Podcast: P&G on How to Tie Design to Consumer Needs

By Collin Robisheaux, Kaitlin Milliken |  July 20, 2021

Additional Resources

  • How can design enter into the process earlier? How can designers, innovators, and product management leaders better collaborate across organizational boundaries? Our Design as a Competitive Advantage series includes interviews, surveys, and case studies exploring the ways that innovative organizations are leveraging design.


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Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. I’m Kaitlin Milliken from InnoLead.

When large organizations create new products, services, and digital offerings, often design work happens at the tail end of the process. Designers can be asked to create logos and packaging, or be tasked to solve confusing user experiences. However, bringing designers in early can help companies execute on big ideas more successfully and create smoother customer experiences.

But how do you get that right, especially if design isn’t baked into the culture, or if other functions tend to dominate the innovation process?

To find out, we called Phil Duncan, the Global Design Officer at Procter & Gamble. During the conversation, Phil shared how P&G — a company with products including Febreeze, Bounty, Tide, and Olay — leverages design to create and reinvigorate iconic brands. We’ll be back with Phil after this break.


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Kaitlin Milliken: And we’re back with Phil Duncan. Phil is the Global Design Officer for Procter & Gamble and has been at P&G for nearly 17 years. In addition to leading design efforts, he runs in the internal startup studio P&G Ventures. His team is also working on projects related to the Tokyo Olympics.

Just to get us started, you are P&G’s Global Design Officer. Tell me what that role means and how you connect to the rest of the global organization.

Phil Duncan: So I’m very privileged to be P&Gs Chief Design Officer. And in that role, ultimately, I’m responsible or accountable for ensuring that our brands put out some great product and packaging design work that really delights the consumer, solves challenges in their lives and brings them to our portfolio of brands. I work in concert with some really talented leaders that are embedded within each of our business units. So we have a great team of leaders across the various organizations — for example, beauty care, or family care, or fabric care — where we have embedded teams of designers that work hand in hand closely with our R&D and commercial leaders, to bring forth a portfolio within each of those organizations.

Kaitlin Milliken: So our show is geared specifically towards innovators, research and development folks. They may not be always embedded in the design process. Can you talk a little bit about why design is important and how it can give new products or services or a refresh of something that already exists a competitive advantage in the market?

Phil Duncan: At its core, design done well is a very consumer driven construct. So when you see a product that you believe is really well designed, and particularly those that you’ve chosen to put into your life, it’s because it has deep empathy for the challenges that a consumer might face, or that you might face. You’ve chosen to bring that product or that brand or that service into your life because you believe that it can help you uniquely solve a challenge or uniquely delight you. When I think about companies who have a really strong integration of design into their organization, into their DNA, it really does start with an acknowledgement that the consumer matters — that the consumers are key parts in enabling their brands to grow, enabling their business to grow.

It also can be a key component of translating a business strategy into action via prototyping, via expressions of what that kind of manifestation of that strategy can be. So it provides a vehicle for learning, and every time I see an organization who is keen to learn and really understand the consumer dynamic, and how they can pivot and shift and use that engagement to better their brands, better their products, better their innovations — I think those are some of the strong ingredients for a company that’s putting themselves in a great space to grow into the future.

Kaitlin Milliken: Some folks may think of design purely as being a product packaging — the look of the marketing campaign. Can you talk about what your role is in that, and then beyond that into the more how things look and feel and how that slots into the customer experience?

Phil Duncan: If you follow P&G a little bit, you’ll hear our CEO talk a lot about the five vectors of superiority, which are kind of what I’d call our anchor components to knowing that if we’re going to win with a consumer and grow in a global marketplace. We need to ensure the superiority of the fundamentals, I will call them, as you mentioned, Kaitlin. The product is a superior choice for them. The packaging is a superior choice for them, whether that be in a retail store or online in a digital commerce way, what have you. But obviously, consumers are making choices about brands in a much more holistic way. And that segmentation is not sufficient when you think about the delight factors that can come from an overall experience.

