A Crawl, Then A Walk: PepsiCo On Its AI Media Strategy


2023 was the year AI broke, with a barrage of hype and speculation about its practical applications in advertising and media.

Speaking at MediaPost’s Brand Insider Summit: two PepsiCo execs discussed the development of the company’s use of AI technology in its media practice -- and how they view the technology’s future evolution.

In the short term, PepsiCo sees AI as a tool for strategic enhancement, “allowing us to personalize and scale in real time with far less friction than we’re used to,” said Caitlin Winsor, the company’s director, media strategy & investment.

The technology is “enhancing how brands can connect with consumers on platforms they’re already utilizing…that we’re already partnering with,” while providing new opportunities to offer consumers personalized experiences, she explained.

Speaking to how Pepsi Beverages specifically has employed the technology, Winsor likened the nascent stages of development as somewhere between a “crawl” and “walk” (in the “learn to crawl/walk before you can run” sense), deploying AI for automation, and to enhance custom bidding for media. The company has also entered the early stages of applying it to achieve “personalization at scale” -- rethinking how it views segmentation, message customization and delivery.

“AI is going to enable us to unlock and scale this in a big way,” she said. In the future, “We’re going to need to better address an operational step change” for the industry in how brands work with agency and platform partners. The key, she said, will be remaining nimble and flexible while learning how to adapt.

Looking ahead to when PepsiCo can fully “walk” with AI optimization, PepsiCo Brand Engagement Director, Media Strategy & Investment Stephanie Burgess outlined the company’s plans to advance what it considers an “organizational priority” to enhance targeting and audience profiling, efficiently creating personalized consumer experiences at scale.

The strategy will be to use AI to help create detailed subsegments of the company's audience, and quickly distill large amounts of audience data into actionable briefs using automation -- which then can be used to automatically trigger appropriate creative messaging from certain consumer behaviors. 

“We can take those unique subsegments and insights and deliver messaging and creative … personalization in a big way,” she explained. She demonstrated how AI technology can currently apply modular changes to generic ad copy based on details like time of day, which hints at the kind of personalization that may be possible in the future.

So what might it look like once brands can “run” with AI technology (in the more distant future)?

“This is where AI can really transform how we execute media on a day-to-day basis,” Burgess said. “We move to a place where everything is entirely personalized and customized,..where every single campaign we have in market is running through these automated optimizations.

“Right now, as marketers our job is to craft where, when, and how consumers are going to see our media message,” she said, but AI may be paving the way for a future where automation is, “optimizing in real time where we’re delivering messages and what messages we’re delivering.”

One current roadblock to further expansion in the use of AI technology for media planning is the digital/linear divide, with AI’s applications limited to digital channels. That could change, however, with the more “realistic” scenario for that evolution, according to Burgess, being a future where everything moves to digital.  

Another potential future evolution to watch: Brands moving from relying on partners’ AI platforms to building comprehensive proprietary platforms in-house.

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