PepsiCo’s Chief Design Officer on Embracing Failure

March 4, 2021

Picture any pizzeria, birthday party, after-school event, or bar, and you’ll likely see an iconic, two-liter bottle of Pepsi. But what if this the bottle were easier to hold, used less plastic, and still held the same amount of soda? That was one of the biggest challenges Mauro Porcini, PepsiCo’s first ever Chief Design Officer, took on. And it took years to accomplish. 

Mauro Porcini, PepsiCo’s first ever Chief Design Officer

Porcini joined PepsiCo in 2012, and immediately began infusing design thinking into PepsiCo’s culture — leading a new approach to innovation that focused on design across the company’s popular product platforms and brands. That also included new platforms such as Alternative Hydration (water personalization and consumption beyond the bottle) and Spire (Smart Fountains for drink customization).

His team’s efforts extend from physical to virtual expressions of the brands, and to the company’s focus on sustainability. In the past seven years, the PepsiCo design team has won over 1,000 design and innovation awards.

In a recent interview with InnoLead, Porcini spoke about the intersections of innovation and design, methods for getting to the root of customer needs, and about his innovation mantra. 

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Why is it more important to design meaning than products?  

A product, or a brand, or an experience has to have meaning in a person’s life in order to have staying power. We live in a world where anybody can come up with an idea, gain access to crowdfunding, find low-cost manufacturing, sell directly to people through e-commerce, and communicate via social media. In this world, either you create something extraordinary or somebody else will. We are entering what I call “the age of excellence.” The only way to succeed in this new, ever-evolving landscape is to deeply understand people’s needs and craft meaningful solutions. 

What are your favorite methods for getting to the heart of people’s wants and needs? 

The best methodology for learning more about people’s wants and needs is not a methodology at all, but curiosity. I am in a constant state of curiosity and advise my team to stay curious, to travel, read, connect with new people — with an open mind — and look at the world that surrounds you with the curious eyes of a child, with that same excitement and hunger to learn. When you go to a business meeting in Shanghai or any city, spend the day exploring the city — absorbing the local culture, engaging in dialogues with people around you. This curiosity will give you unique insights into the world…to help keep you in-tune and responsive to local and global trends.

At a big company like PepsiCo, we have access to tons of data and analytics through our consumer insights team, but it’s up to us to interpret that data. Having that curiosity and observation allows you to better interpret and understand people’s needs across the world. You can have the latest technologies and a suite of proprietary tools to give you swaths of data, but you need that initial curiosity and inspired mindset to take that data and translate it into impactful projects and solutions that will benefit broader society.  

How are you trying to spread design thinking throughout PepsiCo? 

Design thinking is the intersection of empathy, strategy, and prototyping. Empathy allows the company to understand people and how they’re navigating through the different phases of their lives, particularly amid this pandemic. This data helps determine a strategic path forward, and then we prototype solutions to meet consumer needs. It’s this framework and the daily dialogue with colleagues across the business that drive agility and innovation. It’s a way of working and thinking that we leverage to foster that cross-functional dialogue and connection to keep driving innovation to the next level. 

In this world, either you create something extraordinary or somebody else will.

The most powerful way to educate an organization’s culture is through great projects; you need people to experience the projects because the more people exposed to the design work, the more traction you have. You have to find “co-conspirators” within your organization and create proof points that will help educate the company on the power of design to drive brand-building. It takes time, but it’s worth the effort because of the value that design can bring to the table if we’re involved from the beginning of an innovation journey. At PepsiCo, we now have 12 Design Hubs around the world in markets including New York, Dallas, Chicago, London, Shanghai, São Paulo, Moscow, Mexico City, and New Delhi, giving us the ability to be more embedded with cross-functional teams and drive design-led thinking across the entire corporation.

I also recently launched a design podcast called “In Your Shoes” where we explore the minds of people whose creativity, intellect, and vision are inspiring and shaping the future. This podcast is a way to inspire our organization across disciplines, and of course, anybody willing to listen, and we’re currently recording the second season. By representing the corporate design perspective in conversations with individual, phenomenal thinkers, we hope to share the potential of creative thinking as a driver to reshape companies, communities, societies, and more. I hope to inspire our listeners to get up, go out, and change the world.

Can you walk us through the creation of PepsiCo’s design website? Why was it important for your team to have an external site?

We first launched the site ( in August 2015, and we are actually relaunching it later this year with a refreshed look and feel. We wanted a way to share our work with a variety of audiences, such as internal partners at PepsiCo and the design community, as well as a vehicle to help engage and recruit the best design talent to the organization. The site was always designed to be external, though it certainly helps promote design thinking internally as well. 

We want to show the world and the design community what design thinking can do across a global organization. While previously design within CPG companies was seen as more aesthetic with a focus on packaging, it’s now become an integral part of our brand’s innovation process. It’s extremely powerful to see the projects the team has worked on over the years, and we hope that it’s an “ah-ha” moment for those exploring the site. 

There are many approvals involved in sharing the team’s work, such as from partners, with licensing work, photographer credits, etc., so a lot of efforts goes in to telling these stories on the website. But it’s worth it to showcase how design unlocks new opportunities for our business – from licensing and content, to in-store activation, to new product and experience development.

If you had it all to do over again, what would you do differently? 

Early in my career, I didn’t realize that design was actually the equivalent of innovation. It took a few years for me to understand this and position the discipline in the proper way. I also realized later in life that design-driven innovation was not just the designer’s job; it was a cross-functional effort and responsibility. If I had realized these things years earlier, I would have been able to drive design in a much more efficient and impactful way.  

 I always ask myself: ‘How can I do something that nobody has done?’

The most important innovation lesson I’ve learned came from Claudio Cecchetto, an influential Italian in the entertainment world and my partner at my agency Wisemad about 20 years ago. He taught me, through his behaviors and actions, that innovation is a mindset, before being a process or a way of working. When facing any kind of task, any assignment, any project, Claudio would always ask himself the same question: “How can I do something that nobody has done before?” And when I say “nobody,” that includes himself. He was obsessed with innovating, even when it came to his own creations. Now, every time there is a project, from a simple graphic design task to the most disruptive product portfolio re-invention, I always ask myself: “How can I do something that nobody has done?” Always. Innovation is a mindset. It’s in your heart. 

What is your approach to failure? 

The truth is that failure is unavoidable. Sooner or later, it will happen, but it should be viewed as a positive. Failure is a necessary part of learning and growth, but it needs to be managed in the right way within a corporate culture, embracing experimentation and accepting failure as part of the innovation process. A failure is just a step toward building something better, and you should not crucify people that fail, starting with yourself, and then share that mentality with the broader team and organization. Companies need to have tools and processes in place to extract as much learning as possible out of a “failure.”

Coming from a scientific and industrial design background, I believe it should be called an “experiment” rather than a “failure.” You need to conduct thousands of experiments to find the right solution, and we should foster a culture that encourages this type of experimentation. These experiments are what ultimately help to empower employees and drive as much value as possible for the company.