Bruce Nevins

Thursday, October 19, 2017

This article was originally published in the November 1977 issue of the AVENUE.

“You must come see my wine rack.” It is said with an air of excitement, and the listener anticipates the riches: precious bottles of 1900 Chateau Margaux, ’93 Mouton-Rothschild, or, at the very least, 1906 Haut Brion. But no. The vaunted rack contains a half dozen specimens of a mediocre California burgundy, flanked by row upon row of pale green bottles of Perrier.

The Perrier freak is an otherwise normal man named Bruce Nevins. His passion for France’s famous gaseous water is accounted for easily enough by his job. Nevins, forty, is president of Perrier U.S., a company formed fifteen months ago to market and distribute Perrier in America.

Nevins’ plan of action, simply, is to make America fizz with Perrier. Of course, the bottles shaped like little bowling pins have long been available next to the goose liver pate and caviar in gourmet shops and specialty stores. Perrier with a twist of lime is the chic drink in spots like the 21 Club and Regine’s. Mick and Bianca Jagger, George McGovern and Ed McMahon are said to gulp it (like water) and Richard Burton now drinks Perrier instead of booze. Nevertheless, the plebian American still prefers his Scotch or Pepsi – and Nevins is out to change that.

The mass marketing of Perrier is a bold gamble. In its effort to crack the U.S., Source Perrier, the parent company, is taking on the world’s richest and roughest soft drink market. Before Perrier U.S. can hope to break even, thirsty Americans will have to drink about twenty times the two million or so bottles of the bubbly beverage that were sold in 1976. That’s an impressive amount of mineral water, perhaps, but only a tiny fraction of the amount of soda pop Americans now prefer to buy each year. Undaunted by the numbers, Nevins has cheerfully set 1978 as the year America will be awash with forty million bottles of Perrier.

The assault began in earnest last summer. Under Nevins’ guidance, Perrier widened distribution by shipping thousands of cases into supermarkets and corner grocery stores. Next down came the prices. The twenty-three-ounce bottle which sold for between eighty-nine cents and a dollar and ten cents six months ago now goes for about sixty-nine cents. A new eleven-ounce six-pack and “shrink-wrap tri-pack” (Yes, Nevins was an Ad Man once) were just introduced and look something like bottles of Budweiser, tinted green. Finally, the company kicked off a four-million-dollar national advertising campaign (next year’s budget will be over six-million dollars) featuring Orson Welles. Why not a Freshman? Says Nevins: “Welles has a voice of authority”

All this effervescence over Perrier has given Nevins a new visibility. The good-looking bachelor with the deep tan is seen more and more in the press. He is quoted in publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post extolling the virtues of his product. He loves to point out, for example, that Perrier contains a little healthful calcium, and is almost salt-free. Off the record, he adds that it prevents a hangover if used as a chaser.

But Nevins is in the news for another reason lately. His list of girlfriends includes Canada’s former First Lady, Margaret Trudeau. The pair met, naturally, over Perrier. Last April, Source Perrier imported about forty American food, beverage, health and beauty writers to Vergeze, the township outside Nimes in southern France where the mineral water bubbles up from an underground spring. At that time, Margaret had just started building photography credits and joined the press junket to practice being a photojournalist.

“When I heard that she was coming along, I was very concerned,” recalls Nevins. He was afraid that she, not Perrier, would attract all the publicity. Just as he had feared, paparazzi swarmed after Margaret and even tried to get into the corridor outside her hotel room. Margaret began leaning on Nevins to protect her from the nosy press. Two weeks later, the Canadian Prime Minister and his wife formally announced their separation and Margaret set up an apartment for herself in New York. She and Nevins began dating “fairly steadily.” Says he: “We do what people do in New York. We go to restaurants, talk, enjoy things and improvise.” He smiles and adds that “Margaret is just a real, natural person.”

When he isn’t buys with Margaret, or others, Nevins is dreaming up new ways to promote Perrier. His task is an exquisitely tricky one: to mass-market Perrier without sacrificing its snob appeal. Ad campaigns stress the mystique of the water and note that it has been bubbling up from the Vergeze spring for thousands of years. In fact, Hannibal supposedly refreshed his troops at Vergeze, and today the spring still puts out twenty-one-thousand gallons per hour.

