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P&G's Global Design Officer Phil Duncan: Why Emotional Connections Are Crucial For Branding

When Phil Duncan speaks, whether on stage or in a one-on-one conversation, you can hear the emotion in his voice and read it on his face. You can practically hear him smile.

And he’s not shy about admitting that he cries when he hears moving stories of real-life moms sharing their pride over their children, when they have qualified to compete at the Olympic Games. As the Global Design Officer of Procter & Gamble, Duncan knows that tapping into consumers’ emotions—as well as those of the P&G staff—is an effective way to build not only individual consumer-goods brands, but also a behemoth of a company such as P&G.

He and I met up in New York after he gave a talk at the Design Management Institute’s annual conference this past fall. His presentation had many of the executives and creatives in the audience choked up when he shared videos from the 2012 London Olympics, where P&G hosted a family center for athletes and their kin. The center featured P&G products and, quite honestly, some pretty lovely furniture and décor. Competitors could treat their moms to a salon treatment; there was a man-cave-like environment where it was possible to sit back and watch sports in a relaxed way. There was food; there were diapers. It was a huge production, but it tied beautifully into those inspiring TV ads that ran during the Olympics, claiming that P&G is…the sponsor of moms. (Cue the tears! I admit, I was guilty of crying when I saw the ads, too).

Here’s our lightly edited and condensed chat about what Duncan calls ‘the next chapter in design strategy,’ now that many major corporations have design in the C-suite. Not surprisingly, it centers around tapping into consumer emotions.

Why is it so important for a brand to spur an intense reaction, such as tears?

When you have a deep insight of consumers and are truly empathetic to them, it’s important to hold true to that understanding with every aspect of strategy. For instance, our approach during the Olympics was to show that we are in service to moms and families. We didn’t get distracted with “broad consumer activations.” The idea of communicating how P&G supports families above all else paid off from a company and business standpoint. And from a personal standpoint, too. Honestly, it was a transformative experience internally. I felt that I moved from being a design officer to being in service to moms and the home across the world.

That said, what are some specific and practical tips that you have for drawing people in emotionally, both internally and externally?

I use the saying, “the fruits are in the roots.” What I mean by that is that it can be very helpful to take inspiration from a deep understanding of a brand’s heritage, where it comes from. Then, tap into a new mindset, and new insight, and add an element of creativity to keep that insight fresh. I tell my colleagues that it is the responsibility of brand teams to write the next chapter for the P&G book, not to write a new book. The goal is always to keep the story interesting and moving forward. Keep the characters going. And never stop writing. Otherwise, there is always the temptation of changing everything to follow some sort of trend. Then you risk being disingenuous. At P&G, we always keep in mind the brands people know and love, and then figure out how to make them contemporary by figuring out their relevance in people’s real lives, and then tie that sense back to the company’s heritage.

If you can do so, then you’ll tap the source of truth and inspiration of the brand. But of course it’s really important to then place it into the context of contemporary competition in the marketplace.

One good example: the use of the colorful, simple, and easily identifiable London Tube map reference as design language in the overall P&G Olympics campaign. How and why was that so effective?

For the London Olympics, we focused on creating successful programs from identity or experience standpoints. We followed this strategy: 1. Be true to the P&G brand, and bring our brand equity to life. 2. Reflect on what I’d call “modern design elements of today.” 3.  Honor the local market we’re entering. 

The Tube map is ubiquitous in London. We realized that it is an interesting metaphor for the entire city. So we ran with it. We let it influence and bring to life our program.

What we didn’t lose sight of: we made sure everything we worked on with the map concept still felt like P&G and was always clean and modern. The challenge was to find a design element that could work with so many different types of consumers. Looking back now, I see the Tube reference as a great beacon. It worked in stores, online, and in ads. What we needed was a design piece to connect the whole P&G program. We hoped that it would help consumers recall that lovely ad on TV, then build resonance when they saw P&G displays in stores, online, and during [sponsored] raising Olympian stories on TV.  We created a very intentionally woven piece of cloth.

You’ve spoken about how corporate innovation and design strategy, as they relate to each other, is now in “Wave Two” – that in the early to mid 2000s, design was fighting to get a seat at the boardroom table. Now, with executives such as you at the table, how has the relationship between innovation and design evolved at P&G?

