Yale School of Management

Center For Customer Insights

Advancing the frontiers of consumer understanding

Re-Imagining the Insights Function with Stephan Gans

One thing is certain in the current global marketplace: the velocity of change has never peaked such as it has today. Stephan Gans, SVP, Chief Consumer Insights and Analytics Officer at PepsiCo, is careful to avoid fully endorsing this cliche, given that the world continues to evolve, but he does acknowledge that the traditional toolkit is no longer adequate to marketplace needs. The pandemic has brought to light changes in the business world that were “already brewing under the surface,” says Gans. He does not make this claim loosely. As the leader of the Consumer Insights Function at one of the world’s largest and best-known corporations, he’s been in the business of identifying and predicting these transformations for some time. Over the past four years, he has been at the forefront of the effort in charting this new terrain.

Consumers’ needs and behaviors are continuously changing, as are the channels businesses use to reach them. There is an increasing focus on sustainability and corporate social responsibility; consumers are more interested in personalization and connecting to brands and products that reflect their values. Throughout, the data landscape predominates. The convergence of these factors have long occupied Stephan Gans. We need, he believes, a “faster, stronger, better” Consumer Insights Function. “More predictive, more iterative, less sequential. More precise; end-to-end. More human, more empathetic, better connected with the everyday lives of our consumers.” At PepsiCo he has delivered, and continues to deliver, on this assessment.

AN IN-HOUSE DIGITALIZATION STRATEGY

The PepsiCo Consumer Insights Function involves some 600 Insights professionals, the vast majority of whom are embedded in category and business teams across the globe. Though only 100-150 report to Gans himself, the structure is set up “to drive convergence.” In 2016, Gans inaugurated the Global Insights Council, a leadership team that oversees the Function. The team was quick to identify and define global capability priorities and centers of excellence. A blueprint was put in place for the uniformity and standardization of the Insights Function across global markets.

“There is no such thing as a global consumer,” Gans notes. “It’s really about the ‘how,’ not the content, which is as local as it gets. How people do their work – that is where we drive leverage of skill. Or in short: Local Insights, Global Tools.” Gans and his Global Insights Council realized that in order to leverage skill, they would need a new lever. “One approach to insights. One set of capabilities. One version of the truth.” They decided to build their own digital platform with a rather ambitious goal: to be to insights “what Google is to search, what Oracle is to finance, what SAP is to operations.”

Partnering with the automated marketing platform Zappi, Gans pioneered an in-house suite of tools tailored to PepsiCo’s interests, allowing the Insights team to take full advantage of advertising and sales data. The platform, Ada, helps to identify promising concepts and to innovate for the next generation of offerings. It does the same for advertising, helping to “identify what works for our brand and our markets,” says Gans. The Ada platform also contributes in the area of knowledge-management. Ada is at work in the spaces of innovation and advertising; it is also at work everywhere – and anywhere – else. Gans and his team call this part of the platform Ask-Ada. “Any time we do any kind of test, whether it be in marketing or research, the whole of PepsiCo gets smarter.”

Speaking of one complementary toolkit, 360 Always On, Gans touts the kind of creative play such in-house software encourages. “This is not something that just sits in global HQ and you have to call someone to get access to it. We have roughly 200 licenses of this software across the Insights teams at PepsiCo. People have access; they have the data at their fingertips; they can play and explore as much as they want.”

TRANSLATING CAPABILITIES INTO ACTION

Each tool that Gans has pioneered, from Ada to 360, has been developed in close partnership with an external and highly-specialized firm. An intelligent social listening tool came out of a partnership with discover.ai, and a category trends and prediction tool was the result of a partnership with Black Swan Data. At this point, four years on, Gans and PepsiCo have a wealth of tools at their disposal. But the task is not simply data-driven. It is a question of strategy, and coherence is central to the answer. Gans organizes capabilities into four use cases: “strategic planning,” “innovation,” “brand building,” and what he calls “winning with customers.” Examples abound.

For instance, the onset of the pandemic in Mexico coincided with the business planning cycle of the snack business. The Mexican team worked with Gans’ global team to predict how the disruption caused by the pandemic would affect the category over a three-year period. They analyzed transformations in culture, evolving beliefs, and behavioral changes. It was fast, efficient and successful. “We can do this in-house, with a highly-standardized approach,” Gans explains. “We didn’t have to tell the Mexican team to find external consultants.”

Gans’ team has also worked on multiple projects to develop food and drink products with reference to “multiple lenses,” including social listening, recipe analytics, ingredient data, and predictions. Many of these products have already hit the market or are on their way.

In terms of brand building and winning with customers, tools like the in-house 360 AO Trendscope have proved instrumental. Trendscope aggregates and assimilates data from Twitter, blog posts, message boards, review sites, and so forth to accurately predict, for example, ingredients or benefits that are “here to stay.” Advertising briefs often contain vague talk of target audiences, but what is that audience actually talking about? What cultural tensions are most relevant, for example, to the Tropicana brand? And similar questions can be asked of, for example, post-COVID breakfast trends at McDonald’s, a PepsiCo partner. “What are consumers’ ‘rising motivations’? What diets, what recipes, what benefits are trending now? Are there specific ingredients being used more at the outset of COVID than before? What does a healthy breakfast look like for consumers today?” Investigating these questions with help of Trendscope allowed PepsiCo to deploy its insights services to help strengthen the McDonald’s partnership.

“GLOBAL MIGHT FOR THE LOCAL FIGHT”

This is Stephan Gans’ tagline. His global Insights team leverages capabilities for local or market-specific teams. Meanwhile, for core areas of consumer insights work, such as innovation testing and advertising testing, all rely on Ada and its knowledge-management counterpart as “a deep platform where testing gets done and results are always available.”

“Many of us have grown up in a world where quantitative and qualitative research were sharply distinguished,” Gans remarks. “Today everything is quant, and the key is to bring qual into quant.” The type of people Gans seeks and develops are of this persuasion. They are, as Gans dubs them, “human scientists, capable of combining the objective with the subjective, comfortable with big data and analytics-driven thinking, but also curious to understand why people do what they do. They’re after the ‘what’ and the ‘why.’” These are the professionals Gans surrounds himself with as he continues to invent and re-invent the future of consumer insights at PepsiCo.

You can catch Stephan’s full talk here.