Developing Curious Cultures: Getting Brands To Resonate To A Global Audience With James Sommerville

Projecting a message to the universe takes true grit anchored with the right skills and team. Dr. Diane Hamilton and James Sommerville share their ideas on curiosity, branding, immersion, and how all these three blends to create a winning campaign. James is the Co-Founder of the UK design firm Attik, where he was responsible for the massive redesign of Coca-Cola’s brand and visual identities. Honing his skills as a teenager, he shares how he got involved with Prince’s Trust, and offers some advice to companies on developing more curious cultures.

TTL 649 | Developing Curious Cultures


I’m glad you joined us because we have James Sommerville here. He’s a professional designer, public speaker, and former VP at Coca-Cola. He’s got some great branding ideas. He’s also connected with The Prince’s Trust.

Listen to the podcast here

Developing Curious Cultures: Getting Brands To Resonate To A Global Audience With James Sommerville

I am here with James Sommerville, who over the course of his 35-year career, has made a huge difference and global impact in the field of work, namely the design and creative industry, both within the UK and on the international stage. He is a professional designer, public speaker, educator, and someone who’s experienced the evolution of the industry over 30 years from traditional drawing board artwork to fully immersive consumer experiences. I was fortunate to meet James and I was taken by his story. I’m so excited to have you here. James, welcome.

Thank you. I’m also very excited to be on your show, have a conversation and share a few stories.

I was fortunate to take place at a luncheon in New York for The Prince’s Trust. Give a little background about what The Prince’s Trust is and how you got involved.

The Prince’s Trust was founded by his Royal Highness, Prince Charles, in the mid ‘70s. It hit its 40-year anniversary. At that time, he looked out across the UK and saw lots of young people, quite honestly, not going anywhere with careers and their lives. The country was in a little bit of a state back then. He decided that there needed to be a vehicle to help young people that would eventually be in theory, running the country, or at least participating in some way. He started the Prince’s Trust to do exactly that. To help teenagers and young adults make that first step in life in maybe an entrepreneurial way. That’s how I first came to be involved with The Prince’s Trust when I was a teenager.

A lot of what The Prince’s Trust tries to do, that we have something similar here in the US that Gerald Chertavian and his company called Year Up, get people prepared. They spend a year to get ready to work and learn different things to get them out of underprivileged areas and ready to work. You said this is a little more comprehensive. This is getting financing and a lot of other things. Tell me a little bit more about how you utilized The Prince’s Trust and what they did for you.

In the early days, my dad first came across The Prince’s Trust. I’m eighteen years old. I’m about to leave art school. I was also a street artist. I used to chalk on the streets in the cities in the UK. That’s a little bit like busking when someone’s playing an instrument and hopefully somebody will pass by and throw a £1 coin into the tin. My dad had read this article in the newspaper and he said, “I believe Prince Charles is starting this charity to help young people.” That was my first introduction to the Trust via the media. I did some digging around. This is the mid ‘80s, we don’t have the advantage of the technology now back then. I eventually found a representative from The Prince’s Trust. It was very much a skeleton team back then.

We pitched an idea, along with a friend of mine, to come off the streets essentially, and start a very small graphic design studio. We were hoping that The Prince’s Trust might support us in a startup because back then, most of the high street banks and the traditional avenues for seed funding said no to us. We were at the end of a road, and The Prince’s Trust were the ones who threw us a lifeline. They invested £2,000 as our startup seed capital and we didn’t look back from there. We were very grateful for that investment in the early part of our careers. The Prince’s Trust now has grown and grown both globally and across different areas of supporting young people. They are about to help their one million young people since the beginning. It’s an incredible charity that has done some great things along that time.

That’s an amazing amount of people that they’ve helped. It led to a lot of things for you beyond that. I remember talking to you about going on to Coca-Cola and different things. Tell me where you went from there.

The start of that journey, thanks to The Prince’s Trust, we launched a small graphic design studio in my grandmother’s attic bedroom. We called it ATTIK. We were born with a pencil behind our ears, not pens, so we’re not copywriters, but in the sense, we named it what it was, and it worked for us. ATTIK grew and grew over 25 years to become a branding and the consulting agency kind of studio. An office in London, New York, West Coast, San Francisco, and Sydney, Australia. Over that period of time, as young entrepreneurs that went through various recessions, as you can imagine, over 25 years we were an independent business.

