Creative Drive

Mauro Porcini

With a refined silhouette that bespeaks the modern design aesthetic of his home country, an affable smile and bright, curious eyes, Mauro Porcini attracts attention when he walks in the room. And today, all eyes are on the chief design officer as he addresses a room of students at PepsiCo’s new design center in Manhattan—each eager to learn from this modern day Renaissance Man.

Porcini started his career on the other side of the world as a student of design strategy and industrial design at Italy’s Politecnico di Milano. Today, he’s earned the confidence of a man whose achievements span industries, markets and countries. This confidence can be seen, even in the way he sits for an interview—without a single shred of nervousness. Instead, Porcini enters the room, sits in his chair and reclines back just enough to allow one knee covered in a printed pant to peek out from below the table. Porcini is able to paint a portrait of calm confidence while welcoming others into dialogue and ensuring them they have his complete attention.

This ability to command yet welcome may be part of the reason why Porcini has been so successful in a variety of fields and able to transform the very culture of the companies he’s worked for. At 3M, he was able to take a traditional company and make office supplies dare I say, fun. Another contributor to his success is a holistic approach to design that leverages different disciplines, from industrial design to strategy and innovation, and from brand design to interiors, to build beautiful engaging meaningful experiences within brands. These personal characteristics, along with a curious mind, are enabling him to achieve on a grand scale—with such accolades as being included in Fortune magazine’s 2012 list of 40 under 40.


Chase bold ambitions
All his life, Porcini has chased challenges and he wants to instill this philosophy in others. This is evident in one of Porcini’s earliest wins at PepsiCo, the New York design center. Emblazoned on the walls of the open and inspirational space is a motto, “We are crazy enough to think we can inspire the future of our products, of our brands, of our company, of the society.”

Understanding how important it is to get buy-in from across the company is for the success of his team, Porcini has made elevating the innovation culture of Pepsi a top priority. “As a design team, the very first goal that we have right now is to take the innovation culture of the company to the next level together with our partners at other organizations, in the [internal] marketing organization, with the executives of the company as well as the rest of the body of the company. It’s not just about the results of what you do in the market—the single project and the total investment of the single project.

“It’s more about how this creative culture is moving inside the organization,” he adds. “How the collective projects together are changing the way we are approaching innovation, the way that we look at new products, we look at new brands and the way we prototype experiences and ideas during the process.”

To help Porcini achieve this ambition, PepsiCo has restructured design throughout the company. “We’re putting the different faces of design under one umbrella, one leadership, one vision,” Porcini remarks, noting that having innovation, industrial design, brand design collaborating in one space isn’t as evident a solution in other companies. “Many companies are detached and disconnected,” he remarks. “Product design is not connected with brand design. The two worlds need to be connected to build an experience that is holistic, meaningful and authentic across touch points.”


Taking on risk for reward
Porcini has been reported to be a huge fan of Six Sigma. So it’s surprising to hear him extol the virtues of innovation above the efficiency of the famed process. “Six Sigma, for example, was all about trying to mitigate risk as much as possible and increase efficiency in the processes,” Porcini opines. “Applied to operations and manufacturing, it makes a lot of sense. The problem came when these kinds of methodologies are applied to innovation. The reality is, innovation is by definition risky, is by definition inefficient, and is by definition difficult to control. You need to know how to balance risk perfectly—what is the right level of risk you want to take. This is not easy.”

The key to getting upper management to accept risk, says Porcini, is earning their confidence. “This is probably the most important approach when you enter a company like PepsiCo,” he says. “You need to show the value of design? Well, start doing things. Build things that go to market and show the value. This is really about the rate of innovation ideas that we bring to market; it is about the relationship that we build with customers and how they react to what we’re doing, how they engage with us, partnering with us to innovate together; and how consumers are reacting to what we’re doing.

“I saw it happen in 3M, I see it happening in PepsiCo,” he adds. “You can try to justify first why you need to invest in design. You can try to define the ROI of design. But the reality is a variety of different qualitative feedbacks will help the company better understand the value. This will happen more and more until you don’t need to justify design’s value anymore. It becomes very intuitive to the organization.”

