PepsiCo's Mauro Porcini on how to engage with consumers in a constantly changing world

How we interact with the brands and products around us has shifted radically

The set-up for a Lay's get-to-know-the-customer event. Courtesy PepsiCo
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"The world is changing; completely, radically and very fast," Mauro ­Porcini, chief design officer of PepsiCo tells me when we meet in Dubai.   

That’s partly why his job even exists. It is only in recent years that corporations have begun to recognise the increasingly fundamental role that design can play in business strategy – in the case of PepsiCo, the company behind such behemoths as Pepsi, Lay’s, Cheetos, 7Up and Lipton, the CDO role was created in 2012.

In a corporate context, design can mean a multitude of things. It’s the look of your product; the way it is packaged and presented; it’s your brand identity and the retail experience that you offer; it’s the way you communicate with existing and potential clients; and the platforms and channels that you use to do so.

Have you ever stopped to consider how you engage with the brands and products around you? Porcini offers some interesting insight.

“There are three levels of interaction that you always have,” the 42-year-old Italian maintains. “One is the functional – you search for a functional benefit in the product. The second is the emotional one – you fall in love with a product. The third is its semiotic or symbolic value – what that brand is saying about you to the rest of the world.

“So, for example, fashion is really linked to the semiotic and the emotional. You fall in love with something and that brand, whether it’s Gucci or Louboutin, is saying something about you to the rest of the world. With fashion, you might compromise on functionality – some of those high heels are a good example. But the success of a product depends on the balance of these three levels.”

He cites Lifewtr, a “mass premium water proposition” that was launched by PepsiCo in 2017, as an example. “We understood that people, firstly, wanted to hydrate, with something healthy, like water. So it’s a category that is important.” That’s the functionality covered. “But then, a lot of people will walk the streets holding their bottle of water. So there is a symbolic value there. You’re all dressed up in an outfit that you really love. And your water becomes almost a fashion accessory.”

With Lifewtr, the water itself is pH-balanced, with electrolytes added for taste; but it is the labels on the bottles that are this product's key differentiator, as they feature custom-created designs by emerging artists.

Artist-designed Lifewtr bottles. Courtesy PepsiCo
Artist-designed Lifewtr bottles. Courtesy PepsiCo

"Every three months, we launch new collaborations," Porcini explains. "The macro purpose is helping the creative ­community, but every collection also has a micro purpose. The second collection was based around women in art, so three female artists created designs for our bottles, and we've been supporting them in a variety of ways. Another collection featured fashion designers, specifically ones that work on pattern and graphics."

Lifewtr has been very well-received, says Porcini, excitedly. "I love the project because it's entirely design-driven. It's about the beauty and the discovery of the bottle. But it's also producing a lot of business results. And it's rare, at this level and on this scale, that a purely design-driven proposition creates so much business value."

Porcini studied industrial design in the 1990s – in Milan, which, he says, was already very forward-thinking, and already focusing on issues such as strategy, design thinking, and the relationship between business and design. He spent one year of his five-year course in Dublin at the National College of Art and Design, which, on the other hand, was “far behind”. “But that was very good for me,” he says. “Milan was all about strategy and big-systems thinking and using computers. In Dublin, I was using prototypes and pencils. I also learnt English in Dublin, at the age of 24.”

Porcini came from humble beginnings and studied on a scholarship, working in the university cafeteria to earn extra cash. Because he didn’t speak English when he arrived, he couldn’t even wait tables. “It was pretty embarrassing,” he admits. “All my friends were going out and I was there washing dishes.” Within nine months, he was doing his final exams, in English. And it is this dynamic, go-getter approach that has shaped his career.

His first job was with Philips Design, where he specialised in wearable technology, the subject of his thesis. He went on to create his own design firm, Wisemad, with the celebrated media personality Claudio Cecchetto. In 2014, he joined PepsiCo as chief design officer, a newly created role. "Indra Nooyi [PepsiCo's chief executive], gave me a few people and a location in New York City. We've gone from 20 people to 180 today, with nine locations around the world," he says.

Mauro Porcini. Courtesy PepsiCo
Mauro Porcini. Courtesy PepsiCo

Design in a company like PepsiCo has two fundamental roles, Porcini explains. “One is about brand-building in this new, social-media-driven, high-tech global world we live in. And the other is about innovation – how to imagine, develop and execute products, brands and platforms in this evolving society.”

So how do you communicate with the consumer in this new landscape, and is it possible to control the narrative anymore? Absolutely not, he says. "Essentially, we are moving away from a world where you are crafting content and imposing it, top-down, to your consumers, mostly through a TV-centric channel, to a world where we are not even the actors in the conversation any more. We are moving from the possibility of buying the rights to be part of the conversation to a world where we need to earn the right to be a part of it. Essentially, we need people to engage with our content and talk about us."

In concrete terms, this means communicating across every touchpoint, continuously, Porcini explains. "Content in the past was TV. Content for many companies today is, unfortunately, the same video content, but translated into digital. In reality, content today is anything you do with your product – innovation, packaging, digital – everything."

What about brand fatigue, I ask? I cannot be the only person to feel utterly overwhelmed by the amount of information being shoved in my direction on a daily basis. Porcini accepts that there’s a balance to be struck, but is also quick to point out the many benefits of this perceived information overload.

"There is a big debate on what is the right balance between the information that we are bombarded with, and how much entities, like corporations or the government, should filter that. I don't know what is the right solution there because, on one side, especially with new generations, this overwhelming flow of information is not really that overwhelming.  

"I think it is actually giving freedom to people, because you have all this access to knowledge and know-how. Nobody can fool anybody any more. I think access to information is good – we just need to develop, as human beings, systems to filter that data and what's relevant to us. And the younger generation is in a better position to do so."


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As a result, we are entering an age of enforced excellence, Porcini suggests. In the past, large entities like PepsiCo could rely on their size and huge barriers to market entry to maintain the status quo, he points out.

“Today, you as an individual might have an idea. You have easy access to funding with things like; it’s not that expensive anymore to actually create something, especially in food and beverage; and then you can use social media for your marketing and communication. And, finally, you have e-commerce to go to market.

"Big corporations are starting to compete with a proliferation of products and brands. And they cannot protect their products and brands as they used to in the past. Now, either you have an excellent proposition, or you fail. Where in the past you might have an average product, today you need to have the best product. That's the innovation crisis, or innovation opportunity, if you want to look at it in a positive way, that we all live in. This is where design can play a really important role. Design is all about understanding people's needs and wants, and crafting solutions that are meaningful to them."

So what does the future hold, in the eyes of Mauro Porcini? “It’s a future where people will be more and more smart, savvy and, eventually, spoiled. It’s a future of radical excellence. It is a future where people will be able to become entrepreneurs; a future of mass customisation and mass personalisation; with more focus on health and ­wellness and sustainability.

"And it's all linked to the idea of excellence. If you don't ­deliver that, somebody else will."