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PepsiCo Beverages' in-house content lead on the secret of 'making cool shit' with agency partners

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By Kendra Clark | Senior Reporter

March 23, 2022 | 8 min read

As the beverage category grows increasingly crowded, industry mainstay PepsiCo Beverages is investing in hybrid models of marketing and communications and eyeing the promise of web3. Lou Arbetter, the vice-president of content and production at The Content Studio at PepsiCo Beverages North America, explains what success looks from his vantage point.

The Weeknd onstage at Pepsi Super Bowl LV Halftime Show in 2021

PepsiCo's in-house creatives worked with Showtime to produce a recent documentary about the Super Bowl LV Halftime Show / PepsiCo

Increasingly, the world’s largest advertisers are funneling marketing dollars away from external agencies and investing instead in their own technical and creative talent. Many are taking a hybrid approach, outsourcing certain services or projects while in-housing others.

A leader in the space is PepsiCo Beverages, whose in-house content team, the Content Studio at PepsiCo Beverages North America, serves as an extension of the company’s 20-plus beverage brand teams and their agency partners. In essence, the Studio jumps in wherever it’s needed, offering a customized approach on everything from campaign development and communications strategy to brief writing and social listening and analytics. In the last year alone, the 52-person Studio developed more than 1,400 unique content assets.

‘We’re not black-and-white; we’re gray’

The Studio’s latest major project is ‘The Color of Cola’, a forthcoming documentary directed by Oscar-nominated Stanley Nelson alongside Jacqueline Olive, which tells the tale of PepsiCo Beverages' all-Black sales team that worked in the US South under Jim Crow law. Nelson said in a statement put out last week that he sees the film as “a continuation of [his] past work highlighting the achievements of groundbreaking Black business leaders, whose stories are still underrepresented and often underappreciated in the context of American history." The tale is based on ‘The Real Pepsi Challenge: How One Pioneering Company Broke Color Barriers in 1940s American Business’, a 2007 book by Stephanie Capparell.

‘The Color of Cola’ is just one of the Studio’s many recent efforts. Heading the charge is Lou Arbetter, a PepsiCo Beverages veteran who joined the company nearly 20 years ago and now serves as vice-president of content and production for PepsiCo Beverages North America. His mission? “There's one job that I focus all my attention on, which is elevating overall creative excellence,” he says. “Our goal is to help our brands and agency partners innovate from a creative standpoint.”

How that objective is realized varies from project to project, of course. Last year, for example, the Studio teamed up with Showtime and its agency partners, along with other teams from across PepsiCo Beverages, in a highly collaborative effort. They created The Show, a 90-minute documentary chronicling the behind-the-scenes production of The Weeknd’s Pepsi Super Bowl LV Halftime Show.

Directed by Emmy-nominated Nadia Hallgren, the documentary aimed to cement PepsiCo Beverages' position not only as a major football investor but also as a brand at the center of the zeitgeist. And generate buzz it did: the announcement of the film and its trailer alone captured 7bn earned media impressions and saw 155 stories published in the media about the project.

For PepsiCo Beverages, it seems, the hybrid model of producing work collaboratively between both in-house and external teams, is working. Arbetter in particular, thinks it’s time to demystify the trend of in-housing. “There is a dated view that you bring work in house for one reason and one reason only, which is to save money,” he says. “But there are so many other benefits that we found.”

For one, he says, it helps PepsiCo Beverages' various brand teams gain deeper insight into the creative process. The Studio even has positions through which various PepsiCo Beverages talent is rotated. “Giving them an opportunity to gain a little agency empathy and [understand] how hard it is to respond to a creative brief and come up with original thought makes them better partners to whoever they work with.”

Agencies benefit from the setup, too, Arbetter says, since it often means they have in-house professionals advocating for their creative ideas within the brand. “Sometimes, the agency needs somebody to argue on their behalf, especially when a creative idea might be a little scary, might be a little out of the box, but they feel passionate about it. [It’s] somebody they can call to say, ‘How can we push this idea through? Or [are we] not positioning it correctly? How can we better link it to some of the business needs that the brand is working against?’”

“Beyond just simple cost-savings [argument], it's wrong to view things as black and white in terms of ‘It's either done outside or it's done inside.’ We’re a little more gray,” says Arbetter.

Even so, he admits that juggling the often divergent or conflicting needs of various stakeholders can be daunting. “You have to spend a lot of time on trust. You have to build these relationships and show that you are someone that they can bring in the tent, and that you're not there to do anything other than make the work better. And the only way to do that is roll up your sleeves and… get into the kitchen. Those who are going to succeed maintain flexibility and collaboration without ego. And if you do that, it's a really exciting time where there's a ton of possibilities.”

Claiming a spot in an exploding category

The creative projects that PepsiCo Beverages and the Studio are taking on are growing increasingly demanding from an innovation and creativity standpoint — in part because of the beverage category’s explosive growth.

“I'm an old fart,” says Arbetter “It's not just soda, milk, water and juice anymore.” He’s right: a proliferation of seltzers, non-alcoholic fermented beverages, nootropic-enhanced offerings, coffee alternatives and even fungi-focused sips is taking the market by storm. In fact, the global beverage industry is now valued at $1813bn — and growing at a compound annual growth rate of 4%, per a recent report by commerce-focused market intelligence firm PipeCandy. As the space grows ever-more crowded, traditional category players like PepsiCo Beverages face higher hurdles to maintaining their stronghold.

African American face in abstract art

To ensure it’s staying abreast of the competition, PepsiCo Beverages is exploring new means of communicating and connecting with consumers. In December, the brand entered the crypto game with its ‘Mic Drop’ non-fungible token (NFT) campaign. Just last month, the company's bottled water brand LIFEWTR debuted a TikTok campaign featuring a limited run of NFTs designed to champion Black artists and creators.

And PepsiCo Beverages is eyeing future metaverse plays across its brand portfolio. “We are operating both in NFTs and the metaverse space,” says Arbetter. “But we're also learning, like everybody. Sometimes [a metaverse or crypto activation is] not a great experience for all consumers. So, it's not ‘all the way to bright’ by any stretch. But what I love about this company and the category is that you get to play around and learn so we [are able to] stay in the forefront.” He hints that new tech-focused projects are underway at PepsiCo Beverages.

“It’s an exciting time to be in the category, especially with brands like ours, which make their living in culture,” he says. “We just have an opportunity to create cool shit and have fun doing it. And we're always in a constant state of innovation in order to bring [our brands’] stories to life.”

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