We survived by doing great work and having great clients. Part of that journey introduced me to Coca-Cola. They were my clients for several years. I got a little taste of Coca-Cola. That was from the agency side, so I knew a little bit about the business. Eventually, ATTIK was acquired by Dentsu, a large media. It’s a traditional agency network headquartered in Tokyo, Japan. Eventually, I became part of that family and the global network. It’s around about 2013 when Coca-Cola called me and said, “James, if you are thinking of retiring from ATTIK and Dentsu, would you consider relocating from the UK to Atlanta, Georgia and becoming the head of design at the Coca-Cola company?” That was a thrill to be asked that in 2012 and I joined the Coca-Cola company in 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.

If a consumer doesn’t believe in your brand, they cannot react in a positive way towards it. Click To Tweet

That’s an interesting way to get into such a major company. Where did you go within Coca-Cola? What was that experience like?

It’s interesting. When I went for my interview, I was like, “What could somebody like me from a small design agency world, from the other side of the pond, bring to this mammoth organization in marketing terms?” In their 120-year history of that time, they’ve done everything in marketing. It’s on every street corner. It’s got this legacy and heritage of fantastic communication. Little old me, I’m thinking to myself, “What could I bring?” We all look back on our own careers. In ATTIK, when we were nineteen, and we received the funding from The Prince’s Trust, we wanted to think big, act big, and look big immediately. We were young and naive and we wanted to give that impression that we were big. When I arrived at a big organization like Coca-Cola. I thought what I can bring is an entrepreneurial mindset and spirit. I wanted my team to think small, act small, and move in small, agile, quick ways.

I reversed, effectively, the feeling I had as a nineteen-year-old. Fast forward 25 years, I wanted a large organization to think and move like a startup. I go back to this idea of, “What could I bring?” I could bring something that maybe they’re not used to. Moving in that more agile and these words of now of more iteration and design thinking and all the things that may be large organizations are not formally trained in their methodologies, but they’re having to think that way now. My grounding in my small entrepreneurial world actually served me well by bringing something new beyond my design solutions and design execution. It was more of, “It’s not necessarily all about the whats. It’s also about the hows, how we do it.”

I love that since I’m a curiosity expert and I love to ask questions. How do we do these? How did you use curiosity to better the brand strategy at Coca-Cola? Is it a curious company? Do you think you’ve made an impact in that respect? I saw a quote from the former CMO that said that you represented a before and after in the history of the Coca-Cola company. That’s something pretty nice to hear from such a big name in the industry. Would you say you created a culture of curiosity? Have they always had one? Where does that stand in that company?

If you look back over 100 years, curiosity has always been within a brand like Coca-Cola. That’s evident in its success and in its growth. At the same time to flip that coin across, I’ve noticed that large organizations can get into repetitive habits. We’ll see Santa Claus every summer. We’ll turn up to the World Cup every four years, and they will be there, the future World Cup and Coca-Cola. They tend to almost go into autopilot because they knew four years ago, it was a huge success. Surely in four years, it will work again and so on.

At the same time the consumer, over four years, has changed dramatically. Our tastes, trends, and desires for products. What worked last year or four years ago is not necessarily a foregone conclusion that it would work the next time around. It’s this curiosity for looking for new ways of being the same authentic brand. The same brand that we recognize and not losing that authenticity, but at the same time, there’s a surprise element and by being curious and there are no better teams, and all teams should be curious. Certainly, the design team in any organization should be given permission. The leadership of Coca-Cola and the CMO, Marcos de Quinto, is an amazing leader. They provided that stage for us to be curious and look for new ways to visualize, but also strategically create narratives for the brand that we recognize so well. It’s, how do we deliver the same thing year on year but in new ways?

That’s a tough thing to do. What did he do to allow you to do this? We know Google gave permission to work on pet projects. Was there something specific they did to make you feel you could be curious and do things that were outside the box, outside the silo, status quo way of doing things?

