Pepsi, mobile, and generative AI: engaging with billions of customers one on one

By John Koetsier November 27, 2023

How does a brand form a one-to-one relationship with billions of customers simultaneously, globally, in hundreds of languages? There’s literally only one way: mobile, with maybe just a dash of generative AI. PepsiCo is on a multi-year journey to reach that brand nirvana, powered by Pepsi mobile apps.

I had the chance to sit and chat with Athina Kanioura, chief strategy and transformation officer at PepsiCo, about exactly what that might look like.

We talk mobile, digital transformation, global brand strategy, and much more. Hit play to listen, then keep scrolling:

Pepsi mobile apps: Pepsi in your pocket

Why does a massive corporation with a market cap of over $230 billion that ranks #46 on the Fortune 500 list want to live in your pocket? 

Two main reasons, according to Kanioura.

  1. Convenience for cross-sell: PepsiCo has literally thousands of SKUs, not just the very well-known carbonated drink that is also part of the company’s name
  2. Undiluted loyalty benefits: while PepsiCo goes to market with its thousands of products via many local bottlers, retailers, and resellers, filtering a mobile experience through those partners would dilute the loyalty benefits PepsiCo wants to give consumers

The goal is to be able to bring all of an individual’s engagement with the company into a single CDP, customer data platform, in order to serve specific needs of specific people better and — of course — boost cross-sell.

One app to connect them all (and measure everything)

Pepsi has literally hundreds of apps. 

A quick search on the App Store or Google Play brings up Pepsi Lebanon, Pepsi Fanclub, Pepsi Saudi, the MyPepsiCo employee app, a Pepsi B2B partner app, and a number of other Pepsi apps for different geos and parts of the company. Most of the companies’ apps aren’t publicly visible, however, and are only available for internal or partner use. 

But even bringing all of its consumer apps together into a single codebase will be a monumental task.

The reward, however, will be a better understanding of people who might buy Lays chips, Gatorade, Bubly water, or any of hundreds of products from dozens of brands.

It will also provide a better understanding of where people engage with PepsiCo on the company’s promotional side. Pepsi sponsors the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, Champions League in Europe, and much more: cricket, NASCAR, and numerous other sporting and artistic events, leagues, and stars across the globe. All of that sponsorship comes with the ability to reward loyal customers with once-in-a-lifetime perks, but when delivered via mobile, PepsiCo is also able to measure how much customers engage with those sponsorships.

Mobile is harder to measure now than it used to be — thank you, SKAdNetwork and Privacy Sandbox — but sponsorship has always been hard to measure. Now, paradoxically as mobile becomes harder to measure in terms of app install attribution, sponsorship is becoming easier to measure via mobile app engagement: sign-ups, interest, prizes, loyalty awards, and more.

Of course, when you’re a global company with 315,000 employees and billions of customers, these things take time. PepsiCo is in the middle of its global CDP roll-out, and that’s what will be powering the single app experience.

“The first holistic direct to consumer applications are being activated as we speak,” Kanioura says. Mexico, Brazil, Turkiye, and the UK are early recipients, while other countries will follow later. “North America is being activated in the middle of 2024.”

The end result, she says, will be much more global commonality in Pepsi apps for its direct to consumer experience. Those Pepsi apps will also be linked with global inventory management systems for easier demand modeling and fulfillment.

Organization is destiny is strategy

We’ve shared many times in webinars and podcasts: how you organize your team has a huge impact on how you can drive growth. PepsiCo knows that too, and Kanioura has built cross-functional teams of “applied strategists” to not just build strategy and toss it over the wall, but also execute it.

“When you have the groups together, the handoffs are seamless,” Kanioura says. 

That’s design, strategy, technology, marketing, category, geo, and execution teams all embedded together, driving transformation.

Technology — and apps — are core to that strategy.

“If digital strategy becomes part of the core strategy of the company, then everything you do from a portfolio transformation, from a geo expansion, from a category growth model, has the technology component embedded to that,” Kanioura says.

Most leading mobile-first companies achieve something similar, but they generally have a somewhat easier task than Pepsi, which has a mobile-first strategy for end-customer engagement, but also has distributors, retailers, aggregators, and other players, all of whom are important to the company’s execution of its mission. In addition, they’re natively tech companies, while Pepsi is still reinventing itself in some places.

The key job for the leadership of a multilayer brand like this is to build that mobile-enabled one-to-one relationship with the customer while respecting and even enhancing the role of partners. It’s not an easy tightrope to dance.

An added layer of challenge: it has to be good for customers too.

“That data relationship has to translate to an incremental value for the consumer,” Kanioura says. “If you go to a Walmart store or a Carrefour store, you will still find the core brands that you have, but not every brand of PepsiCo. But if you go to our D2C application, you will find the full breadth …  and there are people that are loyalists, right … they want the specific product: they want to have it and they cannot find it in the store.”

Generative AI and an AI specialist

The interesting thing about tapping Athina Kanioura to digitally transform PepsiCo is that in a previous life, she led a team of 20,000 at Accenture as the chief analytics officer and head of applied intelligence. 

In other words: artificial intelligence. And AI is going to play a role in Pepsi, its apps, and its relationship with its customers.

Predictive AI is a big part of it on the backend, analyzing and predicting demand, but generative AI will be a big part of the future. Some of that is simple — personalized Cheeto’s hoodies — but some will be much more advanced.

On the marketing side, that means using generative Ai to create more personalized and creative design and content, Kanioura says. In the future, it could mean using generative AI with celebrities to deliver personalized messages from The Rock to a billion people. Imagine a sports star sponsored by Pepsi delivering the news of a big goal or major win, inserting your name and maybe even a few more personal details in a specific message for you, all inside Pepsi apps.

That all depends on IP and fairness and legalities, Kanioura is quick to stress, but is something PepsiCo is looking at.

Another option: delivering brand messaging to consumers on mobile via a brand avatar, powered by generative AI.

Personalized Cheetos sweaters

Ultimately, the goal is better customer experience. And giving superfans exactly what they want.

Such as personalized Cheetos clothing.

“We want the consumer the full benefit … of the full experience of PepsiCo, including of course merchandise,” Kanioura says. “And you would be surprised how many people are saying: ‘Oh, can I have my own personalized sweater of Cheetos?’ 

“You would be shocked. As a European going to the U.S., it’s like wow … it’s a love relationship … It’s an adoration relationship with PepsiCo.”

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