CMO of the Week: PepsiCo’s Mark Kirkham

Presented by

Mark Kirkham, SVP and CMO of PepsiCo International Beverages, is focused on evolving brands and elevating the PepsiCo portfolio through creativity and innovation.

Mark Kirkham, SVP and CMO of PepsiCo International Beverages, is focused on evolving brands and elevating the PepsiCo portfolio through creativity and innovation. “Innovation is not just product and service. Innovation is how you talk to consumers and how your brands come to life,” he says. “The way brands are built today, versus the way they were built even 5-10 years ago, is fundamentally changing.” 

“It's lucky to work in a part of the world where we've got a lot of growth opportunities,” he says. “We've got some great brands that have so much to offer to our consumers.”

PepsiCo. International is focused on growth across its entire portfolio whether it is Zero Sugar products or sustainability, the internal motto is to “transform as we perform,” says Kirkham. The company is always on this quest to “drive great tasting products” and “reframe our brands around the world around some of the more evolving habits from a consumer standpoint.” 

Kirkham lived in New Bern, North Carolina –the birthplace of Pepsi – in the early 1980s, and has always "bled blue" and was perhaps destined to do this job. Inspired by the book, The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles H. Green and Robert M. Galford, Kirkham’s approach to leadership is embracing authentic leadership. “Authentic leadership is very much what each individual defines is authentic to them,” explains Kirkham. “For me, authenticity comes from transparency. Authenticity comes from this tenacity of just always being focused on doing what's right by the business doing what's right by the team. There's lots of focus on trust. Trust is what you build by giving people the opportunity to go out there and prove themselves.”

Prior to joining PepsiCo. International in 2010, Kirkham has held senior leadership roles for Procter & Gamble, Nielsen and Forrester Research. Brand Innovators caught up with Kirkham from his office in Dublin to talk about the Pepsi redesign, sustainability and connecting with Gen Z. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pepsi is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a logo redesign — paying tribute to the pop in the brand's classic labeling. Can you talk about what the Pepsi redesign looks like from where you're sitting?

We're all super excited. It's amazing.It's obviously launching first in North America. They’ll start rolling that out this fall. Then early next year, you'll start seeing it internationally. It's just a great nod to our heritage, but also celebrates Gen Z culture, youth culture and the TikTok world. If you look closely, there's this whole pulse. Pulse is a word that we've actually used internally many times to talk about the energy and the exuberance and what Pepsi has. It comes through in the design language in a really powerful way. It's going to be a really big focus for us, as we go into next year is part of our overall brand narrative. 

What are you doing to reach Gen Z and connect with these younger audiences through culture?

You don't market to Gen Z, you become relevant to Gen Z, that's a really important distinction. 

Marketing as a word sometimes feels like a one way conversation or a talk to me versus talk with me. The main thing of focusing on Gen Z is understanding how we can be more relevant, how we can tap into those insights around their daily life, what's important to them around passion points, such as music or football or sports are still similar to what they were for other generations. The thing is being authentic in what you do. The best way to become relevant for Gen Z is, first off to listen to them and secondly is to do things that are in the relevant channels in the relevant way. 

The convergence of music and football is big. The work we’ve done for Champions League on Pepsi is an example. We're bringing Burna Boy and new genres of music to the traditional European tournament. We're engaging fans on TikTok so that they can personally be engaged in the game and have a chance to actually go and participate in the kickoff show. We are taking a platform that's relevant to them, a passion point that's relevant like music genres and athletes. We're also much more engaged in bringing female footballers and female athletes into all of our programming. 

What does sustainability mean for Pepsi International?

The biggest part is how we continue to address the challenge of plastic. We're doing some great work, but there's always more work to be done. If you think about 100% recycled plastic beverage bottles for Pepsi Brand in nine markets in the EU. We've continued work on reducing secondary plastic, how we ship products and how we support behavior. 

For a lot of the sustainability challenges around the world, there's infrastructure challenges. It's about how do you change behavior? How do you get people to think about their role? And how do you encourage consumers to be part of that solution? How do you do it as a brand? How do you make sustainability part of what people do in their day-to-day? It's different in different parts of the world.

There's a responsibility for PepsiCo, our pep+ journey that we're on as a company to support regenerative farming. We're working with UEFA, for example, for Wembley’s sustainability seal next year, but even as we execute this year, how can we do more? How can we bring it to life in fun ways where you've got programs tied to driving the recycling or reusable elements of our portfolio, and partnering on platforms like Champions League in a Pepsi way to really elevate the conversation around recycling and sustainability and ultimately bring our pep+ vision to life.

How are you weathering the recession?

As an international company, it's always diverse. When you're focused internationally, you might have one condition in one region and another condition in another. The challenges we've seen in places like Egypt and Pakistan are different from Europe versus Latin America. We have to focus on just continuing to deliver value.

We've had to look at our business through different lenses and understand how our consumers are dealing with the same challenges we deal with and get the right price pack architecture. It sounds like a business term, but ultimately, it's about how do I get the right value to consumers in challenging times. Costs are rising and we're all being affected by that. But if you can get that right balance between the value equation with the consumer, that really helps. We've thought about different formats to deliver lower cost solutions. 

For example, powders for Gatorade have been a great way to offer lower cost solutions to challenged markets. The other interesting part of that is it's also a good sustainability option. Many of those products end up being lower in sugar, many of those products end up being obviously not in plastic. It's a balancing act, but you have to try to deliver value to the consumer. The brands that maintain their role in consumers lives, especially during hard times, maintain their relevance to those consumers.

Can you talk about how your past experiences prepared you for this role?

I sometimes look at my current role as CMO as the sum of all the jobs I've ever had, because it just means that every learning that you have is incremental. I've worked in the US. I’ve worked internationally. Every experience I had I learned something, and I left a legacy there. I left my mark so that whoever took it was set up for success. 

In a book by James Kerr called Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life, there's this comment, which is just leave the shirt in a better place than when you got it. It's about the idea of the captain giving his jersey to the next captain. So that idea of leaving the shirt in a better place, or building on that experience has always been part of my career. Each one of those experiences just allowed me to keep building. It's shaped me experience wise. I picked up different things, analytical skills, communication skills, global, domestic, cultural, and I'm still learning. 

What trends do you expect to see in the second half of 2023?

The world is caught up in AI and that's awesome. We have got to figure out what role it plays. If you asked me this question a year ago, it would be about the metaverse. Today, I don't think the average person can even describe what the metaverse is. I expect the next half of this year is going to be about how we leverage tools and technologies to challenge ourselves to evolve our brands to take marketing to new levels, to experiment. These tools are designed to make us better at what we already do, not to replace what we already do. The human side of AI or the real, non-virtual side of the metaverse, that's what's going to make marketing even more exciting. 

You're going to see the applications of these tools actually elevating creativity, but it won't be the tool that makes the creative, it's actually the people using the tools. I love what Ryan Reynolds did with Mint Mobile. Every marketer out there asked ChatGPT to write a script for their brand. He made an ad out of that. Ultimately, it's not about ChatGPT. It was about Ryan Reynolds and doing things in his tone and brand. It felt on brand. The thing in the future is how do these tools allow us to be even more creative, allow us to think a little bit differently in our approach? It's an exciting space, but we have to be really smart about the role that any technology plays and not to let it become a replacement for the human centricity and the creativity that every marketer brings to their job.

Interested in our events?


Learn More


Delta Shows Up in Top Chef’s 300th Episode as Part of NBCU Paris Olympics Sponsorship

Read More

Heinz Debuts New Brand Platform

Read More