PepsiCo’s Steven Williams: ‘A company of our size can’t ignore being a great corporate citizen’

The company’s North America CEO talks doubling down on purpose during the pandemic at PRDecoded.

NEW YORK: Consumers have been looking to businesses to step up and make a difference in the world for years, but PepsiCo Foods North America CEO Steven Williams said that need “accelerated” amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“People were looking for us to take care of them and their communities,” Williams said in a fireside chat at PRWeek’s virtual PRDecoded conference (go here to registeron Tuesday. “We talked to thousands of consumers amid the pandemic and they shared their little moments of joy, being able to find their favorite products on the shelf. We strengthened our bond with consumers over the last many years but over the last two years it accelerated significantly.” 

Williams has led the $18 billion snack and convenient foods business that includes Frito-Lay North America and Quaker Foods North America since 2019, but he has worked at PepsiCo for 24 years. He noted that the company’s products are in 95% of U.S. households. 

“A company of our size can’t just ignore being a great corporate citizen,” Williams said. 

PepsiCo introduced pep+ (pep Positive) under chairman and CEO Ramon Laguarta’s leadership in 2019. 

“With that, we said we will continue to be a growth company by creating more smiles for consumers, customers, shareholders, communities and people,” said Williams. “We said we would build a faster, stronger, better company. We are seeking to build positive actions for people and the planet through positive agriculture, value chain, choices and packaging.”

In terms of how each brand is making an individual difference to the planet and consumers, Williams explained that what works for one brand might not work for another.

“Each individual brand lives its individual purpose,” he said.

For example, Stacy's Pita Chips is a female-founded brand, so it is committed to helping women founders be discovered. Last month, it partnered with actress Reese Witherspoon and the media company she founded, Hello Sunshine, to spotlight the 10 inspiring winners of the 2021 Stacy's Rise Project. The project is a grant and mentorship program dedicated to helping women grow their businesses.  

In terms of PepsiCo brands jumping into relevant and timely conversations, one that was a good fit for Doritos in the past year was racial equality. 

“When you think about a brand like Doritos and where it shows up, it was one of the first brands to launch a national campaign to amplify Black voices, because it has a right to do that,” said Williams. “It’s a strong brand in the [Black] community and [if we were] silent, we would have been missed.”

As part of its #AmplifyBlackVoices work, Doritos in June launched Solid Black, a multi-platform initiative backed by action and funding designed to bolster the voices of Black innovators and creators and provide them with resources to continue driving change. Doritos will invest more than $5 million as part of the campaign to amplify stories of Black joy, strength and resilience. 

“The brand purpose came through; it was about our brands doing the hard work and doing good in the community vs. just us out there with another message,” said Williams. “Because it’s consumer grounded and it’s authentic, it’s not fake. It’s what our consumers expect of us. So we just do it.”

But where getting involved in this conversation worked for Doritos, it would have been wrong for Lay’s to join in.

“Lay’s consumers look for joy, uplift and comfort, whereas Doritos are more edgy,” Williams said.

He added that he spends a lot of time talking with PepsiCo’s management team, making sure the company is “walking the talk” and ensuring it is able to deliver on any commitments it makes. 

“I am sure there are skeptics who say we are purpose washing,” Williams said. “But I would say bet on us because we are clear-headed, we understand the resources it’ll take to do it and the trade offs we need to make and we decided as a management team that it is the path forward.”

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