Design leader Moira Cullen discusses the soft power of transformation

Softer Pensive Moira

“I started out, in life, as a dancer,” Moira Cullen, who has been at the forefront of brand design for such storied brands as Hallmark Cards, The Hershey Company, The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, explains. “The idea with performance and theater is that you have your own role, your own piece, your own study, but you’re with others and you’re working with so many different elements. There’s that sense of the other—really trying to understand your connection with them. I’ve brought that concept into my leadership and the way that I approach design: It always starts with insights.

 

Cullen goes on to explain that insights help bring the audience with you—whether that audience is a target market for a brand or an audience—on a performance, on an emotional journey.  “Reason leads to decisions, but emotions are what lead to action,” she explains. “You can give people the facts that can help them rationally decide about something, but it’s that emotional value that will absolutely trigger the action—the actual picking up of a product or purchasing.”

 

Understanding the emotional component of brand design helps marketing and design leadership comprehend the more nuanced aspects of design, which often requires branding professionals to look beyond the surface of consumer data.

 

“When I was at Coca-Cola and we were working on the redesign of Red Can Coke,” Cullen recalls, “the positioning for Coca-Cola was, ‘Happiness inside.’” Part of how that positioning was expressed were refreshment cues, such as condensation graphics including fake melting ice droplets to communicate the happiness from drinking a cold beverage. “To the bottlers and nearly everyone in the industry at the time, those condensation elements were absolute must-haves that needed to be embedded in the design.”

 

The condensation elements started as a trend and had become an industry standard. But Cullen, working together with the firm Turner Duckworth, challenged this thinking. “Our point with this redesign was to reframe Coca-Cola as more authentic,” she explains. “So why would we put fake ice or fake condensation on an ‘authentic’ can? Instead, we eliminated those fake refreshment cues and brought the can back to the pure, beautiful red. At the time, this was scary to the organization, the brand and the industry.”

 

Not only was it scary, but this approach, on its surface, didn’t seem to connect to the brand goal of delivering happiness. During the consumer testing and research phase of the project, Cullen was called out for moving the design away from the brand’s goal. “I was challenged by senior marketing leadership in the room,” she recalls. “I was asked, ‘OK, Moira, like how happy is this can?’ And the numbers for this particular design were not great in terms of happiness compared to the numbers achieved by other designs. That design could have died in that moment.”

 

Understanding that the brand’s underlying need in the delivering happiness goal is to create an emotional connection, Cullen knew that the brand outreach had to feel authentic: Fake ice droplets wouldn’t cut it. “Over the weekend, I went back and gathered all the research results, including all of the anecdotal elements from the consumers,” she recalls. “And I did something new at the time, this was back in 2005 or 2006. I put together word clouds. These word clouds painted, in the consumer participants’ own language, a story of happiness. Seeing those words in that organizational hierarchy told the story about happiness experienced from seeing the pure red and nostalgia. Finding a way to creatively recognize the value of the emotion behind the design helped us fight hard for a design that was contemporary and classic at the same time and which ultimately won the first-ever Design Grand Prix award at Cannes.”

 

Cullen's Tips on Delivering Transformative Design

- Understand the people and the parameters involved in the brand

- Look to deliver emotional engagement versus on-trend executions

- Use your design communication skills to explain and reframe the value of your concepts
- Be curious about other perspectives and help others understand your point of view

     

    Helping guide the other project stakeholders to understanding the value of the simple, clean Red Coke Design was important to Cullen.

     

    “I see myself as a leader wanting to embody soft power—influence without authority that allows change to happen,” she explains. “I seek to be an empathetic leader, who leans in and focuses on giving. My leadership is not the command-and-control, in-your-face, march-forward-first kind.  A good heart, curiosity, respect, willingness and humility are key to my leadership style.

     

    "My leadership is about appreciating, respecting and truly seeking to understand others. Whether my audience is a colleague or a consumer, I want to appreciate and respect their values and really understand them as a people,” Cullen explains. “Design is involved in big decisions, and things can get complicated in big meetings with powerful people. It’s important that design respond by respectfully reframing and speaking truth to the power of a design.

     

    "Because of my temperament and what I found to be effective situationally, I seek to pause and assess the situation, see some big key goals and needs, and then clarify those for others," she adds. "The basis of good design is context building and that curiosity and keen observation. The beauty of working within a team is that we’re all living in the same world and yet we can see different things.”

     

    This openness, Cullen asserts, will also help show her the next step in her career. “I’ve always been open to what’s next,” she says. "When evaluating options, my question to myself has always been, ‘Can I help activate or help make change happen in this role? Can I embody the soft power that can transform something and make it better?’”