How to Build a Design-Driven Business for a Better Customer Experience


When James Sommerville joined The Coca-Cola Company to lead its global design team, it seemed daunting. “I was wondering why me? I guess today we call it impostor syndrome, ”he recalls. In other ways, he felt like he had reached a new high in his career the day he first stepped into the marble-clad world headquarters in Atlanta. What he was not prepared for was the complexity and scale of such an organization, a culture set in stone for 125 years and a portfolio of 4,000 brand identities and systems that had huge local considerations and global ambitions. As a 25-year-old entrepreneur, he was also confronted with an organizational model that could be described as traditional and mature.

A proven approach to growth over a century and potentially the most ubiquitous brand in the world. This led to the realization that Sommerville’s biggest creative challenge would not only be the many brand identities, but also changing that mindset and organizational model to reflect an evolving consumer.

At a broader level, very few design managers are invited to C-suite roles. “Most organizations are over-designed and yet they don’t understand the power of design. Adding more and more logos to the workplace or consumer touchpoints does not equate to a design-driven business. In other organizations, the design invited end-to-end experiences, from new organizational models across the enterprise and intimate points of contact with consumers. I thought changing the definition of design would be the most exciting brief, ”he notes. “Unless you are in an organization with ‘founding creators’ where design is clearly fundamental to innovation, culture and growth, you will find that you are still trying to establish the value that design can bring. .

Recent trends in the C-Suite offices and new titles in growth, experience, innovation and transformation have been the priority. These areas have grown considerably in recent times and are considered to play a fundamental role in the business strategy of any company. With this growth design mindset, Sommerville advises companies to focus on a few key aspects if they are to build a design-driven business for themselves.

Use design to develop conversations

It has been said that integrating design leadership into an organization and into the C-suite is crucial for both a company’s long-term competitiveness and its short-term results. But Sommerville also believes that the true value of design in a global organization emerges on a more human level. Developing a unique internal culture, bonding, and working cross-functionally can all help instill a sense of pride within a company that can bring a sense of belonging to a global organization. This can then translate into an overhaul of end-to-end consumer experiences that emotionally lead to new conversations and lasting relationships.

Accountability will always be the gray area for design leadership roles in large organizations. Design falls through the cracks, but Sommerville discovered that during his time at Coca-Cola, design quickly became the “glue” that held all teams together.

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Overcome business challenges

The skills needed to lead the design of a global brand range from strategy and experience to visual language, consumer interactions and legacy activations, to name a few. The business itself is by far the biggest challenge a design leader will ever face in these types of environments and one that Sommerville has personally found fascinating. “Whether it is 10 or 100 years old, it is very likely that the garden (of the brand) is overgrown,” he comments. Looking at most of the global brands today, there are only a handful of design leaders who have the ability and the passion to work across the entire business, not just campaigns. This is mainly due to the fact that the complexity of the interactions required and the many different applications of the design are extremely unpredictable. An area he hopes to expand over the next decade for a new generation of design leaders.

A future where a design manager in a future organization will most likely spend very little time physically designing. These future leaders must be able to conscientiously model different approaches to uncover an effective underlying brand and product architecture, regardless of the exact application. When done with the right combination of care and unique thinking, consumers fall in love with the results and the impact will be across the organization.

See big or small

When Sommerville started a design agency at age 19, he wanted everyone in the agency to think big. When he joined Coca-Cola at 45, he wanted everyone to think small. They gave him permission to bring his entrepreneurial approaches to Coke.

“A dynamic mindset is important, regardless of the size of your business,” says Sommerville. You have to constantly explore new directions, test, reinvent icons, apologize rather than ask permission, and consider anything that reflects the brand’s experience. “My greatest success will never appear on a soda can,” he notes. There is so much more to focus on which translates into sustained growth.

“My central idea after my first week there was to see if the design could impact the whole system? I realized that the role of a design leader is not just to design iconic packaging and campaigns, although this is obviously crucial, ”says Sommerville. “The role of a design leader is to be the voice of the consumer.” In his eyes, this means “taking the microphone”, changing the way things are done, preparing the organization for the future, adding strategic value and being in a constant state of reflection and ideation. “You have to be prepared to rethink, relearn and reconnect in new ways. Seek to break down silos and solve old problems in new ways. Think like a start-up and you will make a difference.

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