Founder of impactmania Paksy Plackis-Cheng and Living in the Creative Zone writer Jody Turner spoke with Fumi James, Design Director of Global Beverage, at PepsiCo’s Manhattan Design & Innovation Center.
Fumi James shares what she has learned from working in leadership positions at global companies such as Starbucks Coffee Company and PepsiCo and why companies that have design as their strategic core perform better.
Fumi, what are your thoughts on the future of design?
Design is a tool that is relevant for the future; it helps us navigate through the ambiguity of a complex world to come up with solutions that defy the traditional framework. An information overload is happening on every front. In this environment, linear problem solving, from one to two to three is very limiting. The role of design in the future is to help solve multi-faceted, complex issues.
Why did you join the Innovation and Design Team at PepsiCo?
I was initially interested in working for PepsiCo because its CEO is utilizing design as a strategic advantage.
There is a design index for businesses as a core competency; the companies that have design as their core strategic lead perform better. More and more businesses realize this and are fusing design to become part of their language and tools.
We’re not just chasing numbers. We are not just going from A, to B, to C, we’re looking up and going beyond our traditional paths to find bigger and meaningful solutions.
Give me an example of a project you worked on where design allowed you to see beyond the traditional solution?
When I was working at Starbucks, I worked on the early stage of rebranding Starbucks Reserve.
As the ultra-premium line, Starbucks has direct relationships with the farmers to built sustainable practices. This led to innovations with rare, small-batch and delicious coffee beans.
Initially, Starbucks Reserve was packaged as a luxury product. It was doing well, but the definitions of luxury and premium changed. For today’s customers, it is not so much the scarcity or limited edition that’s meaningful; it’s the deeper story. People want to know where things come from, and that’s a beautiful story to tell.
We took a well-designed, luxurious package, and we said, “Okay, we need to change it into a meaningful premium.” So the materials we explored were beautiful and simple, such as paper fused with protective layer that kept the beans fresh, but also gave it a feel of it coming from a real place. The product shifted from scarcity and luxury to small lots with a story of origin and human craft behind it.
That shortened the distance between the people who grew it and the people who consumed it. That’s the shift in the idea of luxury, you’re not being flashy; rather the product now brings an emotional quality you wish to experience, stand by and allow to represent you.
Is design taking on a more elevated role in companies?
Design’s role is taking the proposition of business identifies, and shifting the story to make sure that it’s relevant for people and society. Today it’s about evaluating the emotional quality in what we’re bringing to the world, making sure it shares the meaningful aspect, ensuring it ignites people to feel.
This is a skill that is relevant for the future; we need more empathy in the world, another quality that in the past has been overlooked in society.
How can a brand impact its business?
Brand is an expression; it is its own thing while business may have a linear objective. A brand gives wing to elevate the business model, create relevance, and it potentially has power to change the business itself.
If the business is built in the industrial era where efficiency drove profit, it may face limitation in the changing world. Thirty years later, these brands can re-look at the relevance of their offer, go back and redefine what it means to drive the business in post-industrial era.
When we as customers consume brands, we do it for personal and often emotional reasons. That’s why it’s important for designers, as well as brands, to tap into that kind of emotional needs with empathy and compassion.
Are there any similarities working for these very known global companies, Starbucks Coffee and PepsiCo.?
Yeah, there are a lot of similarities. The similarity between Starbucks and PepsiCo is that they have amazingly talented people who are high achievers. These teams have a powerful work ethic and know what they’re doing. What comes with that is a certain complexity in working with people who are in it to win it.
Similarly, the CEOs of both companies have a human quality to me. Even though it’s a tricky position to be a leader of so many with the responsibility of a public company, they remain real, open and connected to their vision. I truly admire the leadership, humanity and integrity of both CEO of Starbucks Coffee and CEO of PepsiCo.
In the short amount of time in being with PepsiCo, how have you experienced this openness and realness of the CEO? What is the one thing you already learned from her?
My first week in, all the global regional design leaders came together and met at the PepsiCo Design Center in New York.
We had a rare opportunity, a dinner with our CEO. The event was a chance for our leaders to share their visions, meet with the teams and listen. It meant a great deal to me that a CEO, who could be meeting with any world leader at that moment, chose instead to spend time with and meet everyone in the design center. This to me shows the company’s commitment to the value of design and teams that support the cultural shift in brands.