Making sure you’re working for an organization that already values design and innovation also helps. “When I interviewed, I knew perfectly what you need to be successful in a company—you need the support of the CEO and more than a few executives,” Porcini recalls. “I joined PepsiCo because I found fertile territory. First interview, I met Brad [Brad Jakeman, president of global beverage at PepsiCo] and Indra [Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s CEO]. I wanted to make sure they understood that design brings value to the corporation and they would empower me and my organization to drive things. I was surprised to learn that both Indra and Brad’s knowledge were beyond that basic level. It was more elevated.

“And it wasn’t just the CEO behind the scene saying, ‘let’s do this thing,’” he explains. “No, there was a public commitment to speed up innovation, be more global. It was a fantastic moment to learn that there was an official commitment in front of the world that they were in a changing mode, and design was going to be part of this change.”

Porcini also knew that PepsiCo and its customers and end consumers had the ingredients, as well as the will, to innovate. “Innovation, in any company, starts from three common points,” Porcini explains. “Technology, your technological ability and the technology out in society. Business realities, your understanding of the business world and the brand, your company’s customer relations and all the different variables in the marketing mix. Society, how consumers actually use and possibly innovate with your products and brands.”

Understand technology’s role in consumer behavior
Technology is changing consumers’ interactions with brands, from e-commerce to beverage companies. “We live in a society of choice,” Porcini remarks. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo’s rival, answered consumers’ call for more choice in 2009, with Coca-Cola Freestyle. Last year, the Freestyle dispensed approximately 1.8 billion 8 fl.-oz servings. Consumers clearly responded well to the custom drink on-demand concept that now offers more than 100 beverage choices.

As sweet as that success might be, the Freestyle will be facing competition for placements at restaurants and other food service venues—thanks to Porcini and his team. On the same day, May 16, 2014, that Coca-Cola announced its countertop Freestyle fountain, PepsiCo announced Pepsi Spire—a portfolio of touchscreen operated, fountain beverage dispensers that allow consumers to create more than 1,000 customized beverages with the touch of a button, while giving foodservice operators a choice of flexible and cost-effective equipment to pick from to best meet their needs.

“We are in the middle of an exciting evolution of personalization,” says Jakeman. “The ‘maker movement’ has influenced the way people relate to brands and one another and design has infiltrated everything we consume.”


Pepsi Spire pours a wide range of brands from PepsiCo’s diverse portfolio of carbonated and non-carbonated beverages, including Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Sierra Mist, Brisk Iced Tea and SoBe Lifewater, as well as an assortment of zero-calorie flavor shots, including cherry, lemon, vanilla, strawberry, raspberry and lime.

The touchscreen on the Spire is more than a control. It also serves as a vehicle for branding and marketing messages. When Package Design visited the PepsiCo design center, we had an opportunity to see the Spire machines in different stages of design and development. Evident in all of these machines is how the interface does a better job of helping end-consumers associate the myriad of beverage brands with PepsiCo. Fans of Sobe, Manzanita Sol, Mug and Brisk might be surprised to find these are PepsiCo brands.

The top two iterations of the equipment are also smart equipment, which allows PepsiCo and its customers to identify popular beverage customizations, gain real-time consumer preference insights and remotely update touchscreen content to further enhance the consumer experience. We fully expect Pepsi will leverage this data in its product development stream.

Build quick, qualitative wins to prove ROI
“So, that’s a very positive project for me, not just because of the product and the success in the first days and weeks on the market, but also because it’s been the quick win that I’ve been searching for inside PepsiCo, inside the organization to build the confidence and the belief of Indra, Brad and other executives inside the company that investing in design makes sense,” Porcini explains. “And we are seeing already that kind of feedback, as well as other feedbacks, like the very first brand design project that we did in the partnership with Beyonce (see More than a pretty face).”

These are in addition to the win that literally surrounds Porcini and me during the interview: the design center. “Space is so important,” Porcini remarks. “It fosters collaboration, connection. It inspires, therefore it unlocks new ideas. It raises the confidence in a company that’s betting on things that are different, innovative. Your level of confidence that a product will be understood by the mass market in the United States for instance is very different if you are in a pink room surrounded by [great] design.”

The pink room that Porcini speaks of is an homage to designer Karim Rashid. Porcini developed each of the “project rooms,” where the team collaborates and meets, with themes. Sometimes, the theme is inspiration from a specific designer and sometimes it’s a reminder of greatness in design.