So we do talk about the elevated construct that many organizations can bring to elevating a consumer experience. But design really can be at the heart of that. So where and how I find a brand in a mobile world? And how quickly can I transfer from that knowledge into a purchasing construct on my mobile device? I’m picking one space, obviously, where the elevated experience that a consumer has with brands can be brought about by design, by strong R&D by strong IT.

It’s an interesting and blended world that we think we operate in. How it feels in their hand, the experience that you have with them the product, the sustainability story — not just story, but realities that you’re embedding within the product design; these are all factors that begin to become increasingly important and prioritized for consumers in today’s marketplace.

Kaitlin Milliken: I want to get a sense of challenges teams may face when they’re trying to improve the design and customer experience of a product. What are some roadblocks that are common when it comes to designing something, and how do you smooth out those bumps in the process?

Phil Duncan: A lot of people think that designers would love to have nothing better than a complete green field of possibility to go out into and explore. And actually, that can be incredibly difficult, time consuming, wasteful of everyone’s energy. So when we do see challenges, it’s because often you didn’t understand your consumer as well as you could have. You didn’t have a clear objective for why you were initiating the work. You didn’t understand how this product or proposition was going to fit into his or her life. And so having a real sense of a clear brief, a clear objective, a clear strategy for your work is important. Do you have a clear sense of who has the authority to give you the final yes? [LAUGHS] There’s a lot of people that can say no, they don’t like something but who is the person in your chain of command into your you know, business influence that has the ability to tell you yes, is an important component.

But understandably, I think there’s the element of funding and financing, right. So oftentimes, a transformative choice that you’re making will require not just a package shift and the cost inherent within that, but it’s a supply chain impact. It’s a retail store impact. It’s a sales team construct. So they’re really thinking through the total business proposition that you are recommending, and understanding the potential knock-on effects that will have into spaces like supply chain are important to understand.

Kaitlin Milliken: You mentioned earlier in our conversation, Phil, the importance of fundamentals. And to me, that implies earliness. At what stage when it comes to new product development, should teams be looping in folks that are in your design realm?

Phil Duncan: I do think early on, it can be a really critical dynamic to ensure that you’ve got first and foremost, the right skills at the table to solve the work that needs to happen at that moment. I’m not necessarily advocating for design at the very outset and then throughout all the time. There are moments when different groups come to the forefront and lead. I’m a big proponent for understanding when you need to be in a leadership stance and understanding when you need to be in a support construct. And there are moments when different skills of individuals need to come to that forefront. But yes, often early on to figure out, “Gosh, are we on to something here? Is there something that’s resonating with a consumer?” Utilizing design not to like come forward with a complete story, but in prototyping phases to bring them in the use those prototypes to go learn quickly with consumers can be huge accelerators for both time and cost and the development of a proposition.

So we’re embracing the notion of lean innovation at P&G, more and more. Part of that is about getting out to the consumer with quick experiments, low funding constructs, where we can really understand through the prototype, there’s something that’s really starting to resonate, and not just in a “I like it” context, but in enough of the fidelity that the consumer can actually say, “You know what, I pull out my credit card for that. I’d put a little money. I put a little skin in the game to actually purchase that” I think when teams have that degree of integration of those skills to enable them to bring their idea to life quickly, the ramifications of speeding up development on down the chain can be a real benefit.

Kaitlin Milliken: We talked about so many best practices, I’d love to put them in a real world context. Can you talk about a project that you’ve worked on that you feel went very smoothly, all of the elements were lined up to really improve design, and it resonated with customers?