Howard Schultz [CEO of Starbucks Coffee] is obviously a successful businessman, but he is also full of love and humanity. You can tell by how he holds his open forum, literally open to all the employees, and have candid, honest conversations. There is a lot of listening but also very clear and decisive response. Anyone can bring topics, even challenging or personal ones, and contribute to discussions. Many Starbucks initiatives were born from the topics that its partners and employees brought.
Leadership is knowing the world that is changing every day, the future is being built on our action today. Having a strong and empathic leaders allow all of these driven and talented people to go after the same goal with empowerment.
What are your responsibilities as a Director of Global Design at the Design and Innovation Center of PepsiCo.?
I’m here to drive design, but I’m also here to build team and culture. It’s so important to speak of love; people are not only driven by material things.
People dream, have needs that are beyond the quantifiable. To me, as Director of Global Design, I have to do a couple different things. One is to drive the business, not as my business counterpart does it, but in partnership to evaluate business initiatives with the lens of design. “If we approach it this way, it makes it more meaningful.” We are working with the same objective, but micro-adjusting our work to be meaningful. My role is to also set global regions for success by empowering, supporting and learning from the amazing talents placed there. PepsiCo is a global brand. Some countries, like my Dad in Japan, thought PepsiCo was a Japanese brand.
That could be a good thing right; you want people in their countries feel it’s their national brand?
I think different companies and brands have different stories. Starbucks is very much an American brand, and that’s their edge in a foreign country. For example, people buy Starbucks in Japan because it’s like an American thing. You know, it’s exotic in a way.
It starts with the dynamic brand that is flexible. For the global beverage role, I listen more because if I come in assuming what’s meaningful to people, then I’m projecting. It is going back to the brand being of empathetic love.
The head of the Design Center at PepsiCo is an amazing leader. I learn daily from him and my boss who is an amazing design master. I am creating this team environment, bridging these different dynamic leaders and talented people and help create this healthy thriving creative environment where people want to do their best work in their careers. That’s another important part of my job.
Talk to me a little bit about an opposite learning.
Yeah, opposite learning! [Laughs.]
People are people and they bring different things to life, from what to do, to how we’re doing it. Sometimes, it is good intentions not working. [Laughs.]
An opposite teacher is a term that I invented to make the best out of the situation. We can learn from everyone not just positive leaders but also very challenging leaders or challenging situations.
One of the leaders I worked for in the past was trying to help me “improve.” But the approach was very heavy handed.
While all the advice, comments, and directions were well intended, it felt very controlling. I didn’t articulate it at the time, and then in the moment being in a corporate environment, I was trying to deliver. I was feeling vulnerable but not in an empowered way, and it was challenging for me to perform at my best creative capacity because I was worried about how I sounded, how I was perceived by others. I held in a lot of my opinions from the fear of being judged.
Now, with my team, I establish a safe zone, listen, and see what this person brings to the table. Then create synergy between what other people want and what this person needs and explore an alternate solution. The culture of empowerment is really important for me to cultivate. Creative people and designers have to feel safe to perform. It is counterproductive for people not to be their authentic self and voice their point of view because they are not set up for success. It’s an important part of my job to make sure none of us are feeding into the drama. [Laughs.]
Is there an example you can give in which teamwork prevailed?
Yeah, our teamwork at Starbucks with Teavana is a great example. We took the long tradition of tea cultures and evolved the packaging and product without sacrificing historical connection or quality. This became our purpose, and the crafted quality and bright modern output was the result.
It is important for every team participant to own and share a piece of the brand. When each person on the team is invested, valued, and feels that their interest is reflected in the work, we are able to push the quality of design together. This is different from design by committee; this is co-creation.
I highly value participation, input, and feedback from all involved parties so the process is something they own. Having a strong overarching purpose ties it together for everyone.
In the end, consumers will feel this, will love and share products because the story represents the product and brand along with who they want to be and how they want to feel.
What has been something you’ve learned in the field that has been surprising to you?
We call design a discipline but it’s more of a tool. It’s flexible by definition. It’s becoming a convenient depository for my life learning in a way. That was a little unexpected because traditionally design is a discipline and there are rules. I entered the field thinking it is a commercial art with rigidity to it. I didn’t expect it would shift as the world changes; human value shifts and adopts to create meaningfulness in all that we do. It is surprising that it is very much a way of life; everything I learned in life makes me a better designer and vice versa.