Pepsi VP Todd Kaplan Takes a Challenger Brand Position to Drive Category Disruption
In his nearly 13 years with PepsiCo, Todd Kaplan has taken on multiple different roles, from Sports Marketing to Incubation Brands to leading Global Innovation and Insights. Those experiences served as the perfect runway to his new role as Head of Marketing for the Colas and Pepsi segment where he is taking the category disruption head on and staying laser-focused on the consumer to deliver on the Challenger brand heritage of the nearly 120-year-old beverage brand.
Tell us about your background and why you chose to join PepsiCo.
I began my career in sports marketing, working as an in-house sponsorship consultant for Visa International. While there, I advised them and created marketing programs around their global sports properties ranging from the Olympic Games to Rugby World Cup. I then went on to business school at Yale, knowing that I wanted a career building and marketing brands with an opportunity to connect with and shape culture.
At PepsiCo I’ve been lucky enough to build a rich and varied career over the years. Whether it was starting an in-house branded entertainment group, leading marketing efforts on iconic brands like Mountain Dew, or creating and launching new disruptive brands like LIFEWTR and bubly, all my experiences at PepsiCo have offered different challenges and learnings. I’ve been fortunate to work across many disciplines within the organization, from innovation to consumer insights, while continuing to flex my background leading the development of partnership marketing programs... And no matter who the partnership was with - Beyoncé, the NFL, XBOX, Dale Earnhardt Jr, or even most recently Cardi B – I’ve kept my focus on driving a cultural impact with our marketing to better connect our brands to consumers in a disruptive manner.
As the marketing head of Pepsi, the opportunity to reinvigorate this brand and make a dent in culture is what gets me out of bed every day and excited to come into the office. This company has so many opportunities to really create dynamic marketing and consumer engagement programs across different categories, which has fueled my entrepreneurial spirit within one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies... There are not too many companies that provide the opportunity to create and build almost anything you can dream up.
What Makes Pepsi a Challenger Brand?
Pepsi has a deep heritage as a challenger brand. It’s been part of our brand ethos since the famous “Pepsi Challenge” blind taste tests in the mid-’70’s to some of our most iconic TV creative – right up to this year when we painted Atlanta blue for Super Bowl LIII. The truth is, the “Pepsi” heritage is innately intertwined with our competitor, which gives us a lot of runway to lean into that challenger mentality to distinguish our point of view. In addition, Pepsi has always been at the forefront of pop culture and our consumers have come to expect us to show up around cultural touchpoints like sports, music, and entertainment. We have a long history in this area, from creating properties like Uncle Drew to amplifying platforms like the Super Bowl Halftime Show, which gives our work an extra edge in the cultural zeitgeist. And the challenger mindset motivates us to clearly understand how we show up in the world and take some risks, as we did this year with our Pepsi #MoreThanOK campaign, where we not only tapped into personalities that were relevant in culture, but also built upon a consumer and cultural insight to take something that could be perceived as a brand weakness and flip it on its head.
What’s currently happening in marketing that most excites you? How will it impact the future of marketing?
I love the notion that brands are no longer one-dimensional entities talking at the consumer. The fragmentation of today’s media landscape, coupled with consumers rapidly changing consumption habits, means that brands must be multi-dimensional, contextually relevant, and constantly on their toes. This creates an interesting juxtaposition where consumers both expect marketing from brands at every touchpoint but at the same time are highly de-sensitized to it. To me, that is an awesome challenge and opportunity, swinging the pendulum away from brands buying media to reach eyeballs towards the need to develop smarter and more relevant creative that connects on a deeper level.
What are the biggest changes in your industry and do you stay ahead of them?
The beverage category is going through a ton of disruption these days, from a variety of new entrants to shifting consumer preferences. While beverages may not be a high-growth industry, it is still a major consumer staple with millions of consumer interactions taking place on a daily basis. But those consumers’ preferences are constantly evolving, and we need to be one step ahead if we’re going to have products ready to meet them where they are.
Today, beverage options range from energy drinks to water, from tea to coffee, and to emerging functional drinks like kombucha. Even the way consumers shop for beverages is shifting, with home delivery and e-commerce. All these forces have led to our marketers needing to really understand their consumers inside and out to ensure the brands and products we are building are relevant today.
What are you currently working on that’s unique or innovative?
I clearly have a passion for exploring new ways to build products and connect with consumers, and we are doing just that with Pepsi as we expand and evolve our marketing plans and our product portfolio. One thing I can share that I’m really excited and proud of is a new product we are working on called Nitro Pepsi. This product, which we sampled at this year’s Super Bowl in Atlanta, completely reimagines what the cola experience can be. Bringing the great cola taste of Pepsi together with nitrogen gas technology creating a truly unique taste, mouthfeel, and multi-sensory experience that consumers will love. Similar to how categories in beer and coffee have evolved into this space, we’ve been exploring this for cola and were the first to announce and put it out in the world.
What big learning moments have you had along your career path?
At PepsiCo, I’ve had a continual opportunity to grow and evolve as both a marketer and a leader. Having been at one company for over a decade, I’ve learned that as your roles and responsibilities grow, your priorities shift and the thing that becomes more important than any result is the people. Nurturing great talent and building a strong team culture are two of the most important things you can do as a leader. This is also true around the need to forge strong, long-lasting relationships with your cross-functional counterparts and agency partners. You can’t get anything done by yourself, and how you inspire and motivate others to collaborate and march towards a shared vision gets everyone much more vested in the journey.
What one leadership trait do you think is most critical to making a Challenger Brand successful?
Confidence. Being a challenger brand comes down to truly knowing who you are, where your brand stands in the world, and what it believes in. This holds true with how your brand shows up within your internal organization’s culture. If you have an idea, don’t be afraid to go for it – and fight to protect those ideas. Especially when the ideas are true to your brand’s values and beliefs but may make people in your organization a bit uncomfortable. Those are the moments when you need to be bold, hold tight and watch it pay off.
What advice would you give to other marketing pioneers?
Be manically focused on your consumer and the cultural landscape outside of the four walls of your organization. Don’t approach things in terms of how they have always been done or presented to you but see things for how they truly are. One mistake that a lot of marketers make is viewing the world through the lens or objectives of their brand, rather than seeing the world as it actually is and understanding where and how their brand can connect to it. A creative execution that might hit squarely on the brand strategy may have no relevance for a consumer to engage with it in the first place. Don’t be so brand forward. Look at it through the eyes of how the consumer sees it, and then build from there.
For example, when I led our hydration business, I had my team root our approach in how consumers actually thought about and consumed water… With premium water, the role of packaging was crystal clear: people carry it around all day, so it innately serves as a badge. That insight led us to create LIFEWTR and its artful, colorful and distinctive bottle. Similarly, consumers were looking for sparkling water that didn’t act and feel like water – they wanted something with much more fun and personality. So we created bubly, with bright colorful packaging, fun messages on its tabs, and a unique marketing strategy leveraging GIFs – the language of playfulness – as its calling card.
Whether it is developing a new piece of TV creative, working on a new product innovation, or working with a media property, intimately understanding your consumers and putting them at the center of all you do will help ensure your marketing will connect with them on their terms.