Corporate Content's Glow Up Moment
Updated: May 13
How Storytelling Has Become the New Corporate Marketing Machine
An essay by Blair Soden, former Sr. Director of Content & Publishing at PepsiCo
These days it’s not enough to just put out a good commercial to sell your product. Conscious consumers and customers want to know what the company behind the brands they buy stands for. What’s their sustainability agenda? Is their packaging recyclable? Is this an ethical company? How does this big business give back to local communities? While the demand for telling these types of corporate narratives has increased, very few of the largest companies in the world have figured out how to go about doing it.
The word ‘corporate' has oft been synonymous with boring, sterile, and safe…as has the content that has been associated with it; press releases and photos of suited executives standing shoulder to shoulder in front of a step & repeat, or flags, or holding a giant check.
I admit, I cringed when I heard myself saying it for the first time, “Hi, this is Blair…from corporate” because I am none of those things. It was something I had to take into serious consideration after having spent my entire career working in the seemingly glitzy and glamorous world of television and film. Why leave a ‘cool’ job for a corporate one?
When I started my career at ABC News as a Desk Assistant for World News with Charles Gibson, I never envisioned myself working in corporate communications for PepsiCo. I had dreams of being a foreign correspondent, idolizing reporters like Martha Raddatz, and only mildly fan-girdling when I actually got to work with her and we became Facebook friends (back in 2006 when Facebook was still considered ‘cool.’) I quickly came to realize though, that it was the producer that often called the shots and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
After ABC News, I moved on to ESPN to produce SportsCenter and work in content development, then to Bloomberg TV to help start their original digital video team, followed by NBC Sports managing original programming and development before joining PepsiCo as Sr. Director of Content & Publishing in 2017. While my path may not seem so linear, there is a through line…storytelling.
Be it in news, sports, finance, or consumer product goods (CPG) at the root of everything I did was storytelling. I was recruited to come to PepsiCo by a former executive from ABC News who had been with the company for a few years at that point and recognized an opportunity to improve the way corporate stories were being told and shared across the digital landscape. I remember looking through PepsiCo’s corporate channels ahead of my interviews and thinking to myself "I can help!"
The first opportunity I had to provide my new colleagues with a proof of concept for this ‘new way’ of corporate storytelling was when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and the gulf in the fall of 2017, a couple months after I joined PepsiCo. The PepsiCo Foundation was donating 1 million meals through its Food for Good program to those in need in Texas. Rather than tweet out a # of meals or dollar amount with perhaps a photo of a recipient receiving a meal and a link to the press release, we decided to go cover the meal distribution like any news outlet would. Without having a team yet, it was up to me to do it all, so I packed up the cameras, mics and tripods I’d convinced PepsiCo to purchase for me, and headed out to Houston. Boots on the ground style.
I interviewed PepsiCo associates about the shelf-stable meals and how they were able to leverage Food for Good’s existing distribution infrastructure to immediately put meal deliveries into motion. I tagged along with our partners, like the Red Cross, to capture meal distribution in a trailer park that was decimated by the floodwaters. I spoke to school administrators who shared how many of their students are on free or reduced meal plans and without being able to come to school, would go hungry had it not been for PepsiCo’s meal donation and distribution. Meeting these people and seeing first-hand the impact PepsiCo’s donation was making was eye-opening for me. Perhaps ‘big bad corporate’ wasn’t so bad after all.
I worked with an editor to quickly turn the piece around so it was still a relevant part of the news cycle by the time we distributed it on our PepsiCo social and digital channels. Corporate communications and content teams aren’t all setup like newsrooms. Getting content published takes time due to a lack of resources in house, back and forth edits with agencies, a litany of approvals to get through, and then once you get through all of it, you find yourself publishing a piece of content about something that happened 2 months ago.
By working the Hurricane Harvey video into the news cycle, we were able to be a relevant part of a current events conversation, which allowed us to do one more thing – have our ‘owned’ content garner ‘earned’ media attention. Rather than relying on media to publish our stories, which has a much larger reach, we published the content on our PepsiCo channels and watched the story get picked up from there. Most notably, the piece was played in a Texas stadium at the “Deep from the Heart: The One America Appeal”concert, a fundraiser for Hurricane Harvey victims, which was attended by all five living former presidents at the time.
So, I made it over the first hurdle: being able to show my new colleagues what we could do together rather than just talking about it, but there was still a long way to go to get more people on board with this new way of approaching our corporate storytelling.
I was fortunate enough to travel the world telling stories for PepsiCo during my three years there. Visiting farmers in Vietnam, R&D facilities in Thailand, women in tribal villages who were benefitting by our partnership with CARE, earthquake relief in Mexico, meeting women who were victims of armed conflict in Colombia who were given a safe haven and place to work at the PepsiCo NatuChips plant in Belen de Umbria…and so many more.