One of the great examples. He broke down some of the silos of who did what. The design team, “You do the packaging.” The advertising team, “You do the Superbowl commercial,” and the digital team and so on. You imagine these individuals who have specialists that own respective kinds of discipline within marketing would carry out. He looked across the table at me as the designer and said, “Can you shoot the campaign?” That would ordinarily not be handed to the design team. He started to cross-pollinate within the realms of the marketing function, but actually ask certain teams to do certain things that they weren’t ordinarily previously delivering on. For that alone, I was responsible for capturing all the billboards in the world. We activated in 200 markets, a global print campaign. It was two hundred markets live in 24 hours. Potentially it was one of the biggest activations that Coke has ever activated or any brand and it was shot by their design team, not a traditional agency team. That in itself was internally disruptive, but positively. Everybody that stands in other people’s shoes for a day can bring something new. That notion and that leadership of role swapping resulted in a freshness that Marcos brought to the way of how we would work.

It’s interesting to me to hear about these major companies and you’ve led design partnerships with major companies: Disney, Marvel, USO, Google Kids, Star Wars. What was the most interesting partnership you’ve led and what takeaways do you have to share with the people reading that you think are interesting from working with them?

One that stands out, and it’s not a household brand name, but it’s a partnership with the consumer and the community. In 2017, Australia, as a country, was going to vote as a nation on same-sex marriage. This was an opportunity for many brands to show their support. There was a national campaign and a #SayYes. It was a great opportunity for brands to step up and do the right thing. The Australian team wanted to commemorate and show their support by a special piece of packaging, a can of Coke that said yes.

TTL 649 | Developing Curious Cultures
Developing Curious Cultures: How you create something at the center might work in certain markets but most certainly will not work in every market.


They designed a quick piece that they sent through to the global team based in Atlanta and we reviewed it. It was great, but it was such a big opportunity for us to not only do the right thing, say the right thing, and support the cause, but also create something that was memorable and iconic and maybe even collectible. For the first time in the history of Coca-Cola, we designed it in 24 hours. We took the Spencerian cursive script, the famous Coca-Cola script, and we wrote the word love using that same famous identity. That replaced the logo on the can. Love is love, as we all know.

That makes it a universal word. It stood for not only the campaign at the time but one of the brand attributes of brands like Coca-Cola. For me, that was a real win for the design team, but also, I think in the market, it stood out. You knew it was the Coca-Cola can, but you were reading the word love, not Coca-Cola. It was very brave for Coca-Cola to take its brand off and add a universal word that was the spirit of the message. You still knew it was a Coca-Cola can. It’s things like that where brands can, on one hand, send a message. On the other hand, they want to disrupt and create something that cuts through a shelf or in a refrigerator. It has a disruptive call to it as well. I was proud of that piece of work.

What years did you work with Coke?

I was employed by Coca-Cola in 2013. I spent five years as the head of global design. It was a fantastic five years for me learning about a global system. How you create something at the center might work in certain markets, but most certainly will not work in every market. Also, how you have to have a degree of flexibility of design discipline, some principles, governance, and how a global system such as a Coca-Cola needs to have a robust design strategy that allows for local and global activation. It was a fantastic five-year period for me.

I remember when they came up with new Coke, I was in college and everybody was freaking out. It was a big deal. I’m always curious because this Coke recipe is such a huge secret. I wonder if you work there, do they ever talk about how secretive their recipe is? Nobody seems to get even close to it. If you get 7 Up and Sprite’s not that different. Pepsi to me is completely different than Coke. I’m always curious if they ever talk about the recipe. Is that even a big deal anymore?

It’s a big deal and its true name is the secret formula. In the World of Coke, which is an experiential visitor center in Atlanta, there is the secret formula written down in a vault. That’s part of the tour. Even after five years, I heard a rumor. I had an idea of one person that knew it. Supposedly only two would know it at any one time. They cannot fly together. They cannot take an elevator together. There’s all this urban, but even as an employee and part of the leadership team, you certainly don’t come close to who and what the recipe is or the secret formula. It’s very guarded clearly. Of course, there will be a reason behind that. It’s also part of the mystery and the uniqueness of a brand like that. It’s great that it is guarded like that. It has an identity of its own and that identity cannot be seen, but in many ways, it has its own brand, which is quite fascinating.

