Sunny D boss Jean Jacques Fredj tells Noli Dinkovski why the once-iconic soft drink brand is poised for a renaissance

The third-most hated brand in the UK. That’s what Jean Jacques Fredj took on when he accepted the top European role at the newly created Sunny Delight Beverages Company in 2004.

And things didn’t get off to the best of starts for the man in charge of the former Procter & Gamble brand. As well as having to contend with a seemingly terminal sales decline and a temporary de-listing from Asda, he also had to handle a barrage of negative PR when the brand was blamed for a factory leak in 2006 that turned a river yellow, killing fish.

But now, five years after acquiring the brand and following a major relaunch in February, the affable Parisian believes Sunny D is finally poised to turn the corner. So confident is he that he’s even contemplating alluding to the brand’s notoriety in a new TV advertising campaign due in late summer. “Without wishing to say too much, the TV ads will focus on sunshine, beaches and happy kids,” he says. “We may even adopt a sense of humour playing on the past problems!”

So what makes him think a second re-invention in less than two years will restore the fortunes of the once-iconic brand?

It’s difficult to overstate the challenge faced by a brand whose entire early success was built on the foundations of a cheeky marketing stunt - positioning an ambient beverage in the chiller cabinet. The 2007 relaunch failed to reverse the sales decline. Indeed, sales slumped 7.7% to £11.5m in the year to 17 May 2008 [Nielsen]. The latest data paints a more positive picture, with sales down just 2.9% to £11.1m in the year to 11 April 2009. But that’s not growth and the prospect of it returning to the heady heights of being a £150m brand seem as distant as ever.

One of Sunny D’s biggest problems over the past few years and something that was not resolved by the 2007 relaunch, say analysts, was that it no longer chimed with the health-oriented times. Increasing the juice content from 5% to 15% as it did in 2007 was simply not enough to win over anxious parents when there were plenty of other juices and juice drinks that did fit the bill.

Something more dramatic was needed and something more dramatic was what it got this February. The new-look Sunny D now boasts 70% juice, no artificial flavourings, preservatives and no added sugar, SDBC has also changed the labelling, downscaled the 1.5-litre bottles to 1-litre and added an apple & blackcurrant flavour to its Florida and Caribbean variants. And it introduced a new 330ml format.

Fredj insists the 2007 relaunch was only ever intended as a step towards a bigger overhaul. “Our product development has had to be a journey of stages,” he says. “Technical limitations meant we couldn’t do everything at once.”

Much to the frustration of the parents advisory group set up in 2006. In France, parents were happy to allow added sugar to remain, but in the UK they were unequivocal - they wanted it removed and the 2007 reinvention didn’t do that.

The good news is that the new no-added-sugar version is going down well with kids. In taste tests in February, 83% of children thought new Sunny D was ‘good’ or ‘very good’, outperforming the old drink by two percentage points, claims Fredj.

He is also happier with the new look packaging. In 2007, and ironically as a result of insights gained from the parent advisory group, SDBC plumped for a label with handwritten-style annotations - a move that targeted the product specifically at mums rather than their kids. In hindsight, says Fredj, it probably alienated older children and students who drank Sunny D, which is why it has now gone for a label with more generic appeal.

It’s not changing its value positioning, however. The 1-litre bottle has an rsp of £1.45 compared with rival Tropicana’s £1.99. This should play into Sunny D’s hands, believes Fredj. “The recession might be impacting people’s shopping behaviour but we’ve tried to remain what we’ve always been, a value brand,” he says.

But this time, Fredj is leaving nothing to chance. SDBC kicked off a £4.5m marketing campaign with in-store sampling in Tesco last month. It is also broadening its distribution focus. “So far we’ve focused heavily on the multiples, but we are also planning to target the impulse sector,” confirms Fredj. “Before we didn’t have the right size bottle for it, but the new 330ml variety is ideal.”

The recession has also forced the business to reassess its priorities, he says. “The market is a bit of a moving target, so we have to be careful where we aim. Not long ago I was keen on developing a smoothie range, but I’m glad I didn’t.”

But there is further NPD in the pipeline, he assures . ” We are looking to create new products around water, juice, tea and milk,” he says, adding that growth through acquisition is also a possibility.

Before he introduces new products to the UK, he wants to knock the core brand into shape, however. “In strong markets such as the US and Spain we can afford to grow the business confidently, but in the UK we’ve still got a job to do with Sunny D.”

With the latest relaunch, Fredj has finally taken the first definitive step towards restoring the brand’s fortunes. The Sunny D that turned rivers yellow and children orange could soon be consigned to history once and for all.

Name: Jean Jacques Fredj
Age: 44
Job: European and international MD, Sunny Delight Beverages Company
Born: Paris
Education: A graduate in business administration at Paris Dauphine University
Career: Joined SDBC in August 2004, just after the business was sold by Procter & Gamble. He previously spent 15 years at Danone, where he worked across several different assignments in the Far East, Canada, Spain and Scandinavia managing a variety of businesses including Evian, Actimel and Lu biscuits
Hobbies: He enjoys tennis, martial arts and brushing up on his Japanese