in Moscow and St Petersburg that sell spreads and dairy products.
It will be years before any impact on impact cardiovascular disease mortality and morbidity rates of business initiatives such as this can be ascertained. But although Raisio's move may be a bold one, if it pays off it could yield real benefits not only for the company, but also for the Russian population at large.