Mauro Porcini, Chief Design Officer for PepsiCo, Says Every Leader Can Be a Design Unicorn
Mauro Porcini wants you to become a design unicorn, by which he means someone who is not just super-creative about product innovation but knows how to do it in the context of the biggest picture possible of branding. Even more ambitiously, he says that every department in every company needs to be founded on consistent "design thinking."
He understands that "design" has long been associated mostly with luxury fashion and interior decor for the rich, but his is a call to arms for every leader to contribute to a new Renaissance through innovative thinking powered by artificial intelligence.
"Design unicorns have a startup mindset that incorporates innovation into every aspect of a company," Porcini, PepsiCo's first chief design officer, told Startup Savant. "Innovation is an act of love for customers and most companies are just doing it incrementally. The mediocre results will cause them to struggle in the new Age of Excellence."
He explains his vision in a new book, “The Human Side of Innovation: The Power of People in Love with People.”
Learning to Become a Design Thinker
Porcini grew up in a middle-class family in a small Italian town nestled between Milan and the Alps in the 1970s. He wanted to be an artist or a writer, as doodling and scribbling came naturally to him. But his parents were concerned because the job market for these talents was hard to break into, so he agreed to follow his father's steps in becoming an architect, a profession where creativity was in demand.
Then just before he was to start studying, a friend alerted him about a new degree course at the Politecnico in Milan, industrial design, the first of its kind in Italy, which sounded even more pragmatic. He was taught everything from hand drawing and 3D modeling to photography and prototyping to enable students to do multidisciplinary innovation in any field.
"In design school you learn how to observe people, understand their needs and desires, and how to invent meaningful solutions in the form of products, brands, spaces, services, or experiences," Porcini wrote. "Then you learn that these need to be technically realizable and able to be commercialized. But designers do something else as well, which makes their approach more important in today's world than it has ever been before … They are driven by a sincere desire to create solutions that impact people's lives in meaningful way … Design thinkers can be marketers, scientists, musicians, or politicians who take a human-centered approach to business … Either you create extraordinary products and brands for the people you serve or someone else will do it and take your place."
It is possible now for anyone to take this bold approach because of easy access to capital, efficient manufacturing platforms, ecommerce, and digital media for communication. Large enterprises generally pursue innovation in incremental ways, often through acquisitions and mergers. "But we are living through the democratization of innovation and the best products, brands, services, and experiences will prevail."
An early mentor, Stefano Marzano, was head of design for Philips, the Netherlands-based multinational, whom he met through a friend in 1995. He gave Porcini books that helped the budding designer to envision a technological future that would include the iPad, cloud, wireless charging stations, and video calls.
Marzano also sent him some project documents in English and encouraged him to learn the language. Since 20% of the classes at Porcini's Italian school were taught in French, he had elected to learn French over English. However, English was required to be able to work at Philips, he told Porcini, who then turned down a scholarship to study for one year in Paris so he could spend 1998 in Dublin. Learning the emerging language of international business would be another life-changing experience.
In 2000, fresh out of university, Porcini and several friends were invited to meet with Claudio Cecchetto, an Italian producer who had founded two major radio channels and discovered many stars, from TV hosts to singers. He was then investing in an early internet provider in Europe, and the four ambitious entrepreneur wannabes prepared a demonstration of how they could provide 3D navigation for his site, enhancing the user experience. They planned to found their own studio, but Cecchetto offered to join this new enterprise, Wisemad, which would offer their services to others.
It turned out that business was not ready for advanced website technology, so it only lasted a couple of years, but Porcini said Cecchetto was "one of the most important mentors in innovation I have ever met and without those years, I wouldn't be where I am today."
He reports that since then, he has read dozens of books and heard lots of presentations on innovation, but the so-called experts don't seem to have actually done anything creative and new.
In 2002, Porcini was hired as the design manager for 3M in Europe and became head of its global design team based in Minneapolis three years later. In October 2011, 3M asked him to become its first chief design officer. He was recruited for the same role at PepsiCo in New York City the following July.
Then PepsiCo approached him about taking the same role there. When Porcini first met with CEO Indra Nooyi, he brought Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs with the page marked about the time Jobs was trying to recruit John Sculley, then president of PepsiCo, to head Apple. He said to Sculley, "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?"
The world's second-largest beverage and food company, PepsiCo had already been undergoing dramatic change under Nooyi, first when she became its chief strategist in 1994, then as president and CFO in 2001, and after her elevation to CEO in 2006. In “Extraordinary People: Real Life Lessons on What It Takes to Achieve Success,” I covered her spin-off of fast food subsidiaries, the acquisition of producers of healthy foods and drinks, and the creation of a line of transitional options in between these categories.
