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EVERFRESH'S JUICY CHALLENGE NEW CEO VITULLI ASPIRES TO TAKE HIS BRAND NATIONAL

By Published on .

Everfresh Beverage Co. is, once again, making a fresh start.

Having survived three decades of management and ownership changes, the Franklin Park, Ill.-based juice and juice drink marketer is looking to take on the big boys of New Age beverages under the guidance of ex-Gatorade guru Peter J. Vitulli.

Mr. Vitulli, 41, who left Quaker Oats Co. as Gatorade president in August 1993 and signed on as Everfresh chairman-CEO in January, has already begun remaking the company's manufacturing and distribution operations while laying the groundwork for more excitement on the product front.

His efforts already are showing a payoff. Everfresh sales were up 15% by mid-August, he said, after stagnating at around $100 million for several years.

But Mr. Vitulli's ambitious plans for Everfresh won't be as easy to brew as his bottled ice teas.

He is aiming to expand beyond a regional presence-after fixing Everfresh's distribution and manufacturing problems-while the growth of such giants as Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo and Snapple Beverage Corp. is beginning to slow in the New Age category.

"Our goal is really to be national," said Mr. Vitulli.

Everfresh still has a shot at greatness, but not much time to achieve it, beverage experts say.

"The market is not mature, but it's going that way," said Tom Pirko, president of New York consultancy Bevmark.

The New Age category has nearly tripled since 1988, to about $1.7 billion last year, according to Packaged Facts, a market research firm. But double-digit growth rates of the past will give way to single-digit growth through at least 1998.

The challenge for Mr. Vitulli and his staff of about 50 will be to duplicate the kind of success that Snapple has had with the right flavors, the right marketing message and the right consumers at the right time, Mr. Pirko said.

"Everfresh is a company that doesn't have a history of breakthroughs," he said.

But that's exactly what the marketer needs to rise to its self-imposed challenges.

"We've got to come out with some home runs," said Howard C. Eirinberg, VP-sales and marketing.

The company is initially focusing on its flagship brand, which accounts for more than half of sales. Its newest flavors, while too familiar to be home runs, may advance the company a base: Kiwi Strawberry, Mandarin Orange Mango and Cranberry Juice Cocktail.

Everfresh also is counting on new advertising to give the brand a stronger identity with consumers, pledging to increase its ad spending about sixfold.

The company settled on "Everfresh is what it is," developed by newly hired Bozell Worldwide, Chicago. Arian, Lowe, Travis & Gusick had handled.

At the same time, Everfresh is bringing out new flavors of Sundance, a once-popular carbonated drink attempting a comeback with a less bubbly formula. Unsweetened teas will bow this fall.

And it is adding distributors almost weekly to enter new markets in the 45 states where it already sells juices.

Ms. Gallagher is an associate editor with Crain's Chicago Business.

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