Your story was also interesting to me about how you were supporting the cause that you mentioned. It’s so hard for companies in nowadays marketplace to be able to get behind things if they see maybe a political bent to something where people can misinterpret it. It’s like the Gillette ad that made people go wild on Twitter. Do you think that it’s harder for companies to get behind causes now?

There are many organizations that quickly jump onto a newsworthy item. As consumers, and as a designer, I have an opinion, but we’re also all consumers. Even your followers, as we go through our daily lives, we’re looking for authenticity. We’re looking for something that feels real and believable. If I see a brand jumping onto something and it feels opportunistic on that part, in many ways with my consumer hat on, it makes me go the other way. I don’t like the more and I potentially pull away. Opportunities are there if it feels genuine and authentically delivering the narrative, all the other storytelling. It doesn’t feel art and storytelling for the sake of it. There is an on-demand requirement now.

It goes back to the earlier comment. Gone are the days when you can rely on the World Cup, or the Olympics, every four years. You need to be this real-time messaging that brands need to participate with, as well as UNICOM brands and startups. The large brands have to be there as well. They have to pick and choose exactly when and where they would play a role. Not everything has to be politically sensitive. I’m fortunate now as a consultant to be working with several brands, and one of them was very well known for their blue. I’ve gone from red to blue in many ways.


The heart and soul of an organization can be found in the lower part of the pyramid. Click To Tweet

It’s not IBM, it’s a motor company. Pantone launched its 2020 color of the year, which is classic blue. That’s a great opportunity for any organization that has the color blue to pick up on that. That’s not necessarily politically sensitive. It’s more of a creative opportunity to align your brand. Should it be blue? With this headline and this trending message from another great brand like Pantone who set these color palette identities out there. For brands to be able to pick up on that newsworthy item and react in a real-time, quick fashion. I do think that these are out there every week for many brands. It’s about being selective. What feels right and authentic to their brand and their values as an organization. Ultimately, it will hopefully integrate, and translate to the consumer. If the consumer doesn’t believe it or doesn’t react in a positive way, it can work the opposite as they intended in the beginning.

As you started that sequence that you consult with all these brands and it’s not every day that you have, his Royal Highness, Prince Charles write a quote about you, but he said, “James has become a virtuous circle.” What is this? Have you made a circle back to consulting? What are you doing now? Obviously, the spark of The Prince’s Trust has led to all of this. Tell me a little bit more about your situation and who you’re helping and what you’re doing.

After 25 years I still considered myself a startup, and then five years in a global system, like the Coca-Cola company. I wanted to add one and one together. I saw the changing face of the creative industry. Design, even it’s just a definition since I first met The Prince’s Trust at age nineteen, I was a graphic designer. Now, design, design experience, experiential design, design thinking, and design innovation are no longer just a logo, badge or script. The design of the future of brands will be a voice experience as we already know. It will be a scent. It will be a light that turns on when your piece of equipment technology lights up. What I was looking for was maybe an opportunity to work with multiple brands that were looking for ways in which they could portray their brand as a future-facing brand.

Many of the brands that I love to work with as well have got this very deep, rich heritage. Coca-Cola is a great example. How do you take that fantastic heritage and legacy that everybody admires in many ways, but also, they don’t want to be caught down memory lane? They want to project themselves as progressive, innovative, agile again, in this constant desire to be future-facing and be relevant to consumers of tomorrow. How does a heritage brand not lose that story but at the same time, present itself as something that will be around not only in a decade, but in 50 years and for our children, and our children’s children? Those are the types of reach that I felt that Coca-Cola presented to me that I thrive and enjoy working on because I think it’s the mashup of the past and the present.

When I shot the Coca-Cola global print campaign, in my mind, I was mashing together Norman Rockwell and Instagram. What would Norman Rockwell do if he had Instagram now? He’s an amazing storyteller on canvas. It’s this idea of looking back but looking forward. It’s instantaneous, but the storytelling of Rockwell was never meant to be together because they’re from two different chapters or generations, but what if? That’s where amazing brands with deep heritage can start to look forward and create that solution somewhere in the middle that brings together their past and present and project them into the future.