Phil Duncan: It’s funny that you say use the words “everything went smoothly.” Sometimes I do think that tension brings about exceptional work right and healthy tension. I don’t certainly mean negative tension. Almost all of our design teams now are utilizing what we call something like a minimum viable brand proposition, to stand up ideas with the consumer and using various technology platforms to learn to really watch the consumer engagement. Not just survey kinds of things, where maybe you’re asking, “Hey, do you like this or not?” What we’re really tracking is their purchase behavior. Are they indeed signing up to be on a waitlist for the proposition or are they indeed buying the construct? We use that a lot in a group called our P&G Ventures team that is responsible for exploring new spaces that the company currently isn’t participating in. So if you look at things like update, which is a transformative skincare technology that integrates both a serum-like construct but an application that is radically new and different. So really understanding how the consumer is engaging there, all the way down through new technologies on insect repelling and Zeebo, and how are we integrating that innovation? So it is robustly being used across almost every single one of our [brands] to stand up these minimum viable brand propositions, as they learn that will really resonate with the consumer.

Kaitlin Milliken: I have two more questions for you, Phil. One, I know that this summer is the Olympics. P&G is a huge sponsor of that. Tell me about your involvement with that.

Phil Duncan: It’s been something that I did not anticipate when I started in this role. As the company comes together to think about an experience that manifests our company’s principles and the program. We’ve built a family home experience on the ground at the Olympics ever since our initial program with Vancouver. So ever since Vancouver, I’ve been a key part of our Olympic effort and had a strong on the ground presence and lead on the ground team here.

Obviously, global pandemic and Tokyo, we’re still really focused on helping both the athletes that really have counted on the Olympic movement as a key part of making them economically sufficient moving forward, because they use the Olympic platform as a mechanism for their incredible performance aspect and to demonstrate their athletic prowess by which they have committed years, if not decades of their life and sacrifice towards their family as sacrificed. But they obviously use that platform as a mechanism for future endorsements, for future sponsorships, to get their sport on in front of the world.

So our goal, even with Tokyo being as challenging as it is, is to maintain our focus on the athlete program. In particular, in the US, we have been athletes for good fund that was really designed to help many of our athletes that have been part of the P&G family to sustain their ability to focus and train over the course of the past year when they didn’t see that they had another year of training they would have to pursue, and then obviously, continue to help and support the program in Japan, because that’s a real challenge. But we’ve got many brands, including our SKII brand, which is born out of Japan, and really wants to continue to support the ability for the Tokyo Olympics to move forward. So exciting. It’s alive. Yes. Very, very

Kaitlin Milliken: Well, have fun in Tokyo. One last question before we send you off and on your way. What advice do you have for innovators, when it comes to design? Anything that you want to emphasize that we already talked about or any points that you’ve missed that people would find helpful?

Phil Duncan: Utilize design extensively to help you really understand the consumer momentum, not only in terms of where things stand today, but where the puck is going. Designers have a really good sense of being able to see patterns across multiple industries and integrate them into ideas that can make you feel a bit at first uncomfortable, but can really lead the consumer and understand the consumer and unique in powerful ways that can help you create incredibly compelling innovation.

Kaitlin Milliken: All right, Phil, I think that’s an excellent note for us to close on. Thank you so much for your time.

Phil Duncan: Absolutely, Kaitlin. It’s my pleasure to be here.


Kaitlin Milliken: So Phil shared how his team has leveraged design to innovate P&G’s most iconic brands. To gather more advice on crafting an effective innovation strategy, I sat down with Brett Lovelady and Andy Goodman. Andy is a service and user experience design expert at PA Consulting. Brett is a designer at PA Consulting and founder of Astro Studios. PA is a global consultancy that’s bringing ingenuity to life, with over 3,200 experts around the world working across a range of industries. PA Consulting also supported the production of today’s episode.

So to get started, let’s talk about how design and innovation are connected. Why is it important for innovation teams to incorporate elements of design in their work?

Andy Goodman: Design actually is innovation, the two are inseparable, they’re the same thing. It’s about bringing something into the world that doesn’t exist. That’s what design in its purest form is doing. And it always has done since the first cave person picked up a flint, and thought “We could sharpen these.” But what it does in a really specific ways, it brings a different type of thinking into the proces. A lot of thinking in business is deductive, looking for evidence and drawing conclusions. Design is much more about intuition, which is about making these leaps of imagination to create completely new things that couldn’t have existed before.