“The room you saw when you entered is The Pantheon—the temple of the gods,” Porcini explains. “So all of the guards are great designers from the past. To have a piece in the room—lighting, chairs—you need to be one of the masters from the past.

“People love coming to the design center,” he reports. “There are a lot of requests for the space. People from the business organization, the R&D organization, they also want to come here. They have their offsite here, and they want to work with us.”


Don’t underestimate a curious mind
Innovation also requires a curious mind. Something Porcini has had since childhood. “My mom is from Rome, while I was born and grew up outside of Milan,” Porcini says. “Milan is in the north, so we used to go to Rome for Christmas and for the summer. Since I was a kid, I had to go visit all the Roman architecture. I had this passion”

It’s this high level of curiosity that he looks for in employees. “If you have that kind of level of curiosity, then you are going to grow,” he remarks. “This will help you understand the company, the business world in a more relevant way. You’ll learn how to really build value for the different parts of the organization that you have in front of you.”

His advice to young designers: “Get out of your comfort zone—especially in the beginning of your career. Do it in the first 10 years of your career. Then go back and use that knowledge for cross-pollination—connect different worlds. All of your knowledge and your background can change your point of view. Getting out of a specific perspective and learning the perspective of others. That’s extremely important.”

Feeding and nurturing a naturally curious mind can help you understand the business realities and consumers’ needs. “I never had an MBA,” Porcini explains. “I never went to business school. But no matter what your background, if you are curious, you’re going to learn the different worlds, the different realities that surround you. Traveling and reading will help you also.”

A designer can leverage that knowledge in all parts of the product, package and brand development process—gaining a seat at the strategy table. “Business thinkers can translate what they do into business language and connect the two worlds,” he adds.  “That can drive specific innovation that’s right for the company—that is going to create value for the company.”

Celebrate your affinity for aesthetics
Designers who struggle with business principles shouldn’t despair. “Not every designer in the world needs to be a strategic thinker and a business thinker,” Porcini remarks. “I’ve met amazing design talents who can translate an insight into something that is phenomenal and eventually is going to sell—a lot. You can choose to be just a designer and just design great things. At PepsiCo, we are creating a career path for both kinds of experts.”

As long as the talent is curious, optimistic, resilient and visionary.  “Optimism is extremely important you’re changing the culture of a company,” Porcini says. “You’re trying to change the world, and you’re changing the way people interact with products and brands. When you try to change or evolve anything, you’re going to face roadblocks. You will face problems. It’s part of the game. Actually, if you don’t face that, it means that you’re not changing anything. So optimism is very important to understand how to go on every day no matter what. Optimism will enable you to be resilient.

“Resilience is another key characteristic,” he adds. “You need to be able to face roadblocks and follow your vision. It’s important to understand where you want to go, where you want your company to be in the future, and be able to work back and build a path. Tweaking the direction along the way is fine, but you must know your destination at every change. Because when you’re trying to evolve things, change culture, there will be some battles that you will lose, it’s part of the game. Your goal is to win the bigger battle.”

Along the way, don’t forget aesthetics. “The problem is we keep talking about strategy, about business, and so you may end up finding designers who are amazing strategist, but they’re not designers anymore,” Porcini says. “Let’s make sure that we have the sensibility to understand what is beautiful packaging, a beautiful product, what is meaningful and what is not, and what is tasteful and what is not. The fact is at the end of the day, no matter how strategic we are, how innovative we are, we are designers first of all.”


More than a pretty face
PepsiCo’s endorsement deal with Beyoncé Knowles-Carter generated a lot of buzz—not only for its reported cost but also for the resulting creative collaboration on pack. The Beyoncé can, as Porcini describes it, is the result of work by famed photographer Patrick Demarchelier, the application of one of Knowles-Carter’s favorite art forms and Porcini’s desire to develop a more meaning vehicle for celebrity endorsements.

“In general, I don’t just want to have faces of celebrities on packaging,” says Porcini. “I want to interpret that face in a way that is 1) relevant to our consumers, 2) aligned to the equity of our brand, and 3) aligned to the equity of the brand of the celebrity. When we found out that Beyoncé loves pop art, we knew it was right both for Beyoncé and PepsiCo.”

Package Design Matters, a multi-media thought leadership series in print and online, where, though the generous support of our sponsors, we speak with some of most innovative minds in the branding, design and marketing of consumer packaged goods.

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October 2020 issue

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