By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

November 10, 2020 | 5 min read

Social listening has become the skeleton key for unlocking consumer understanding, according to Todd Kaplan, Pepsi’s vice-president of marketing. He explained, as part of The Drum’s Digital Summit, how Pepsi is using social as a springboard to quickly develop marketing that pops.

Pepsi’s vice-president of marketing, Todd Kaplan, says that social listening has been vital in helping it “navigate this crazy year”. The team does so as part of mechanism he calls “culture in, brand out”, through which it monitors shifts in culture in order to create topical marketing moments. Often the brief comes after the listening is concluded.

Kaplan believes this keeps his team agile and in tandem with “cultural truths”. It represents a shift for Pepsi – no more Kendall Jenner-led protest movements – the moment comes first. No more, ’I’m brand X and I want consumer Y to do Z’ before a cultural opportunity is identified. Now, it is working “backwards”, says Kaplan.

“Once you understand what those cultural truths are and what the consumers that we care about are experiencing, then you overlay the brand’s point of view on top of that. That’s your creative idea. We found this approach to be super helpful in navigating a very uncertain year.”

Within this space PR, earned media, social and digital congregate around a point that “actually hits something in the culture that people are organically talking about.” And that’s where social listening plays a big role. Kaplan and co have to work out which movements to be a part of, and then quickly develop the creative (or activities) to do so.

He urges marketers to get “outside the four walls of the organization“ and find where their brand fits into the world. “If we don’t know who we are, our point of view, where we should or shouldn’t play and who our consumers are, we won’t know how to respond to anything.”

With the year’s plans up in the air due to the pandemic (and lockdowns, and subsequent challenges), Pepsi marketing team has had to learn how to act quicker, from idea through to execution. For years, there’s been talk of accelerating marketing functions, especially in huge brands. This year, the acceleration accelerated.

Kaplan evidences this process with the recent creation of a Biggie Smalls rap video – a lost 1997 freestyle track where the BIG confesses his love of the soda. Pepsi dusted it off and lovingly animated the video to mark Biggie’s induction into the rock hall of fame. It taps into an undercurrent of nostalgia and cements Pepsi’s music credos.

“Given our legacy of music, it was the perfect project really honour his legacy. It appealed to the masses but had very specific easter eggs for the people of Brooklyn and fans of his music. It got a ton of organic chatter well.“

During the pandemic, Pepsi has played heavily on its music culture to bring performances to fans, including a Lady Gaga performance for charity, or trying out new platforms like Triller.

“The one area where Pepsi has a unique strength, is in this idea that we provide these little moments of joy and entertainment largely through music. In a time when people were craving human connection and a sense of normalcy, we do what we can to help.”

The new model

Relationships had to loosen up to deliver these moments. Kaplan says that Pepsi’s a “little less formal” in how it works with partners now.

“Typically, the marketing process takes months upon months” from insight to briefing to creative to production to media. It’s too slow in “today’s world”.

“You don’t need to completely change everything you're doing but if you start knowing some things may go left or right [you’ll be OK]”.

There has been a move away from the Mad Men model, where agencies pitch solid A, B and C scenarios to something more collaborative. Multiple agencies sit on group chats, solving problems in real-time. This has led to a “quicker turnaround”.

“It’s not us versus them, agency versus client. Everybody rolls up their sleeves and tries to solve these big hairy problems together.”

Brands that can nail this relationship will up their hit rate, have less back-and-forth – and less stress, he concludes.

Watch the panel here and catch up with the rest of the festival here. In July, the Drum spoke to ex Pepsi and Apple CMO John Sculley about pandemic brand-building tips. He’s one of the brains behind the famous Pepsi challenge.

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