Inside the creative process and strategy behind the Pepsi Smart Can

Pepsi’s international beverages CMO and chief design officer shared how the marketing innovation could bring more eyes on the brand.
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4 min read

Last week, PepsiCo used Cannes to introduce a new can.

Officially, it’s the Pepsi Smart Can, which Mark Kirkham, SVP and CMO of international beverages at PepsiCo, described as an “LED engagement platform” presented in the form of the soda giant’s classic beverage container.

The innovation, originating from the company’s Dublin-based team, is intended to be a new storytelling medium for the brand, as the device enables the company to deliver custom messages and offers to each recipient, starting with media and influencers, Kirkham told us. The video content displayed on the can was largely made by creators, and SVP and chief design officer Mauro Porcini said the hope is that it will spur the creation of content by the influencers who receive it.

The move comes a few months after Pepsi’s new visual identity—including a new logo and an updated color palette—began hitting shelves, and builds on its “Thirsty for More” brand platform. The innovation will serve as a unique method to garner brand impressions, Porcini said, and is a result of the soft drink company’s focus on entrepreneurial thinking in design.

Getting smart: The Smart Can was developed about a year ago out of a simple brief to create an idea for a promotion that’s never been done before. One Pepsi marketer and one designer “riffed” until they came up with this concept, Kirkham said, and when they brought him a rough prototype, it was a “ta-da” moment, he said.

“You guys just created a piece of technology and a new platform for engaging our consumers that we’d never seen before,” Kirkham remembered thinking.

Porcini, who has led design at Pepsi for 12 years, said the brand’s design team is always tasked with answering “What’s next?” through the three lenses of trends, technology, and business. The Smart Can was first visualized through the tech lens, before determining how it fit in with the business and the company’s customers. The design team is held to a policy that they can “do whatever they want with 15% of their time,” which Porcini said is an effort to resist the loss of entrepreneurship that can often occur at large corporations.

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“We need to empower people to carve out time to investigate new things,” he said. “It’s enough those two times that you do something unique and different [in the] market to essentially repay for the investment of all the other times.”

Revealing the new prototype was a full-circle moment: Many Pepsi marketers from other regions that worked on the product saw it for the first time in a Cannes cabana, Kirkham said.

Cracked open: For Pepsi, the Smart Can serves as a “new gate” to earn attention for the brand, Porcini said.

“All the brands in any category in any industry—they’re all competing for the same span of attention,” he said. “So Pepsi doesn’t compete anymore just with another cola from Atlanta. It competes with the latest song of Beyoncé, with the latest sport event—we compete for that attention.”

To power the Smart Cans, the company created a content management system to push out content to the devices, which are each equipped with their own SIM cards, with the goal of delivering real-time, unique content to build impressions and “drive distinctiveness” for the company, Kirkham said. The use of a new medium, in tandem with content made by creators, could bring in newer audiences, including younger demographics or those interested in tech.

“This is almost taking personalization beyond what we do today in the industry, where we customize content just based on an algorithm that’s on someone’s device,” Kirkham said. “We actually are going direct to them, knowing them, targeting them, and creating stories.”

He compared the new innovation to Pepsi’s Super Bowl campaign this year, when it opted out of a TV spot in favor of placement on the Las Vegas Sphere. The company had to adapt to advertising through a new medium while also working with creators like Zach King to create traditional media around the untraditional advertisement.

“What we were able to do at the Super Bowl, imagine we can do that in your living room,” Kirkham said.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.