As Porcini studied the company, he realized the enormous impact PepsiCo had on the health and wellness of billions. Once persuaded to join, he told Nooyi, "I want to prove to Steve Jobs — may he rest in peace — that we, too, can change the world in our own way."
She gave Porcini an initial team of a dozen in New York City to bring a new level of creativity and innovation to its products and branding, but she and other top executives also believed in his ultimate vision of making the company a design-driven organization.
"Multinational companies might seem from the outside like enormous machines made up of countless processes and human cogs, but in truth they are simply communities of people with visions and aspirations, emotions, and fears," he wrote. "They are collectives of individuals who think, hope, experiment, love, suffer, enjoy, try, and fail, and aspire to be successful, regardless of their level and title. This is how you change the world: with the strength of ideas and actions, with the strength of people in love with people."
One of his first big projects was to untangle the mess of conflicting demands for a new type of soda fountain from the traditional one in stores, fast-food outlets, restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters, which offered a handful of drink options. This smart fountain, in theory, would allow microdoses that would take up less space yet offer more mix options through a touch screen.
"But those who had been working on this had not asked the most fundamental question, which was 'what do customers really want?'" he wrote. "There was little data on this and so the company had been responding to what the competition was doing. It was clear that there could not be one type of fountain, since the space available and the price our customers were willing to pay varied enormously. After studying the issues, I made a presentation to the leadership with a mix of calculated naivete, calibrated respect, and the reckless courage of a newcomer."
He proposed removing the ice maker, which made the fountain much smaller and less expensive to make while enabling dozens of drink combinations. Three types were eventually marketed.
A later high-profile project was the SodaStream Professional, a water dispenser that could personalize the drink's temperature, level of carbonation, flavor, vitamins, and electrolytes to add, and other choices. Users were given a reusable aluminum bottle with a QR code or an app to save their preferences and how they wanted to pay for the product, including a subscription.
Each project Porcini headed was based on prototypes to generate feedback. He says prototyping has five superpowers to keep innovation on course:
- Alignment: making sure everyone involved in the design uses the same terms so there are no conflicting interpretations.
- Internal Co-Creation: allowing people with different backgrounds (technology, finance, manufacturing, etc.) to contribute.
- External Co-Creation: Getting input from potential customers.
- Building Excitement: building buzz among distributors and potential users.
- Spreading faith in the project as it gets better and better.
He also ensured that innovations were founded on fundamental principles of design: they were truly new and extraordinary, useful, made people feel an emotional connection, and were part of a meaningful story for the individual.
As his grand design ideas spread through the organization, the projects became more elaborate and involved many more people to ensure they were consistent with the company's primary values. These included the National Football League's Super Bowls and their Half-Time performances with artists like Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, Shakira, Coldplay, Pink, and Bruno Mars.
In 2018, a new CEO, Ramon Laguarta, took the helm, and he also was fully supportive of continuing to spread creative design principles throughout the company.
The Challenge of Finding and Developing Design Unicorns
Porcini says through all this, the biggest challenge was not coming up with fresh creative ideas to improve the company, its products, and the relationship with those using its products. It was finding the type of people who could support his vision. What he called design unicorns had these basic traits:
- They were intuitive and analytical.
- They proactively looked for the root cause and went the extra mile.
- They stayed on top of trends and eventually became trend-setters.
- They appreciated beauty and knew how to generate it.
- Regardless of whether they worked in a design function, they were innovators who thought like holistic designers.
- They got their hands dirty and were not afraid of making mistakes.
- They understood how the world of business worked (but they didn't need an MBA or Ph.D.).
- They were savvy about technology.
There were also social gifts unicorns needed to be successful, he said:
- They love people and appreciate the valuable contributions of working with diverse organizations.
- They are transparent, honest, and sincere, and they inspire trust.
- They have elevated emotional intelligence.
- They are kind.
- They are respectful of others when there are disagreements or communication challenges.
- They are charismatic storytellers.
- They are curious about a wide range of things that might not appear to be part of their portfolio.
- They are self-aware, and humble, but confident.
- They listen attentively — then decide and act.
- They are optimistic and resilient.
- They are comfortable with discomfort.
Does this seem like an impossible wish list? Porcini has, with great HR effort, managed to find thousands of people who have most of the essential characteristics and habits. But how can a small business even begin to compete with this type of ambitious global organization in its own industry?
You can develop a better understanding of your hiring priorities by reading his book and starting to use the ideas to transform yourself into a creative unicorn who will attract others of like mind. And someday, you may be heading a well-designed global enterprise.
About the Author
Scott S. Smith has had over 2,000 articles and interviews published in nearly 200 media, including Los Angeles Magazine, American Airlines’ American Way, and Investor’s Business Daily. His interview subjects have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, Reed Hastings, Howard Schultz, Larry Ellison, Kathy Ireland, and Quincy Jones.