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PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi: Niche brands are the future

October 5, 2010, 11:58 PM UTC
Fortune

Technology has distracted consumers, and that’s leading to new challenges for multi-national consumer companies like PepsiCo, Kraft, and Yahoo.

Left to right: Moderator Becky Quick with Yahoo's Carol Bartz, PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi and Kraft's Irene Rosenfeld

by Beth Kowitt, writer-reporter

The key to capturing consumers at a time when they’re pulled in more directions than ever is to engage them directly, said the CEOs of three Fortune 500 companies during Fortune’s Most Powerful Women’s Conference on Tuesday.

“There’s no question it’s more complicated out there,” said Kraft (KFT) CEO Irene Rosenfeld, who was joined on stage by Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Carol Bartz and PepsiCo (PEP) CEO Indra Nooyi. “It’s up to us as marketers to figure out how we need to develop connections with consumers.”

Developments in technology may be responsible for taking bigger and bigger slices of consumers’ time, but all three CEOs noted that these same advances have also allowed them to start what Rosenfeld called a “two-way conversation” with their customers.

Nooyi pointed to PepsiCo’s efforts to involve its consumers with idea generation, such as its recipe contests, which received an overwhelming response. (The result in the UK: Cajun Squirrel potato chips.) “The days where you could create a Pepsi or Mountain Dew, those days are gone,” Nooyi said. “The future’s about niche brands.”

It’s also about knowing your customer. Rosenfeld mentioned Google (GOOG) as an example of a company that excels at understanding and knowing its audience. “That knowledge is invaluable,” she said. “That is the key to us.” (Bartz was quick to point out that Rosenfeld would be able to get the same data from Yahoo.)

As the leaders of multi-national companies, all three talked about the importance of tailoring their products to a particular market. “What we have to think about is looking at global platforms and marrying them with local flavor,” said Nooyi. For Bartz, that means changing not only languages on Yahoo but also layout. For Nooyi and Rosenfeld, it’s about altering taste to regional preferences. Rosenfeld said that while the concept of the Oreo works in China, the taste didn’t. The consumer wanted a product that wasn’t as sweet.

But not everything has changed. “You have to connect the consumer with your product,” said Bartz. “The mediums can be different but you still have to find a way to do that.” Successful brands, she said, “are going to have to stand for something.”