Frito-Lay CMO says marketers need a listen-first mentality to be successful


Frito-Lay CMO Jennifer Saenz says listening to consumers is a top priority if you want to build marketing experiences that drive engagement.

Jennifer Saenz began her career as an intern with Frito-Lay more than 12 years ago. She worked her way through the ranks, and in March of 2016, she was named CMO.

“The role is pretty comprehensive. It oversees all of our advertising and media across all of our businesses,” says Saenz. “Our innovation pipeline, consumer insights and category management. And then an in-house creative agency and programmatic media desk — so it’s pretty much soup-to-nuts marketing.”

Saenz says her career trajectory within the company from intern to CMO was an exciting arc, and, because of it, she is able to tell her team that it often feels as though she has held every single role within the brand’s marketing organization.

“What has been very interesting is how the media landscape and marketing approach has evolved over time,” says Saenz.

The CMO says the brand has become much more sophisticated during the 12 years she’s been with the company, while at the same time, the amount of available consumer behavior data — and how the brand engages with consumers — is radically different.

“There was no smartphone when I started, and now that’s pretty much what we think about and talk about all day, every day,” says Saenz, “We didn’t have designers and data scientists and other things — we had a fairly similar background for a lot of our folks — your typical CPG marketer background.”

Saenz says she has witnessed a very large evolution in terms of focus and the skill sets needed for both internal staff and agency partners.

“I think today we’re really a much more diverse group of individuals and a much more diverse group of experiences because of that massive change in the marketplace.”

It’s a very large evolution in terms of the focus, as well as the skill set that the team needs to think about and that our agency teams need to develop.”

Get To Know:

Jennifer Saenz

CMO @ Frito-Lay


1. Use the right technology for the right audience: Each brand has a different personality appealing to a different audience. Make sure that the marketing technology you use aligns with what resonates most with your target audience.

2. Identify what you want the technology to do: Technology is not the sole answer to effective marketing. It’s an important tool, but you need to set goals for what you want the marketing technology to accomplish. Generally, we apply innovative marketing technology to allow consumers to interact with our brands in a meaningful way.

3. Set up a robust monitoring and measurement system: Today’s marketing technology allows for more real-time analysis to measure the effectiveness of a particular program. It also allows us to zero in on the best customers — ones that are passionate about the brand and serve as ambassadors.

Amy Gesenhues: So much of martech has to do with analytics — what data sets are you most likely to focus on when developing your overall marketing strategy?

Jennifer Saenz: There are so many, it’s a pretty broad question. I think, ultimately, what we try to do is understand what is the problem that we’re trying to solve — and then, what’s the best data source to do that, and what’s the right information for us.

There’s a lot of data out there — making sure you’re sourcing the right thing is really the most important part in getting to a great answer. If you’re looking to learn about products that are needed from an innovation standpoint, it’s a very different data source than optimization of a media plan, as an example.

Identifying the key question or key problem you’re trying to solve, and then, how do we attack it and learn the most that we can about a particular individual?

What we’ve learned over and over is making sure you start with a consumer, understanding the behavior and understanding what success will look like with that consumer typically guides you towards identifying what the right source of information is.

AG: In terms of consumer behavior, which analytics are most likely to inform your strategy — or is that still an extremely broad data set?

JS: Even that’s very broad, because we could be looking at consumption behaviors. We could be looking at media behaviors. You could be looking at the role of convenience in different solutions, in how people shop, and how are they shopping differently? The questions are really endless.

We tap into consumers over and over again to help us evaluate certain things within our business. We also do a lot of social listening, trying to make sure we understand what’s on people’s minds.

Really partnering with consumers to develop different solutions — whether that’s an innovation solution or even a communication solution. But then, we want to make sure that we’re engaging with the consumer at all times as well.

AG: After being with the brand for more than a decade, what do you know about Frito-Lay consumers?

JS: Probably the most predictable thing I could say about consumers is that they’re very unpredictable.

They’re always changing, they’re always evolving. We know our consumer is looking for variety, novelty and excitement. How they define that varies from cohort to cohort and group to group — but that’s something people are looking for.

They’re also looking for entertainment, often, when they’re turning to our categories and our brands. So we need to constantly keep abreast of what that might look like. They’re looking for sharable experiences, and really immersive experiences — and how immersive those are has, again, changed over time. We can create very immersive technology experiences.

We can also create very immersive in-person experiences, and experiences that bridge both worlds, which isn’t something we were able to do prior to the advent of some of the technology we see.

The other thing is, people are looking for things that are made just for them, this idea of a personalized engagement. Whether that’s a product they feel answers a problem that they’ve had in their lives, and it was designed just for them, or a piece of communication that feels unique and engaging to them. There is a desire for a personalized level of engagement for consumers.