I love that you ask these questions. You’re talking about creativity, innovation, and all the things that are tied into curiosity. What do you think comes first between curiosity and creativity, and curiosity and innovation?

I’d like to think that when we were at age 5, 6, 7, maybe even before we were highly curious. We couldn’t pick up a pencil and pen at that point, early age 3 or 4, but certainly would keep our curiosity. We’re born with this level of curiosity. As we grow old into teenagers or real adults with roles, maybe that curiosity takes a back step in the future of businesses, entrepreneurship, and being good parents. That curiosity is front and center of the way the industry and businesses are developing. Eventually, down that pyramid and that waterfall effect needs to then translate into something creative. It needs to translate into something that’s engaging as a message for the brand and engaging to the consumer as well. Curiosity should be something that is retaught. We were born with that and somehow, it evaporates as we get older. We should relearn that notion of being curious because it’s something that I feel plays a big role in not only branding, communication and design, but also in other areas of the growth of business and personal development.

In my research for my book on curiosity and the Curiosity Code Index that I created, we look at children. Their curiosity and creativity peaks about age five and then start to decline. That was what was interesting to me. I started to research this and found four factors that keep people from being curious, which are fear, assumptions that voice in your head, technology, and environment of everything around us. What advice would you give to companies to help them develop a more curious culture?

Those words from your book are excellent. This notion of removing the fear and embarrassment of an idea that people in the room across an organization may decide to say, “Yes, but.” Removing that and start saying, “Yes, and.” That starts to give people courage and confidence. Design thinking is not just for designers. It’s a great idea. This notion of prototyping and quickly iterating an idea or making it better is something that can come from all four corners of an organization. Traditionally, if you’re not in the innovation team or the design team, your hand does not go into the air with this notion of, “I have an idea.” Once those barriers are broken down, it’s a fearless culture, not a fear-driven culture. I think it starts to breed this. Innovation should never be a department. Design thinking is not a department. It’s in the veins of the organization. That is part of reeducating ourselves. Is it the role of HR? Is it the role of leadership? Is it the role of culture? Does it come from the ground up? All of that has to be aligned in order to remove some of those fears that people have when we think about very creative cultures and innovation-driven cultures.

It’s almost like we should have improv days. It’s, “Yes, and,” where you have people say yes to every idea and add to it. Whether they come up with those products, in the end, having improv days could be helpful to show people what it’s like to be more open to having ideas. As you said, people have these fears of embarrassment. If everything’s going to receive a yes, won’t we be a lot less hesitant to offer that? As far as from the bottom up, that’s such a tough thing. I’ve had many experts on the show who all say culture starts at the top. I’ve asked a lot of these consultants who do the same things that I do, “What if you have a leader who doesn’t embrace all these positive culture aspects, what do you do as an employee? Can you change it? Can you do anything?” A lot of them say, “It’s time to move on.” Do you think that if you have a toxic culture at the top, it’s possible to make it a change from a lower level? Is that time to find someplace else?

TTL 649 | Developing Curious Cultures
Developing Curious Cultures: Curiosity should be something that is retaught.


I’m in the opposite camp. My leadership style is to listen to lower down the pyramid. If we were to look at it that way, that’s where the real heart and soul of an organization is. Leadership, direction, vision, and strategy are at the top. In terms of the whys and the hows, the hows are very much embedded in the organization. It’s listening, being curious, walking the floor, meeting the teams, and making sure that there’s a very human engagement, human-centered culture versus this top of the Everest loudspeaker. It’s not my style. I believe that the future might be broader in terms of culture. If somebody needs to hold a microphone and speak to the culture, that would potentially be one of the leaders in an organization. Certainly, they’re a representative of how that organization is made up and that culture within. I like to look beyond the C-Suite, top table, however we define that, and understand what the essence of culture is. If it’s not quite right, how do we address that?

