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What does a great digital leader look like? For Mia Sorgi, director of digital product and experience at food and drink giant PepsiCo Europe, top-tier digital leaders have an inherent ability to work out how technologies can be applied to the issues faced by modern businesses and their customers.

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“They’re people with a real intellectual curiosity for how things work,” she says. “That’s very important. I think understanding the challenges brought to us by emerging technology, and the opportunities that lie ahead, is absolutely crucial.”

That’s something Sorgi is focusing on right now in her role at PepsiCo. She joined the company in February 2018 and benefits from extensive experience in design and digital product development across a range of companies, including Fjord, which is part of Accenture, and Ralph Lauren.

“It was a very interesting opportunity, and it was chance to help set up a new group,” she says of her decision to take the role three and half years ago.

“The scale of our operations at PepsiCo is massive. Any changes that we make will really cascade through the business and be very impactful. That’s a huge responsibility and it’s also exciting, and a real privilege to be able to operate at that level in a company of this size.”

Sorgi reports to the vice-president of e-commerce and digital transformation. Alongside her team, she explores how emerging technologies can be used to boost customer experiences.

“Our goal in Europe is to create capability across the sector and PepsiCo in general – the creation of connected experiences is how we describe it,” she says. “So, end-to-end experiences, enabled by digital, with e-commerce a particular focus.”

“What we’re doing is to develop applications and experiences that are delightful, helpful and transformative”

Mia Sorgi, PepsiCo Europe

Sorgi acknowledges that “customer experience” is a big buzz phrase in the IT industry right now. While businesses have long been searching for ways to use technology to keep clients happy, the coronavirus pandemic has heightened attention on experience. That focus is set to continue in the post-Covid age, too.

Strategic consultancy The Hackett Group says world-class IT organisations deliver improved customer experiences. These organisations are 63% more likely to be perceived as a valued business partner by their stakeholders, receive 32% higher net promoter scores, and see 2.1 times greater levels of self-service through process automation.

Sorgi says companies that excel in digital-led experience think very carefully about how they will use a range of interfaces and data-led services to keep customers happy. These pioneering businesses remove the pain points that customers encounter when they buy products and services online or offline. That is something her company is looking to do, too.

“PepsiCo in general has a huge commitment to digital innovation across various pockets of the company,” she says. “What we’re doing, by working with our e-commerce partners, our e-commerce teams, our digital marketing teams and our internal teams, is to develop applications and experiences that are delightful, helpful and transformative.”

Panning for gold

Sorgi says the key focus for her group is building capability around connected experiences for PepsiCo customers. Rather than being confined to a particular technological area or set of devices, the team searches for innovations across web, mobile, and emerging interfaces and applications, such as virtual reality, and conversational and gesture-based computing.

It’s a wide remit, with a potentially huge number of systems and services. So, how do Sorgi and her team pan for the gold among the flood of technologies being pushed to the market by big tech firms and out into a wider ecosystem that includes the startup community? The answer, she says, is to keep their eyes set firmly on the prize.

“It’s a process of best practice but also experimentation,” she says, before referring to a recent innovation that her team has helped develop – a gesture-based project that allows customers in KFC restaurants to be served by moving their hands, with no contact needed.

The development of this first-of-a-kind touchless technology is likely to have big implications in a post-Covid age, where consumers and business are looking to reduce potential points of contact. While the project has received fresh attention over the past two years, it is an innovation that has been much longer in development, says Sorgi.

“This project has actually been in the works for over three years, with initial investigations into emerging technology around gesture and how that could benefit our business and our customers,” she adds.

Developing gesture-based computing

To give a sense of the kind of innovations her team is creating, Sorgi explains the touchless technology trials in more detail. Her team worked with fast-food specialist AmRest and tested the technology in Poland. They also worked with design and engineering agency Method and used gesture-control technology from specialist company Ultraleap.

The front-end application was developed by PepsiCo. The software, which took a year to create, allows customers in the restaurant to order from a menu. Customers make gestures, which creates the orders that are sent through to the restaurant’s food-ordering system.

The key challenge that Sorgi’s team encountered was how to track behaviours in 3D. No best practice exists for the technology – not only is gesture-based computing new, but each user also interacts in an individual way. Add in the fact that the technology was developed during lockdown and it is easy to see the scale of the challenge the team faced.

But these obstacles were overcome and the project was implemented successfully. Evidence from the initial trials in Poland show that users were engaged and interested in the innovation and the vast majority – 85% of consumers – would use gesture-based technology again in the future.

Sorgi says the experiment is now being analysed by her team and other senior colleagues in Europe. While it is still early days for gesture-based computing, she believes the trials in Poland have shown how the technology holds a lot of promise. PepsiCo is honing the technology, speaking with other customers and considering its next move.

“I think the options for interfaces are going to continue to expand,” says Sorgi. “Conversational interfaces have shown that’s the case, and although gesture-based computing brings great challenges, I think we’re going to be seeing more developments there, too.”

Extending digital exploration

While Sorgi and her team have exerted considerable effort exploring how to deploy gesture-based technology, it is far from the only area of digital development they are exploring. If PepsiCo and its customers can potentially benefit from the application of new systems and services, then Sorgi says her team is eager to get involved.

“We’re working on conversation at scale – so, that means conversational interfaces, such as chatbots, and trying to understand the art of the possible and where the value lies for us,” she says. “We’ve been working on helping our business-to-business customers to explore how digital technologies and emerging tech can impact both of our organisations.”

Sorgi gives the example of a chatbot that has been introduced on the website of snacks business Walkers. This chatbot uses artificial intelligence to handle common user questions. It also uses conversational design, which looks at human conversation as a model for all interactions with digital systems, to help manage complex back-and-forth communications.

She says her team is also working on a range of developments associated with connected packaging. While efforts to ensure sustainability are an important part of this process, the company is also thinking about ways that packaging can be digitised and how that changes the customer experience.

Entry-level efforts might include adding a QR code that connects to a website or virtual reality experience. “There are many possibilities, but we’re really trying to unlock and explore what connecting our packaging could achieve,” says Sorgi.

“There’s a lot of technology and infrastructure that you need to be able to do that. We’re trying to advance the cause, rather than just industrialise everything right now.”

Turning great ideas into business applications

Sorgi says PepsiCo has a number of “engines” that power its digital transformation cause. Many of the innovations are driven by internal R&D specialists or IT teams, but the company also draws on a network of external partners, and the startup community is crucial to this activity. “We have a global venturing group and programme,” she says.

When it comes to turning these great ideas into useful business applications, Sorgi says successful digital leaders are more than just marketing specialists. While digital leadership is still a new executive responsibility, evidence suggests it can be a tough role to get right. Consultant PwC found that one-third of chief digital officers leave their roles each year.

Sorgi says being inquisitive about the potential game-changing power of technology is one of the keys to success. Digital leaders don’t necessarily have to be top-level coders, but they should be able to understand how to leap into the future with technology – and how to lead teams to make that jump.

“I’m not a coder – I try to be humble about what I don’t know,” she says. “But with product management or experience design, you need to be able to query, ‘how does this work and why does it need to work that way?’. Not everybody feels comfortable with that, but it’s very important.”

Sorgi says the aim now is to work out how emerging technologies, from gesture control through to the internet of things and on to virtual reality, will be used by her business to improve the user experience. She says PepsiCo must have an immediate perspective on these developments instead of waiting for other businesses to gain a competitive advantage.

“We need to get ahead of those conversations and continue to lead, rather than just be informed later, because this is how we run our business,” she says. “Our business is completely infused with digital technologies at this point.”

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