What we’re always looking for, with our marketing, is that it has cultural relevance first and foremost. We want to make sure that we’re culturally relevant to what consumers are looking for. And then, how can we leverage both technology and experiential ideas to work together and get that tailored brand experience for the consumer?

AG: Can you give me an example of a culturally relevant experience the brand has created?

JS: In execution with our Cheetos business, we had a pop-up restaurant in New York City called The Spotted Cheetah.

Chester the Cheetah partnered with celebrity chef Anne Burrell, and they co-developed a menu for the Cheetos lovers around the world to do this really amazing experiential pop-up restaurant in New York for three days.

They got a tremendous response from consumers and great pick-up — but really, it was inspired by us, paying attention to what consumers were doing with Cheetos appearing in all kinds of foods. From sushi to bagels to tacos, mac-and-cheese, anything that you think might taste just a little better with Cheetos.

When you think about cultural relevance, it’s how do you take a cue from the conversations that consumers are having? What are they talking about? And then, amplify it.

We saw this renewed interest in Cheetos as an ingredient, and as part of a culinary exploration. We certainly wanted to be a part of it and amplify it. That’s why we launched The Spotted Cheetah, and within just a few hours, the restaurant was sold out, and it was just a tremendous success and really helped us engage.

AG: In addition to the social listening tools you mentioned, what other marketing technology are you using to develop the brand’s experiential marketing tactics?

JS: The social listening is important. Making sure we do audience targeting and segmentation as it relates to the media — it’s a basic, but one people often forget when they’re thinking about using digital tools and other things.

We do a fairly sophisticated exercise of audience targeting and segmentation and making sure that the different ads we are putting out to people are customized in some ways, so it feels a little bit more relevant. Again, it has to be culturally relevant, but also personally relevant to each of those individuals, so it feels like a customized, personal experience.

We were experimenting with real-time animation for Chester, and allowing him to interact with people, which — given the nature of animation — has always been a challenge for Chester. We’ve been able to do things that are prepared in advance, but one of the things that gets us excited is, what if Chester could interact with people in real time and do so in a way that was live?

That was a piece of technology we wanted to test and experiment with as part of the experience at the restaurant, and consumers were able to do that. We had a whole set up, if you walked by, he would call something out — it was Chester on a screen, think of him like a video guest on a screen, but he was interactive with the correct response.

If you were wearing a blue dress, he would say, “Wow, you look ravishing in blue,” and say all kinds of Chester-like things to you, and interact with you in a playful, unique way.

AG: What about the brand’s social networks — are you doing anything unique in that area on an experiential marketing level?

JS: We have used Snapchat filters and different geofilters. We did a program recently on International Woman’s History Month — we had some really beautiful imagery, and there was a geofilter.

You could snap the image on the back of each bag, and it would bring you to a site that gave you relevant information on actions that you could take to support women, and to support progress in your communities.

We have used that in a number cases with different programs and different promotions.

AG: I know you have an in-house agency, D3 — why did Frito-Lay decide to build an in-house agency in addition to the brand’s external partners?

JS: D3 basically incorporates digital, design and demand. Those are the three “Ds” behind D3. How do we make sure that we are staying on the forefront of our digital capabilities? How do we incorporate design in everything we do? And, ultimately, making sure it’s for the purpose of fulfilling demand, and creating demand for our products.

It’s really “How do we think about our ability to develop and evaluate in real time, and evolve accordingly in all of those different practices?”

The team we have in place is quite wide and varied, and has actually changed a bit over time. Just as the marketplace changes, we evolve what that looks like. We have an in-house design team, some creative directors, writers. We have an in-house programmatic media buying desk and their scope varies year to year.

They’re not a replacement for external agency partners. We love and use our external agency partners and many of our businesses, as well as on the media side. But we think it’s important we are versed in these different areas —  and also exposed to the different approaches that are happening from a marketplace perspective — to make sure we’re keeping pace with the world around us.

It’s definitely something that is complementary to the full agency roster we have.

AG: Before we end, what would you define as the driving force guiding your strategy as CMO?

JS: I think, to be successful, you have to have a listen-first mentality with consumers. You need to consistently listen and give them what they’re looking for, give them what excites them. You can’t force them to do anything.

I have a two-year-old toddler, and same thing for him. As much as I want him to do certain things, he has a will of his own. I have to figure out what that is, and how do we work together to achieve something.

A listen-first mindset and approach is critical, especially in a modern landscape where there’s an abundance of choice and an abundance of options. Making sure that you’re listening to what consumers want, and then delivering it, is our primary objective.

This article first appeared in

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About Author

Amy Gesenhues

Amy Gesenhues is Third Door Media's General Assignment Reporter, covering the latest news and updates for Marketing Land and Search Engine Land. From 2009 to 2012, she was an award-winning syndicated columnist for a number of daily newspapers from New York to Texas. With more than ten years of marketing management experience, she has contributed to a variety of traditional and online publications, including,, and Sales and Marketing Management Magazine.

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