One of the big dangers is these single-day culture workshops where everybody comes along highly motivated and highly energized. There are some great cocktails at the end of the day and Post-it notes everywhere. They go back to their desks and nothing has changed. Those are just Band-Aids and those do not change the culture. There needs to be a deep-rooted change that starts that “workshop” every day, not a 50 or 100 people in a room every day. It’s the essence of this idea of the workshop is visible, in some sense, every day. It’s not a quick spike and then drops down, back to the business as usual. We talked about how brands message based on newsworthy items. It crushes down the day after in a potentially very backlashing way.

I’ve had Dina Dwyer-Owens on my show. She wrote a book called Values, Inc. She was talking about how she reiterates values in every meeting. Does this tie into what our values are? I don’t hear a lot of people do it that much if there’s a sense of what the values are, but as far as every meeting, “This is what we stand for.” They promote it heavily within that organization. It’s interesting though that you have this background with all this expertise. Are you talking to organizations about developing their culture and what you’ve learned through all this experience, or are you mostly helping them with designing their brands? What’s your main focus? If someone was going to hire you, what are they hiring you to do?

The main focus for me is looking at the future creative agency model. How do we engage? How does that community engage with clients which in itself is changing culture? When I was working there, we’re used to hiring agencies and consultants and that’s the way the world goes around. What I’m looking at now is a more diverse model. Rather than engaging with a single entity, creative entity, an agency, a search to design an identity or a campaign, I tend to go out up to 50 individuals around the world to submit in a quick sprint the ideation around a brief. What that gives is a diverse, handpicked, amazing talent around the world.

It’s not necessarily a gig economy approach, but it’s not just relying on two-way dialogue with an agency. It’s brief, a whole community. We orchestrate that and then the goodness and the work that comes back and the client sees is beyond a single point of view. It’s a multidimensional point of view. It’s visual. It’s audio. It’s digital. That in itself is a different way of working for traditional clients who are looking for a creative solution. There’s an element of culture change in working differently, but at the same time, that has to be a tangible deliverable in terms of my role going forward. There is a rounded solution in identity, a global rebrand that needs to manifest into something that moves the organization forward in terms of an in-market versus a cultural change.

Is there a brand you’d love to get your hands on? You’re like, “I can make that better.”

I’d go back to this idea of legacy brands that we all know. They could be in fashion, automotive, airlines, or pharmaceuticals where they have this huge presence, but maybe they’ve just lost a little bit of that edge. Maybe some of the disruptors are coming in and starting to provide broader choices and as consumers, we’re being distracted by some of the smaller brands. You still know that that sleeping giant has got so much potential and they’ve shown us that potential over five or more decades, but right now they are losing out to some of the younger guns and some of those institutional brands, where I get excited.

They can even be in technology. A brand from years ago in technology terms, we may not be using it now. We may not be shopping on that channel. We may not be surfing on that browser anymore. Without naming them, we know where we are in our daily life and you think, “That was such a presence in my life only a decade ago. Now, it’s not. It’s gone quiet.” There’s something there to be rekindled, and I look at those types of breezes where you can bring that fire back to an amazing brand that’s lost a little bit of its shine for no other reason than the world has moved on.

I brought a watch at Tiffany’s. I know I read about them being bought out by the brand that owns Louis Vuitton, I believe, and that they’re trying to revise their image. When you’re in there and they got the picture of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in there, you get the sense of, this was such a huge thing. I’m curious, what do you do when you’re such a major brand like that that’s had this huge run, but now you’re reinventing yourself. That’s just something I saw on the news, we don’t have to use that brand, but something like that. Do you go to a consultant like you? What’s the next step?

The future will be to find individuals or agency partners, consultants that can think in a more experiential way. Sure designing a logo and changing the color, that’s all fine. Tiffany’s, a real-time example. For me, imagine a Tiffany-colored food truck that only served breakfast in New York. Quite experiential, great bagels, great coffee, breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s amazing that Tiffany’s color pops on the streets of New York. It’s behind a heavy goal door and we only go in there if we can afford to go in there. Bring that brand into the street, play on the Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but present that in a more contemporary, relevant, and fun way that is newsworthy. It has a great bagel and coffee, but it actually reminds us of that great story, that great movie, but not by showing us those black and white pictures on a wall.

