Nestlé Waters taps new CMO amid sparkling water ad war

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Yumi Clevenger-Lee
Yumi Clevenger-Lee Credit: Nestlé Waters North America

Nestlé will have a new executive running its water marketing in North America as it battles Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in the fast-growing sparkling water category.

Yumi Clevenger-Lee is taking over as VP-chief marketing officer at Nestlé Waters North America, whose brands include Poland Spring, Nestlé Pure Life, Perrier and S. Pellegrino. Clevenger-Lee had been marketing director for the Latin American division of Cereal Partners Worldwide, a joint venture between Nestlé and General Mills covering the global breakfast cereal market.

At Nestlé she replaces Antonio Sciuto, who had held the CMO title since 2015. (In 2016 he was promoted to executive VP-brands and CMO.) Sciuto's tenure was marked by new investments in digital marketing, including strengthening Nestle's ties with Salesforce.

Sciuto "has made the decision to leave [Nestlé Waters North America] NWNA to consider opportunities both within and outside of Nestlé," Nestlé Waters said in a statement, which credited him with leading the "digital transformation of our company."

Clevenger-Lee joins amid a burgeoning sparkling water marketing war between Nestlé, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and smaller marketers such as La Croix. Nestlé commands 13.3 percent of the sparkling water market in the U.S., second only to private label brands, which have 31.2 percent, according to Beverage Digest. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are far behind, at 3.3 percent and 4.5 percent respectively. But the beverage behemoths are pouring more money behind their offerings and have gained share. Nestlé's share fell by 1.3 points in the year-to-date period through mid-June, according to Beverage Digest.

PepsiCo is pinning its hopes on a new brand called Bubly that it introduced earlier this year and backed with ads during the Academy Awards. The brand's social media onslaught includes hundreds of GIFs starring Neil Patrick Harris. Coca-Cola is investing in sparking versions of Dasani and Smartwater, as well as the Topo Chico brand it acquired last year.

Nestlé in February introduced a new line of sparkling beverages for its six regional water brands, which include Poland Spring, Deer Park, Ice Mountain, Zephyrhills, Ozarka and Arrowhead. The overhaul includes new flavors and packaging, including cans. Nestlé is backing the rollout with a campaign by Dentsu's 360i that began running in May that uses the tagline "Just What's Refreshingly Real." Ads poke fun at marketing tactics like putting slow-motion models in ads.

According to Nestlé, the new products and marketing are making a difference. The company cited Nielsen data showing that its regional sparkling water brands grew 52 percent in the four weeks ending July 14th, outpacing the overall sparkling category's 29.7 percent growth.

The ad blitz comes as water marketers chase larger pieces of a growing pie as sparkling water emerges as an alternative to sugary sodas. The sparkling category's sales volume surged 15.4 percent in the year-to-date period through mid-June, according to Beverage-Digest.

Nestlé previously had focused its efforts on its more premium national sparkling water brands, Perrier and San Pellegrino. "Sparkling water is no longer just for the fine dining table," says Beverage-Digest Editor Duane Stanford. "The segment is going mainstream and competition is rising. Beverage makers can no longer afford to stick to a premium-only strategy."

Clevenger-Lee says she welcomes the competition. "I love that it is a fiercely competitive environment and I love a good challenge," she says. "Nestlé is the leader of the bottled water category, so it's a nice starting position. But we all know that standing still is the surest way to failure."

Clevenger-Lee, a mother of four, says she is motivated by the chance to market a healthy product. "If I do my job well as a CMO I know that America is going to be healthier for it by drinking more water," she says. "My kids can have all the water they want and I'll feel great about it and they will feel better as well."

Clevenger-Lee also says the water business is in her blood because her great-great grandfather founded the water utility in the town where she grew up, Raytown, Missouri. Her father is the current general manager of the utility, called the Raytown Water Co. "We just had water as a conversation at our dinner table all the time because it was our family business," she says.

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