Putting design front and centre in FMCG businesses

In 1915, the Root Glass Company of Indiana designed the iconic Coca-Cola bottle. The designers were given a clear brief: to create a bottle so distinct that it would be recognisable by touch even in the dark, or if lying broken on the ground. While this happened more than a century ago, it is still held up as the pinnacle of design-first thinking. And in 2022, you’d be hard pushed to find a more universally-recognised product.

But today, businesses have a whole host of new priorities. In a marketing landscape dominated by influencer culture, digital transformation, and harnessing customer data, it’s critical that businesses don’t lose sight of the importance of good design, and good design thinking. So for this column, we sat down with design leaders from FMCG and wider consumer goods to discuss how companies can put design at the centre of their proposition.

Clearly, design is critical to any successful consumer goods brand. Some of the most disruptive labels over the past ten years all share a relentless focus on innovative design, across packaging, product and digital. Take Method, for example. The sustainable household cleaning brand was built on the notion that bottles needn’t be hidden under the sink, and today has become known for launching collaborations with artists and graphic designers – a strategy more common of fashion houses than washing detergents.

Good design isn’t just about colour or font,” reflected Christine Mau, VP Brand and Creative at healthcare firm Medline Industries, “it’s about what we call ‘design thinking’, solving problems and accelerating opportunities through design. And when CEOs believe in brand building, and bring in effective global design leaders, you can literally see the stock price increase.

But today, in too many instances, design teams are not given the budget, authority, or accountability they need to succeed. According to a 2020 report from McKinsey, fewer than half of design leaders feel their CEOs fully understand their role. And only a third of CEOs and their direct reports can state confidently what a head of design is accountable for. Pernilla Johansson, currently Head of UX Design Chapter, Digital Delivery & IT at Volvo Group, and previously Chief Design Officer at Electrolux, echoed this sentiment, explaining the challenges around leading through design thinking in large organisations, “I don’t think it is possible to educate upwards. Sideways maybe and downwards yes, but I do not think you can upwards. It has to come from a point of learning, an innate curiosity and openness, and not from a point of educating.” Pernilla discussed the ease with which designers and design teams can be siloed, and stressed the importance of encouraging close collaboration with other functional areas internally.

So how can businesses place design front and centre?

First, it needs to be integrated into the entire company. “Design is too important to be left to the designers,” commented Jeremy Lindley, Global Design Director at Diageo. “It’s critical that it’s not left out on its own.” At Diageo, design is fully integrated. Jeremy tells us that the drinks giant has a number of different forums designed for knowledge sharing and learning between teams: “there’s lots of cross-pollination,” he says.

Second, businesses must consider where design is best suited to sit in their organisation. For brand-led businesses, it may make sense for design to be part of marketing. “The integration between brand and design is so important,” Jeremy Lindley reflected, “so having that shared agenda is critical. I’d say in most brand-led CPG brands, design should be within marketing.”

Josh Handy, former VP, Sustainable Futures at SC Johnson Lifestyle Brands, took a different view, suggesting that design within marketing can hamper progress: “marketing at its best is visionary, but at its worst is tactical,” he said, “and sometimes real innovation requires a longer-term perspective than marketing people entertain.

Indeed, where businesses are product-led, design teams need independence, authority, and a direct line to the CEO. One of the points that resonated most strongly in our conversations was the impact design teams can have with sufficient access to top-level decision makers. “I’ve found that design is most effective when it’s a standalone function,” said Christine Mau, “where design, integrated marketing and R&D each have a proper seat at the table, and you have diverse perspectives and a good balance for problem solving.” Josh Handy furthered this point: “really, you have to be alongside the CEO to have an impact. You have to be cultivating time and influence with senior executives.

Third, design teams must balance their own priorities with the day-to-day needs of the business, and the company’s overall vision. Through our conversations, one recurring theme was the need to ‘speak the language’ of an organisation. “Making changes in a vertically integrated system is really hard,” said Josh Handy, “in order to properly learn and test ideas, you have to appreciate the pressures of the other functions.

Committing to a design-first approach is just the first step. Crucially, leaders must also consider the composition of their design teams. As anyone who’s read the excellent Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez will know, homogenous design teams lead to products and services which are fit only to serve one portion of the population – usually men. In her research, Criado Perez lays out the myriad of ways women have been overlooked in design, ranging from the irritating (the average-sized smartphone doesn’t fit in women’s pockets) to the dangerous (most bullet-proof vests are not designed for women’s bodies).

Designer sketches options for eco packaging

In consumer goods, failing to account for the needs of different groups is a missed commercial opportunity. And over the past few years, it’s been encouraging to see brands (especially in categories like beauty) expanding or adjusting their product ranges to serve a broader demographic. One forward-thinking example is from P&G, who introduced shampoo and conditioner bottles with tactile markers, designed to help those with visual impairments distinguish between each product.

But design teams are still far from reflecting their customers: today in the UK, just 17% of Creative Directors are women, and 12% of the creative workforce are from lower socio-economic groups. Positively, steps are being taken. Last month, for example, Diageo announced the launch of a new inclusive design training programme, to drive further inclusivity within its products.

Clearly, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to how businesses should approach design – but the most successful companies will surely be those who foster diverse design teams armed with authority, accountability and a big-picture perspective. Where have you seen design at its most successful? We’d love to hear from you.