At P&G, the integration of design was always part of the innovation process, bar none. Ten to fifteen years ago, however, the company was most interested in the performance of our products alone, not the holistic experience consumers have with the brand. Phase 1 brought design to the table with R&D, marketing, and other functions.  And then we publicized it over the last 5 years. But design also began to play a role in new areas, helping to innovate by helping to come up with service-oriented brands based on existing ones, like a Mr. Clean Car Wash or Tide-branded dry cleaners. One dilemma with those efforts is that we found we were not innovating for our core consumers, and not focusing on where those loyal customers could find us. P&G asked, what’s the next thing, in terms of reaching our core audiences?

Now, what’s happening at P&G is that we have doubled down on our innovation efforts with an extreme focus on retail customers, and of course ultimately the loyal P&G consumer. Design is at the heart of that effort. I can say that design is the MVP of our innovation sessions. Via design, we’re matching incredible technologists with people who bring their work to life via data visualizations, rapid prototyping, display thinking. These have been a huge strength and we are making connections internally that frankly were not deeply ingrained even during the first wave of innovation-meets-design at P&G.

We’ve been public about P&G’s need to be innovating for our primary channels. So we’re continuing to innovate at our core. In packaging, that means designing packages so that they are relevant to how consumers shop today. That’s a great challenge: to not say “we’re done with package design, we know how to do this.” It’s easy to have a more trendy approach and move to only a “strategy of design thinking” point of view and ignore packaging and product development as part of the core of our work. I think this can apply outside of P&G. It’s important for all designers to aim to reinvigorate their core.

Speaking of how people shop today, so many of us buy our groceries and home products online and even on our mobile phones. How are you addressing the design challenges that come with this new style of shopping?

Yes, the move to shopping online or on phones affects the shopping experience dramatically. But the principles remain the same. We need to understand consumers and then engage them before we can expect them to purchase our products. What P&G has always been good at is mass communications. So, for the Olympics we focused on driving people to see our Olympic campaign.  In the end we had 76 billion media impressions – that’s a staggering amount.

A big part of this success was creating the assets that people like to talk about. For instance, we ask, “How can we encourage people to share stories about our brands from mobile device to mobile device?”  We create moments that can be posted on Twitter or Facebook.

In short, we’re full-on embracing the mobile shopper, the online shopper. From a company standpoint, it’s still about communicating and connecting with people – only in dramatically new ways.

To not take advantage of the technological capability in front of you is a big miss. Why would you under-leverage a brand experience you can create with your consumers via online social media? When you get it right, the delight factor is huge. If it is flat, without interaction or sharing…it just doesn’t work. We’re getting better as a company at enabling mass sharing. When you receive a personal Facebook message that says “I really like this because…” — that’s a huge amplifier. Social media, I believe, has taken on the role of the modern day soap opera. That is in terms of promoting brand awareness, instead of advertising. The real key is figuring out how to promote share-ability. That’s where design is helpful; designers have always known how to do that, how to make brands and products so desirable you want to share your experience with them.

Still, I should emphasize that our physical retailers will always be critical to us. But social media offers an important place to learn.

You’ve said that P&G is at heart “a tech company.” How so?

Well, we have 9,000 employees in R&D. Absolutely, it’s a technology company. For a company to grow, it needs to understand from whence it’s growing. You can never give up on creating superior products for consumers. And that we believe that takes an enormous commitment and investment in R & D.

More fully embracing that dimension can take us far. But putting design into that equation…can push R&D to the next level; as Dieter Rams said, “design unleashes the potential in a product.” So we’re getting much more savvy about how to invest in product superiority, as well as how to add what will delight and enhance the experience of those products. I feel great about our ideation [idea creation?] ability and our new product pipeline. It will take a few years before I can share the results because much is still up stream. We don’t get it right all the time. But we’re figuring it out on a much better and more consistent basis.

This interview appeared first on PSFK as an installment of the Mindsharing series. Mindsharing features conversations on timely topics with C-level executives around the world. 

Reena Jana is frog's Executive Editor. Based in New York, Reena is the former innovation department editor at BusinessWeek, and has contributed to a variety of publications including Wired, the New York Times, Harvard Business Review online, Fortune.com, and numerous others.