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    PepsiCo’s head of esports on leveling up an ‘always-on’ strategy

    Video games are a big business, but many non-endemic marketers are only just starting to recognize the medium’s ability to connect with a diverse array of players. That’s not true of PepsiCo, which has had an internal head of esports and gaming for over three-and-a-half years and continues to expand how it activates around major intellectual properties, including NBA 2K.

    Paul Mascali actually got his start in the agency world, working with the food and beverage giant through OMD’s specialized gaming and esports division, Zero Code. But it wasn’t long before PepsiCo realized that gaming was becoming a core part of the identity of brands like Mtn Dew and Doritos. Now, the marketer is moving to bring that degree of familiarity to other pockets of its portfolio, and Mascali believes the pitch process is getting easier.

    “Historically, PepsiCo relied on outside agencies and consultants to drive their gaming strategy forward,” Mascali said. “Building out this new capability internally has really been beneficial for us to make sure we’re taking a real strategic approach and setting ourselves up for long-term success.”

    Since Mascali went client-side, gaming has further shored up its dominance in pop culture, with more consumers picking up a controller or downloading casual mobile games during the pandemic. That’s led to more substantive marketing moves from PepsiCo around the category. Bigger bets on gaming come as PepsiCo’s larger sports marketing strategy undergoes changes: Pepsi recently stepped away from sponsoring the Super Bowl Halftime Show after a decade, while Gatorade wound down its NHL partnership.

    Meanwhile, Rockstar Energy last week signed a multiyear agreement to become the exclusive energy drink sponsor of NRG, the most-watched professional gaming organization across platforms in North America. The tie-up will see Rockstar and NRG kickstart a new annual music event on Twitch beginning June 16. Broadcast live from the NRG Hot Pockets Castle in Los Angeles, “Sound Series” plays on the cultural clash between gamers and musicians, aligning NRG streamers with emerging artists.

    Rockstar will also co-develop fan experiences for leading titles like Apex Legends, Fortnite and Rocket League, as well as integrate into existing content like a Twitch program called “Rockstar Energy Raidz” that pairs NRG pros with up-and-coming creators. Mascali said the Rockstar deal is just one way that PepsiCo is trying to broaden its gaming footprint as brands invest in more bespoke strategies.

    This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

    MARKETING DIVE: I feel like, in the grand scheme of things, PepsiCo was early to carve out a specific gaming and esports role.

    PAUL MASCALI: For sure. PepsiCo overall was kind of a first mover in this space.

    Is that a move you see other marketers making now that gaming has enshrined itself in the mainstream?

    MASCALI: I can’t speak specifically to the inner workings of other companies, but from what we’ve seen and been tracking, a lot of different brands across the “non-endemic” space are taking gaming much more seriously. There’s definitely a broader capability-building, where marketers are getting smarter about how to leverage gaming as a media channel.

    Just as a recent example, Progressive Insurance inked an esports naming rights deal last year. Is the endemic versus non-endemic distinction as useful as it once was?

    MASCALI: Even two or three years ago, endemics really did dominate the space. I’d say it’s still a good distinction as we’re trying to assess how brands are entering. As more of these brands start to invest and win over this audience, it becomes a little bit less relevant whether they’re core to the gaming experience or not.

    What’s the biggest way you’ve seen PepsiCo’s approach to gaming and esports evolve in your time there?

    MASCALI: PepsiCo’s been a first-mover in the gaming space dating back to 2007, with the original Mtn Dew Game Fuel flavors. Back then, it was a very transactional relationship with the community. We put branding on packaging, we offered stuff like double [experience points] or new game rewards, and then, ideally, consumers would go and purchase.

    As gaming has continued to grow in the broader entertainment industry; as more people are now becoming gamers through mobile, consoles and PC; as video game content, like Twitch and YouTube, emerge to the forefront for millennial Gen Z cohorts, we’re taking a much more active, always-on approach. That’s been one of the big things that I’ve been driving over the past three-and-a-half years: Thinking how our brands can move out of that transactional window to be omnipresent and talk to the gaming audience year-round.

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