One of the biggest challenges, and opportunities, I faced during these trips was rooted in the fact that most of the market teams were so small, I often was working with associates in other functions who were responsible for their content production. Companies like PepsiCo weren’t traditionally setup to have content teams in their communications departments, let alone other functions, resulting in associates in HR, Talent Acquisition, Consumer Relations, PPGA, R&D etc working with agencies and creating their own content, with little or no journalism or production background.
The story we told in Colombia is a great example of before and after. PepsiCo worked with the local government and plantain association to provide over 50 women who were victims of armed conflict in Colombia, most who had lost their husbands, with a safe place to live and work. The first story, published a few years prior, was filmed with an outside agency. Its tone was far too upbeat for the subject matter, and featured far too many people.
I watched this video before we made the trip to Colombia to tell an updated version of the same story. My biggest struggle was convincing my market colleagues that I only needed 1 woman to help us tell this story. I asked for their help to identify someone with the best story, someone our audience could relate to and sympathize with, they kindly provided a list of 6 women for me to choose from, and we found our lead character.
This was still early days during my time at PepsiCo, so once again I loaded up my gear and headed to Bogota. After flying to Belen de Umbria, a small town near where some of PepsiCo’s plantains are grown, I met a woman named Rosalba. Rosalba’s husband was killed in guerrilla warfare and she was left a single mother of 8 without a safe place to live and no ways of earning an income to support her family. Shy, with kind eyes and a mother’s smile, I spoke with her through a colleague who was translating for me, slightly frustrated my high school Spanish hadn’t held up all these years later. She allowed me into her home, an open air structure made mostly of metal haphazardly piled together, but which was typical of the village, where she showed me photos of her children and how she cooks. Without a massive crew in tow, I was able to get Rosalba to open up and share her story.
I followed her on her walk to work at the NatuChips plant, observed her working, and spoke with a few other key players in this initiative to round out the piece. I flew our new drone out over the plantain fields for the opening shot, only crashing it once, quickly realizing the quick YouTube tutorial I had given myself may not have been so sufficient. The result, a much more moving and relatable story.
We continued to move the needle with corporate storytelling. We invested more in content, I hired a team, and the reach of our storytelling expanded within the company walls to help various departments and functions share their stories, ultimately resulting in a global expansion of the team we built at corporate to service the top 20 markets.
Sure, we were still responsible for the day to day programming of PepsiCo’s corporate channels with, well, ‘corporate’ type content: earnings, acquisitions, new product launches, corporate initiatives etc. but the work we had done thus far had given us the freedom to tell non-traditional stories, which excited me the most.
Would you ever guess that PepsiCo had a voice in the opioid epidemic? Me either, until a colleague at PBNA approached me with a great story. A local plant in Pontiac, MI won a regional award for their work and was to be rewarded with a party with the CEO, but asked instead for a check to present to a local organization they’d been involved with for over 20 years – Grace Centers of Hope. Associates from the plant had been volunteering for years to help build houses for outplacement treatment as a continuation of the Grace Centers of Hope years-long opioid recovery program. They’d held bake sales to support the organization, and they genuinely cared about giving back to their community.
I interviewed a woman in recovery, around my age, mid-30s, who had been arrested multiple times and had thoughts of suicide rather than try to go on battling her addiction and caring for her 4 young children. Her life had been saved by this organization. When speaking with the manager of the Pepsi plant, he said ‘we’re a big company, but really we’re a small company’ trying to make an impact in our communities. I couldn’t have asked for a better corporate sound byte, but his words were completely genuine, making them even more powerful.
This story didn’t ladder up to any major corporate initiative. It wasn’t ‘on message’ necessarily, but it was a small story that made a big impact in a local community. I’m a firm believer that telling these types of stories, to supplement larger campaigns, is crucial for enhancing corporate sentiment in local communities around the world. Win local, win small.
One of the most frustrating things we, and many other companies, encounter is not having a real way to measure the impact of content and stories like these on corporate sentiment. At the end of the day our mission was to protect & enhance PepsiCo’s reputation globally, but how do we know if we were making an impact? Impressions, engagements, and reach can elude to impact, but don’t paint a clear picture. We tried pre-roll surveys, focus groups, and methodology & technology that was way too expensive and difficult to understand with no real luck. But even without that, companies are continuing to invest in corporate content. It’s become an expected and necessary practice to help demonstrate corporate social responsibility.
So it’s time to say goodbye to boring corporate content. Storytelling has become the new corporate marketing machine, and it’s here to stay.