PepsiCo’s Zach Harris has advice for brands: “Be yourself”
For the first decade of his career, while working his way up as a star marketer at PepsiCo, Zach Harris was having his own internal struggle.
“I was very passionate about my job, but there was this other piece of me that I was still trying to discover and figure out,” Harris remembers. “I had all these thoughts in my head of how would it change people’s perspective of me, would they think less of me, would they think differently of me? If I tell them that I’m gay does that make them think anything else?”
About five years ago, “It came to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore, and I came out,” Harris says.
His decision changed his situation entirely, for the better.
“The amount of tremendous support I got from my colleagues, mentors, and other people at PepsiCo after I came out, it was so important and freeing—this idea of bringing your full authentic self to work,” Harris says.
Now the Vice President of Marketing for the water portfolio of PepsiCo Beverages North America, Harris brings his full authenticity to his work and strives to inspire it within others as a leader and mentor. Below, Harris talks with Amazon Ads about the best advice he has for advertisers, brands, and business leaders, and why it’s important to always be your true, individual self.
I’m from the suburbs of Boston, but I’ve been in New York for about 18 years now. I’m a big sports fan and a big music fan. I love exploring everything the city has to offer.
What’s interesting is I have a full-circle story from a career standpoint. I interned at PepsiCo in 2004 and came back full-time after college and began my career 18 years ago as a marketing analyst on the Aquafina brand. In November of 2020, I became the Vice President of Marketing overseeing our water portfolio, which includes everything from brand strategy to our communications to innovation to our commercial agenda for brands under my purview which include bubly, LIFEWTR, and Aquafina. Here I am 18 years later at the same company, working on the water business again.
In those 18 years I’ve had different roles across brands, whether it was working on Mountain Dew or running our NFL partnership and the Super Bowl Halftime Show. I’ve had such a wide breadth of experiences and it’s really helped me grow and develop as a leader.
I feel as though you can be a leader in any situation—whether you’re given a small project to own as an intern, to running a multi-billion-dollar portfolio. You start out leading projects cross-functionally; you can lead projects with agencies. You refine and learn from your mistakes and continue to grow. The ultimate experience is being able to lead people and watching them grow and become a leader in their own way.
Zach Harris, the Vice President of Marketing for the water portfolio of PepsiCo Beverages North America, poses with some of his team members.
I’ve received a ton of advice throughout the years. You get it from everywhere—you get it from friends, you get it from coworkers, you get it from managers, you get it from TV. But one piece of advice that has always stuck with me in different ways is this quote: "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."
What I really like about this quote and this advice is that it’s pretty simple, but also extremely hard in situations to achieve.
Being yourself is so important today from a marketing and brand standpoint. From a human standpoint, we always celebrate people’s uniqueness, but at work, there’s always the question if you’re a different person versus your personal life. Or, ‘How do I show up at work?’ And seeing this quote helped me understand how to show up.
What I can tell you is that this quote was easy to live by in one area in my life and very difficult in another. So, the easier place for me is in my style and how I act with my team and as an employee. I voiced my opinions fearlessly. I stood up for what I believed in and I was very proud of that. And this was an area of being myself that I was very proud of. That was the area where I always felt comfortable in my own skin.
The place for me where I didn’t personally live up to this quote, was my own coming out journey as a gay man. It took a little over 10 years into my career for me to come out in general in society, then even longer at work. Had I heeded this advice, it probably would have been a much smoother time for me. I was very passionate about my job, but there was this other piece of me that I was still trying to discover and figure out.
I had all these thoughts in my head of how would it change people’s perspective of me: would they think less of me; would they think differently of me? If I tell them that I’m gay does that make them think anything else? It was something that I never discussed at work. But I knew it in my head and I had so many perceptions of myself.
Finally, it came to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore and I came out. And what’s so interesting now, reflecting on that time in my career, is the amount of tremendous support I got from my colleagues, mentors, and other people at PepsiCo after I came out, it was so important and freeing—this idea of bringing your full authentic self to work.
I was a better employee after I came out. I was so wrapped up in my head, but after I came out it was positive in so many ways. Now that I could bring my full self to work, it was this idea that work was actually better because you don’t need to weigh yourself down with everything going on in your head.
The more experience and influence I gained at PepsiCo, the more I learned how important authenticity is. That realization really fueled my passion for being an advocate and mentor at PepsiCo and encouraging others to be themselves. And especially for the LGBTQ+ community at PepsiCo, I was then a visible leader, a visible executive.
Everyone has their own journey. I think for me it was finally coming into my own skin. The amount of time and effort it took to not discuss my own feelings just weighed me down. It came to a point where it was just time. It all clicked in my head.
From a pure mindset perspective, this was a weight that was lifted. And once it was out, it was like shouting it from the rooftops. There were 13 years of my career where I felt I couldn’t talk about anything related to my social life. I felt like I could finally focus on the job at hand. Then there was the emotional piece. Once I didn’t care about it, I was really happy and could go on that journey while still being an executive and leading a big team. For me I could truly be my full self in every sense of the word. I was energized and invigorated.
What I have seen in the past five years is, by being a visible out leader, I’m able to be a mentor in a way that I hadn’t done in the early years of my career. People will come to me and ask, “How did you navigate your career? Can you help shed some advice?” And over the last few years I’ve tried to create this bond and support those who are LGBTQ+. I’m really trying to showcase this quote about being yourself, and people do see me as a visible out leader and I think that’s really important in organizations across the country.
I think if you break down this quote you can view it two different ways.
First, at PepsiCo, we’re extremely consumer-centric. If you follow this advice, you need to authentically connect with consumers who are unwavering in who they are and their uniqueness.
The other piece is, as we try to connect with consumers in an authentic and organic way, we really want to understand what they want from brands. Consumers want to see brands that they love doing meaningful work. What I’m really proud of is that bubly and LIFEWTR are two brands within our portfolio that emulate and encourage authenticity really well. They do that because they have been authentic since their beginning.
LIFEWTR is a champion for underrepresented voices. The brand amplifies the work of diverse creatives across its platform. As part of its Life Unseen campaign alongside partner Issa Rae, LIFEWTR also partnered on a first-of-its-kind study that helped better understand the representation gaps that exist across the creative industry. By brands being authentically themselves, that’s helping them connect with consumers who want to be themselves.
bubly is our sparkling water that’s really all about playful optimism and promoting inclusivity. It’s been a consistent ally for the LGTBQ+ community. We don’t just show up in June for Pride. We’re on RuPaul’s Drag Race throughout the year, and we’ve done collaborations with Stonewall and GLAAD.
I think this quote is really important in this day and age for yourself as a human and as an employee, but to also understand the consumer landscape and to show up as a brand. For me, not only have I learned so much from this quote as a human and how I live my life and do my job, but it’s also helped me become a better marketer, to really understand consumers and to connect in authentic, purposeful ways.
Issa Rae for LIFEWTR Life Unseen campaign
bubly's 2022 Pride Month campaign that honors LGBTQ+ chosen families and safe places in collaboration with Stonewall Inn.
bubly Bounce is a sponsor for RuPaul's Drag Race
Being unashamed of who we are and celebrating our uniqueness and individuality is a win-win for everyone. It allowed me to do better work. It allows others to be themselves and unlock new creativity that they might not have been able to tap before. Better ideas come from it.
If you’re in a brainstorm, for example, when we embrace what makes us unique, it invites ideas that might not have been in the room otherwise.
And from a consumer standpoint, consumers today are increasingly looking to their favorite brands for leadership on things that are going on in society. So, brands encouraging authenticity in their own voice is really important.