Leventhal aims to intensify consumers' thirst for Evian

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With bottled water increasingly in demand, you would think Eric Leventhal would have a relatively easy job. But as more than a hundred rival water brands flood the market, the new president-general manager for Evian North America faces a complex task in rekindling interest in the brand that first popularized bottled water among Americans 30 years ago.

"We were successfully positioned as water for celebrities and a lot of consumers were buying Evian looking for the badge status of looking like `I've arrived' and `I'm somebody special,"' Mr. Leventhal said.

Lack of competition at the time also helped drive the brand's early success. By the `90s, Nestle, Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo began producing locally bottled waters and sold them at a lower price, creating a second price tier. "That would have been the right time for Evian to try to differentiate itself and explain why Evian can command a premium price," Mr. Leventhal said.

If anyone can wake up a sleepy brand, it's Mr. Leventhal, 38, who has made a career out of popularizing grocery basket staples like yogurt, vegetable and fruit juices and cereal. He joined Evian in November from Dannon Co. where as senior VP-marketing he helped boost the stagnant yogurt business from $550 million to $880 million in four years by making La Creme yogurt sexy for adults and Danimals cool for kids.

strong instincts

Before Dannon, Mr. Leventhal led marketing for the beverage division at Campbell Soup Co.. He also held posts at Coca-Cola Co., in charge of the Fruitopia and Minute Maid brands, and at the Post cereal division of Kraft Foods, managing Post Raisin Brand, Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles. Part of his success is due to his strong gut instincts, said Rob Colangelo, president of Colangelo Synergy Marketing, Darien, Conn., who has worked with Mr. Leventhal during different stages in his career. "He is very open to ideas pushing the envelope ... and that has been a key to his success" on Dannon, he said. "He was open to new ideas, he wasn't about the status quo and he wanted to shake things up."

That knack for looking beyond the obvious was evident in his first job as a research associate at management consultant Arthur D. Little. Mr. Leventhal worked on the marketing and distribution strategies that made software TurboTax a household name.

Mr. Leventhal will need all his skills as he moves out of a marketing role into running an entire company. "Seeing the world through a marketer's eyes was what these entrepreneurs were looking for," Mr. Leventhal said. "And 20 years later it's still the same basic components of marketing that I'm doing for Evian with a few brands in between."

In recent years the brand has faltered, despite a North American distribution agreement between Evian parent Group Danone and Coca Cola Co. During the first six months of 2004, Evian sales fell 9.5% and Dasani sales grew 12.4% while Dannon sales surged 28.2%. "We're still in high esteem in consumers minds, but we need to boost relevance and salience and do a better job of telling and selling the consumer story of how Evian is different and special and better than all the other waters in the marketplace," he said.

Marketing will play a key role for Evian, and Mr. Leventhal plans some tweaks to the ongoing "Flowers" campaign via Havas' Euro RSCG, New York, to underscore the factual and rational benefits. "We need to tie the beautiful visual of the flower in the Evian water bottle to do a better job of linking the flower, which symbolizes beauty, to the water," he said.

Mr. Leventhal is evaluating the marketing mix and plans to use event marketing, public relations and nontraditional marketing as well as re-establishing the brand's dominant presence in fine-dining establishments. Without naming agency contenders, he is moving quickly in trying to assemble "the best group of agencies I can through my own networking," he said.

Just Asking

Q: Were there any clues in your childhood that you'd end up in marketing?

A: When I was a kid my brother and I used to play the "commercial game," where you see who could name that advertiser first [a la "Name That Tune"].

Q: How much water do you drink?

A: Four half liters a day, which would be 2 liters a day.

Q: Is that Evian? Do you drink other brands?

A: I used to drink Dannon water, same amount, and when I'm in France, I like to drink Badoit, which is another Groupe Danone brand. I'm very loyal to the brands I work on.

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