PepsiCo's Chris Bellinger on Reacting Quickly to Cultural Moments
If you ask Chris Bellinger his thoughts on the biggest challenge advertisers face today, he's pretty exact in his choice of words: "It's the need to react quickly and strategically, especially on social media."
The solution? "You have to find the balance between being reactive and putting strategic thought into each activation," he says.
Bellinger has spent the last five years with PepsiCo. and currently serves as chief creative officer of PepsiCo Foods U.S. He runs D3, the global behemoth's in-house agency. But an 18-year industry run gives him perspective.
The Plano, TX-based ad creative says the agency meets this challenge head on by being as consumer-obsessed as possible, and aiming to create work that resonates with them from the start.
Moreover, says Bellinger, as an in-house team with "just as much talent as an agency," things that could take a year or two to develop elsewhere can be done in four months.
D3 operates as a full 360-internal agency that works directly with the Frito-Lay brands, and often in tandem with external agencies. Over the past five years, it's grown from two staffers to 85, across content strategists to producers and more.
"Serving as an internal arm of PepsiCo gives us the opportunity to be fully embedded into the business and react quicker to cultural moments," says Bellinger. "We have the privilege of simply walking down the hall and ideating in real-time, so we get content out into the world much quicker. This speed is how we've managed to stay close to consumers and what they care about and is what truly sets us apart."
Passion for storytelling and creating culture
He points to working on the company's Super Bowl campaigns as an example of this—and recognizing them as an overall career highlight. There's a measure of the thrill factor to activate on the world's biggest stage, but for Bellinger it's a prime example of using strategy and creativity to break through the competitive landscape.
"This is where my passion for storytelling and creating culture kicks in," he says.
D3 created PopCorners' debut Super Bowl ad this year—a revival of the hit show Breaking Bad. "[We did it] in an authentic way that connected with the brand," he says. "As the fastest-growing brand within our Frito-Lay portfolio, we knew this was the perfect way to help drive awareness and show the company's commitment to the better snacking category."
In September, to kick off NFL season, D3 launched its "Power of One" campaign with "Unretirement," a spot that brings together sports icons who are now retired, but remain forever iconic.
"The idea behind the ad was to show how even the crunch of a chip or pop of a can help fans get in the football season spirit, and maybe can even inspire NFL legends to hit the field again," explains Bellinger. "We brought together athletes that appeal to generations of snackers so everyone can find something to get excited about when they see the ad on their TVs. Sports and snacks go hand and hand, which is why activating in moments like this means so much to us."
Then there's that "Goat Campaign" with soccer superstar Lionel Messi. Forget counting sheep, here, it's all about counting goats—all 807 of them—which represent Messi's number of goals across his lauded career.
Lay's has an existing connection to Messi, having featured him in a TV ad and put his face on limited-edition bags to celebrate the UEFA Champions League.
"When we heard he was joining Inter Miami, like the rest of the world, we knew we had to celebrate," says Bellinger. "That's when the idea came to life to bring 807 (now 808) goats to represent each one of the G.O.A.T.'s goals. The creative culminates in the herd forming Messi's image on the grass."
In less than 21 days, this went from an idea to three fully-developed pieces of content across social media.
Can we get approval for a herd of 807 goats?
The campaign began with this text message to the company CMO: "Hey can we get approval for a herd of 807 goats to welcome Lionel Messi to the USA for #Lays?"
CMO: "Do it!"
The content went live just before Messi's first Inter Miami game and goal, so D3 had to release an updated version of the creative with an additional goat to honor his 808th goal.
In keeping with successful marketing and soccer, Bellinger says his all-time favorite campaign is the 2022 FIFA World Cup activation that capitalized on the great debate—is it called soccer or football?
"This was the first time Frito-Lay had a World Cup Sponsorship for North America, so it was a big opportunity for all of the partners involved," continues Bellinger. "Our goal was to get Americans to be as invested in soccer as the rest of the world with a campaign that got consumers excited, captured their attention and accurately kept our brand voice."
The work joined together the NFL's famed quarterback Peyton Manning, soccer/football legend David Beckham and acclaimed film director Michael Bay.
It also featured several PepsiCo brands: Lay's Classic Potato Chips, Doritos, Ruffles Potato Chips, Cheetos and Tostitos.
Working with multiple brands and multiple talent partners has its challenges, mainly in planning. "Schedules, legal guidelines, brand tones can conflict and require some strategy to find a solution," says Bellinger. To deal with them, he sums it up in two words: over communicate.
At this point in time, Bellinger expresses his excitement about the role D3 can serve as an in-house agency and how it can continue to grow its capabilities. "In-house agencies have become a crucial part of the holistic marketing ecosystem, and I'm eager to continue showcasing how we can take risks and push creative boundaries through our campaigns," he says.
One recent launch from Bellinger and D3 was inspired by the voyeuristic and often hypnotic pleasures of #FoodTok. Frito-Lay's presence on TikTok, @flvr_us, aims to respark the joy of food for the next generation of home cooks.
The account features engaging, TikTok-native food entertainment content for a Gen Z audience, all from the creators they love to watch. Some of flvr’s most popular recipes include a spin on the viral Cheetos Baked Feta Pasta and Fritos Chili Cheese Cloud Pizza.
The trend-forward, social-first content ecosystem has helped build new usage occasions for Frito-Lay brands, marketing them to consumers as ingredients and meal enhancers, shifting the consumer paradigm to view Frito-Lay brands in a different light. In six months, the channel reached 1M followers and has grown into one of the biggest branded food entertainment communities on TikTok.
Being your boldest selves
He's no stranger to that. Bellinger once dressed up in a shark costume and took a turn in a shark cage in the Bahamas, which was designed for consumers daring enough to try it—all for a Doritos ad that underscored being your boldest selves. Those courageous ones solicited from a bar in Dallas were flown down to the Caribbean to face off with a shark. When Bellinger stepped into the cage an actual shark swam in.
"The terrifying experience of almost getting bit by a shark just reiterated how taking risks can lead to high rewards," says Bellinger. "My motto is 'anything that tells a good story.'"