Brett Lovelady: You asked about why it’s important for innovation. I mean, as designers were the human advocates in the process, and it’s kind of our job to advocate throughout the process, but also understand and identify how to build relationships between customers and products or services and the kind of the human elements of things.

Kaitlin Milliken: Working to improve that human element, that’s a really big mandate design is also an incredibly large field. When it comes to design, what elements matter most to innovators is that building the product from an engineering type standpoint, is it design thinking?

Andy Goodman: Whilst technology is a critical input to creating innovation, design is a way of framing your thinking that actually helps you come up with new ideas. Design, the actually design thinking itself, are a way of tapping into visual processing in your brain, which makes ideas emerge in a completely different way. So by actually picking up a pencil and drawing, you’re actually accessing a different part of your cognitive functioning. So even on this biological level, design drives you to think differently.

Kaitlin Milliken: Yeah, and you sort of mentioned the idea of whiteboarding or sketching being one activity teams can engage in unlock that different way of thinking. Brett, do you have any other activities to add that teams can do to encourage building design into the innovation process?

Brett Lovelady: Quite often for us, it’s sort of aligning with what’s the appropriate tool and process for the moment. One of the things I guess it’s really important to start with, though, in the beginning is to understand what your role in design is, are we to catalyze thoughts from like a workshop or exploration or brainstorming and bring those to life so that people can get a good sense of that? Or are we really actually diving in quickly to solve problems and produce and commercialize? And sometimes those require different tools. You know, you hop on a whiteboard, you can do amazing things with a whiteboard and session and post it notes, as we’ve all seen, or you can let those marinate over time and let people kind of go and do their thing and come back, and then have summits where you do workshops, and roll up your sleeves and try to solve problems together. It really just depends if it’s that or jumping into a CAD system, or an illustrator program to define something so they can go to production. Fortunately, a lot of times, we get to do all of those — start with a blank whiteboard, and fully commercialize until we’re delivering a product.

Andy Goodman: It’s often said that anyone can come up with a good idea. Good ideas are 10 a penny. I’ve been in many ideation sessions, where you come up with 100 ideas for a new business. It’s actually how you execute on that idea that makes a difference between a success, success and failure. And design is all about execution. It’s about applying very precise craft skills, and thinking in a very well rehearsed process to make something real that works.

Kaitlin Milliken: Does that process have to include people who are trained in design or UX? Or can steps of the process be taught to people who didn’t go to RISD to learn specifically how to do this type of work?

Brett Lovelady: I think it helps to have a designer involved in every type of program, but I’m biased a bit. You know, we’re an ADD-driven, promiscuous bunch. We want to get involved in everything. One of the things that we’re quite often asked to do, which is hear what all the input is, provide our own input, and a point of view, and then help crystallize that. Quickly sketch something up and say, “Is this what everyone’s thinking about?” If it is, that’s great. If it’s not, that’s great, too, because it’s a baseline to say, “No, I meant this or I meant that.”

Kaitlin Milliken: At what stage should designers get involved in the innovation process? How big does an idea need to be before you start pulling in those experts?

Andy Goodman: Design is strategy. When you look at a company like Apple, design is strategy. Design drives, not just their product development, but also their tooling, and their and their business strategy. And there are companies that have that, that have that presence in the boardroom. A designer is there in some form or another.

Brett Lovelady: The other part is design often is the catalyzing inspiration to kind of like, help people move from idea or theory into something tangible. And if you wait to, you know, to do that, you may miss a lot of opportunities that designers can bring alive quickly, you know, or, you know, at least more in a full bodied sense to make them actionable.

Kaitlin Milliken: We talked about a lot of best practices so far during the conversation, it’s always nice to make that tangible. Do you have any examples from clients or projects that you’ve worked on? About how design really elevated something an innovation or r&d team was working on? If you want to get started? Andy, that’d be great.

