John Ross Jr. Interview

Marni:   Hi, this is Marni Edelhart, Director of Content and Experience at the Pivot Conference. I’m with John Ross Jr., Director of Customer Solutions, Digital Engagement at Pepsi Beverages and am really excited to speak with him today.

John has been building profitable online communities for more than 17 years. John has worked with national content networks for Cox Interactive Media, national music festivals like the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival and a number of national touring artists. Before joining the digital team at Pepsi Beverages, John spent five years at Catapult Marketing managing global digital programs for brands including: Intel, MARS, WWE, Intuit, SEARS and the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.

Welcome, John.

John:      Thank you very much for having me.

Marni:   I wanted to start by asking a little bit more about what you do at Pepsi. Your title is Director, Customer Solutions, Digital Engagement. Could you provide a little insight into the types of projects you tackle on a regular basis?

John:      Sure – so the team that we’ve built here within the portfolio of beverages brands – we are part of the media team for North American beverages and we focus on the relationships between brands and our customers. So this could be finding opportunities and partnerships with customers like Taco Bell, Marriott, Buffalo Wild Wings, Caesar’s Entertainment – all the way down to the regional level and some of the templated solutions that we use for some of our more independent street- level customers, and having this type of commercial media role means that we need to learn about the brands’ business and the brand objectives as well as what our customers – the operators or retailers – what their objectives are as well. As more and more money and investment is spent in digital practice and digital activation, we work with these customers to do a few different things. One – we work with them from an educational perspective, sharing a lot of the learnings from the risks that our brands take by being innovative and first to market in the digital space. We partner in terms of the largest national activations, many of which people are familiar with, and live to see, on a monthly basis, across these different digital channels. We also work a lot on the strategy for planning, both in our strategic business planning that happen annually as well as our annual planning cycles as we go into the joint business planning with these customers. And we work most often with the C-suite of our customers, down to their digital teams’ brand and media leaders.

Marni:   Wow – that sounds like your team is tackling a lot. One thing that you and I have talked about in previous conversations is the challenge of ownership in the digital age – specifically when it comes to data garnered from a brand’s digital initiatives. Who are the players when it comes to a given brand’s data and what are the specific challenges around ownership?

John:      I think what’s really unique about the brands within our beverages portfolio is that, as these brands are emerging or being launched for the first time, they hold that brand voice – the brand digital voice – really close to the vest in terms of what they’re learning and the types of feedback that they get in terms of how they interact with consumers. Since we are working from a portfolio perspective we certainly don’t want to overlap or step on the toes of the other brands. I think each brand has its own distinct space and moment that they’re looking to capture; so sometimes it’s a balance of how it’s managed internally – there’s always a human voice for the brand internally but as there’s community scale to millions or tens of millions of followers, we need more external resources to be able to manage the day-to-day. So while the brand owns the data, they own the touchpoint and they own the initiatives there is really a cross-functional team that includes consumer relations, PR as well as legal, of course, who are making decisions on what we’re going to publish as a brand. When it comes back to brand data, I think it’s most important that the marketers and analytics teams are the ones that own the data because they’re the ones that are comfortable in an environment, say from a PR perspective and there are some objectives there – a measured opportunity to not only to grow communities but to really be leaders in terms of engagement metrics and have an understanding of how we are targeting these consumers and how they behave online which may be different from what we learn about how they behave off-line and so there’s some insights work that comes out of analytics and measurement piece as well.

Marni:   Of course – that makes sense. Typically the C-Level officers of a company are not the ones actually mining the data or rolling out the new initiatives. What suggestions do you have for keeping the C-Suite appropriately informed about new learnings?

John:      Well, a lot of people talk about having a dashboard for reporting the performance of these different channels or initiatives and I think having different levels of the dashboard, different points of view of the dashboard that can be shared throughout the organization so that you are not overwhelming people with reams of data. But I also think it’s important to educate the C-suite and get them to participate and use the tools that our brands are using. I think that’s one of the things that’s been a lot of fun in terms of how our media team interacts with a number of our leaders is getting them to use the tools or showing them the performance of some campaigns that they’re passionate about in real time. So, having a real time perspective, as well as levels, or different summaries of how the dashboard output is shared throughout the organization is always important so that everybody’s on the same page not only in terms of just what they see but how it’s actually working behind the scenes as well.

Marni:   Got it. Pepsico is the parent company to a wide range of beverage brands. Pepsi Beverages encompasses a large number of brands. What variations have you seen between the demands from customers for each of these different brands?

John:      Well, I can tell you two things. We deal and work with consumers directly; my team defines “customers” as people who actually sell our product, and so learning about the most passionate fans –the most influential fans and followers – is a key way to learn what role our brand plays or what type of relationship our brands want – or what kind of relationship our consumers want with our brand in different environments. So I think that those types of learnings, ideas and concepts can – sometimes when we’re creating those, we know that we’re not ready to release them yet but we know we can get to a certain phase for the brand or for the interaction with the customer, it would be a great way to be able to do it. While I can’t talk about customer-specific work, I can tell you that there’s a lot of easy overlaps between our brands and the brand voice of a number of our customers. We’d love to talk about summertime and people getting together and we have a lot of passion about sports and music as well, and so I think that’s one of the ways that we find these brands working together and what’s even more exciting is when you have beverage brands and snack brands working together as well for people who are gathering to watch sports, watch music, tailgate, whatever they may be doing, how much our consumers like to put themselves in pictures of our brands is really exciting – all the way down to what people have made prom outfits out of Mountain Dew packaging.

Marni:   That might win you Prom Queen, especially at the Pepsi Beverages prom. (laughs) With new technologies and approaches emerging seemingly daily when it comes to digital solutions, how do you stay abreast of the possibilities and sift through them to get to what is valuable for your customers and consumers?

John:      I think it’s a question of how confident you are in your own media strategy and how you’ve worked to simplify it to be very clear as to what you need to focus on. There’s lots of emerging technologies that claim to be very differentiated from each other when these technologies first appear, but you need to have a longer-term view in terms of who you want to work with; whether you want to work with them exclusively or whether perhaps one offering has gotten to a point that will scale and can impact on business. I think there’s lots of great ideas out there but scale is an absolute requirement in order for us to be able to innovate for our brands. And so we’ve found more and more ways, not to do just simple lunch ‘n learns but to invite in the most requested customers across different parts of the organization and let them compete in front of our associates and for them to be able to win some customer innovation type opportunities. And I think that what’s exciting about it is to be more proactive as to who you want to work with and why you want to work within the big companies with portfolios of brands are not always the easiest for emerging companies or small-startups to work with and so we’d like to really focus on the expectations of the partnership and what we can expect to get out of it for each other, because a lot of times things that are succeeding for one brand in the vast portfolio can be repurposed and leverage those learnings for another brand. And that’s what’s very exciting – seeing how those companies evolve. A lot of our brands were the first on Instagram, they were the first to use Facebook, they are some of the largest brand platforms on places like Twitter and then we’ve had lots of different competitions and educational summits to work with startups and to learn about not only what they do but advise them on how to work with big brands like the ones that we manage.

Marni:   Got it. John – I want to thank you so much for your time. I’m so excited that you will be joining us to speak at the Pivot conference in New York City on October 29th, and we’ll be able to learn more about the great work you’re doing at Pepsi Beverages and how you’re tackling the major challenges of providing useful digital media solutions.

John:      Great – thank you so much. I really enjoyed participating last year and I’m really looking forward to getting together again this fall.

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