Promotional devices for Perrier have included tastings at Bloomingdales and in other stores in Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles. At the moment, Nevins is trying to arrange a “French Fortnight” at Bullocks-Wilshire in Los Angeles.  The idea is to feature Perrier in the store’s gourmet shop and restaurant and serve it at a show of fashions by a French designer. The whole package may be advertised in Harper’s Bazaar. By displaying his product in such high-quality stores and advertising it in such fashionable magazines, Nevins hopes that Perrier will keep its cachet as a drink of distinction.

At the same time, Nevins has his eye on the bluejeans-and-backpack crowd, which he feels is a natural for this healthful, nonalcoholic, “young” drink. Perrier’s ad in Rolling Stone magazine features a personal message from Nevins, as well as a small photograph of the promoter. Nevins suggests a “cult” may grow up around Perrier.

Already, he feels, the signs are there. After all, says Nevins, isn’t Perrier sipped on Broadway in Same Time Next Year? Doesn’t Burt Reynolds, as a professional football player, call for it in the movie Semi Tough? And didn’t Washingtonian magazine say it should be put in a time capsule with other objects that mark the Seventies? One of Nevins’ happiest moments was when he spied a “We Serve Perrier” sign scrawled on a brown lunch bag outside a Greenwich Village café. Trouble is, he can’t remember which café.

Nevins has always sparkled over Perrier. His original plan was to be a military man, but after graduating from West Point, he decided he didn’t want that programmed future. After the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, he joined the advertising firm Benton & Bowles and counted Texaco and General Foods among his accounts.

In 1965 he joined Levi Strauss. Ironically, his job was just the reverse of what he’s doing now. Instead of marketing a foreign import in the U.S., Nevins tried to arouse interest in a popular American product overseas. His task? To promote the good old blue jean abroad.

From his base in Hong Kong, he set up seventeen foreign subsidiaries and constantly commuted to offices in the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Bangkok and Australia. In 1973, appointed vice president for corporate development, he expanded Levi Strauss in Central and South America. Later, he settled in Sausalito, near the company’s San Francisco headquarters. However, Nevins’ international marketing scheme didn’t work out as well as the company had hoped, so Nevins left Levi Strauss and moved East.

Until Perrier made him “an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he passed his time setting up a U.S. license of Canada’s Pony athletic shoes. He is still a director and an owner of Pony and jogs two miles a day in his Pony’s. After work, he often slips on his Levi’s. Above all else, Nevins is loyal to his products.

His fanaticism about his work, however, doesn’t mean he’s dull. Nevins loves French art. That food and Nashville music. His friends are a mélange of artists and businessmen and he is often dragging them off to try the latest Thai spot on Eighth Avenue or to hear a country-and-western band in the Village or on the West Side – even though he is an East Sider. “I like free-spirited people and places,” he explains. Though his temperament seems better suited to California than to Manhattan, he protests that the Hollywood scene is not for him.

“People are living out their fantasies in California. That’s another trip – all those people with their big cigars and motor cars,” he muses. When in California, he says he tries to avoid the party circuit. In fact, parties in general are not to Nevins’ taste and his quota is two per month.

The outdoor life seems more his style. During his stint in Hong Kong, he purchased a sixty foot junk and was all set to move in when he was transferred back to the states. While living in Sausalito, home was a houseboat. Nevins’ current abode is a small apartment – with a disappropriately large terrace – in a stately old building just off Fifth. He takes special pride, naturally, in the terrace. When he moved in, it was an unsightly expanse of black tar. Now it is a multi-layered deck covered with natural oak and planted with shrubs.

Inside the apartment, oriental rugs, overstuffed white sofas and plants give a feeling of warmth, but the tough of a decorator is evident and Nevins worries that place looks to stylized. To personalize it, he has plunked down a few “Perrier” ashtrays on the coffee table. But the kitchen is where he really leaves his mark. The compact gallery looks normal enough, with its bamboo patterned wallcovering and modern appliances. But with one peek inside the refrigerator, the secret is out. Beside a few condiments and a lonely can of tuna is a wall-to-wall lineup of those little green bottles.


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