Andy Goodman: So about six years ago, I was lucky enough to work with the National Parks. And they had come to us with a really interesting brief, almost contradictory, “We want to create a digital park.” Surely that’s the opposite of what anyone going to a national park wants is to have their attention drawn to a screen. And so what became apparent is really the challenge was how do we enhance and extend the National Park experience? How do we create a boundaryless park, one when you leave the park, you’re still able to experience it in some way. However, when you go to these places, there’s a lot of information that’s there that isn’t very accessible, and figuring out how you deliver that in a really subtle way. But also how you connect up the experience. Because if you’ve ever been to a national park, you’ll realize that each of them is run like a little franchise, they’re not connected, you can’t plan your trip. You can’t do anything, basically. So there’s this big service design aspect to it. But at the core, and this is the design process, we went and spoke to rangers to management to visitors. And what became really clear is that what is essential about the National Park is this phrase that this amazing ranger told us, he said, “It’s the power of place.” That’s what we need to create in this thing. Our process was like looking at this two lenses. One, how do we extend the boundary to how do we make this a journey, and not just a moment in time.

Brett Lovelady: A lot of companies we work with, big companies, want to act like startups. And so we happen to work with a lot of startups. And the combination of going back and forth. And learning what works in those environments is important and overlaps. With one particular startup that we’re working with here in San Francisco, tapped into our brand communication practice within the studio, to help a company communicate something that they’re pioneering in. It’s something they like to call cultivated protein, which is basically lab grown meat, or in this case, lab grown salmon companies called Wild Type. And our job was to help them essentially change and elevate and communicate the positioning and perception of lab grown protein into something palatable, that gets people excited, and they want to adapt in their everyday life. You know, one of the things we tried to do is to bring something familiar to unfamiliar things. And we were able to do that with Wild Type and the identity system. The packaging, the look, the feel, the illustration, so that it didn’t feel like it just came out of a lab, but it actually came out of the wild. But that’s all a design conversation from start to finish working with the elements of very smart people trying to do magical things.

Kaitlin Milliken: What’s one piece of closing advice each that you want to leave with innovators who are looking to level up design of their products or use design as a competitive advantage and growth accelerator?

Brett Lovelady: Design for me is something… We live at the crossroads, the epicenter of design activity and process. And fortunately, we get to see a little of a lot early on, if we’re fortunate to be there when it’s a blank whiteboard. And because of that, I always feel like it’s on me — and I would say this on any innovation team —to try to learn and gain perspective on the other disciplines that are involved in actually producing something and bringing it to market. So the more I understand of the opportunities and constraints, if you will, in manufacturing, or marketing or supply chain, I feel like that’s on me as a designer, and an innovator to try to get some semblance of that understanding, and then put it into,use the tools and the power of design to put it in context.

Andy Goodman: One of the best compliments I or my team ever got was, we working for one of the biggest banks in the world. And the chief mobile officer, he came to us and said, “I love working with you guys, because you don’t know anything about banking.” And at first, I thought it’s an insult. And I realized, no, it’s an amazing compliment. Because what he was saying, and of course, this is true is that designers are agnostic. We’re not experts in your industry. But we’re experts in people. This is the superpower that designers bring to your company. Because it’s very easy to get focused on these kind of metrics that we’re all looking at to product success. All of these are driven by having something that people want. And if you don’t see that as being the actual underpinning of all your success, you’re not going to be successful.

Kaitlin Milliken: Perfect. I think that’s a wonderful note for us to end on. Thank you so much Brett and Andy for your time.


Kaitlin Milliken: You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. I’m your host, Kaitlin Milliken. I edited and wrote this episode with our summer intern, Collin Robisheaux. Special thanks to Phil Duncan, Brett Lovelady, and Andy Goodman for sharing their insights. For more bonus content, subscribe to Innovation Answered wherever you get your podcasts or check out our website, You can learn more about design in our Design as A Competitive Advantage special feature on our website. That will also be linked in our show notes. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you soon.


This podcast was produced in partnership with PA Consulting.

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