Engaging all our senses is ultimately branding at its most brilliant level. Click To Tweet

How do you get that elegant feel that they’re trying to do? They’re trying to get high-end customers, does that take it down at all?

I don’t think so because high-end customers need bagels and coffee. Put a white bow on it and all of a sudden, it becomes a beautiful package on the street. I’m riffing off of the color, but the idea is, it’s not a rebrand. It’s not recoloring. It’s taking the magic that’s there and creating something that’s more experiential. We’ve gone through an era of advertisers pushing products, interruptive messaging. In a drama that we love, we cut to the commercial breaks and they’re interrupting our drama. That’s worked for 50 years. Now, we have the luxury of fast-forwarding those commercials, skipping the commercial. This idea of interrupted marketing will not last another 50 years. We have to look for new ways to engage where the consumer wants to come towards it rather than we as brands, our brands push it onto the consumer. That future agency consultant model that thinks a little broader than just the more traditional communication channels.

That’s fascinating because you don’t even see ads anymore, all the retargeting and all the things. It’s fun to see what comes next. I like that idea. You’re talking about involving senses more instead of just flat reading something or flat listening to something, right? You’re talking about smelling and hearing and visualizing in unique ways, more 3D things?

Absolutely. To engage all our senses is ultimately the branding at its most brilliant level, 2D, 3D, digital, or physical. We walk into our favorite store where fresh bread, coffee or something hits you and reminds you. We see a lights show. We run our fingers along a tabletop or a chair and the surface, all these kinds of things, or we put hands on a steering wheel. All these elements are, in many ways, part of the brand identity. Even a call center or this idea of service design, if we get too many callbacks, it’s too much. If we don’t get one call back, it’s not enough.

There’s a reflection on the branding, all these human physical, digital, 2D, and 3D touchpoints. We form an opinion as consumers as to whether we will engage with them again. Did we like it? Is it a rewarding experience or do we feel in the world of choice, that we’ll move onto something different? “I’ll take another airline next time,” or “No, I’ll stick with this airline.” I want to be loyal towards this particular brand,” and so on. All those things are part of the future of a brand identity, not just a badge and the logo.

I’m curious if you’re into the neuromarketing aspect of checking out what works by hooking your brain up to sensors and all that stuff. Do you get into any of that?

We did a lot of that Coca-Cola, much into the psychology of shopping. The neuroscience of eye-tracking, placing a new product on a shelf. Consumers will walk around and we’ll study where their eyes are moving. Do they notice the new package? Where are the hotspots? Did they glance over the descriptive information? The small print, if you want to call it that. They look at the visuals first. All that is part of the science of design and solutions, certainly in my five years at Coca-Cola where it’s a product-driven organization. It’s a fiercely competitive sector. Opening a cooler at lunchtime, when you’re looking to satisfy your thirst, where do you go, at what point and where does your eye go? There is an element of that. It’s the balance of science and art working together. I don’t think that science should drive art in packaging and identity. I don’t think necessarily it should all be about artistic endeavors as well. There has to be this perfect match of the two, then hopefully will result in, ultimately, growth for a product or an organization because it works in the market.

Growth often comes from learning from failures. I’m sure you’ve had many successes. You have to have had something that disappointed you, a great idea to you, or didn’t come over well to somebody else. Was there anything that you did that you think, “I thought that was going to be so great,” but then it didn’t translate into what you expected?

Probably every day, in a sense. In terms of commercializing an idea, there’s probably a few packaging of what we might call in and out campaigns. It’s not a sustaining identity, but it’s more of a 2-week, 3-week campaign. It’s right to test it, maybe I’d look back and go, “Maybe that wasn’t the optimized design.” I remember the new identity for Coke has been launched and rather than going global on day one it would be launched. This is packaging and not communication in certain markets. There was one package that we tested in Spain. I was quite frankly embarrassed with the solution, but I knew it wouldn’t last. It was about taking a read, consulting with the consumer versus a focus group. We placed it in the market for twelve months, and the lessons and learnings from that eventually drove a much more beautiful solution. You have to almost go through some of these pain barriers and in seeming failures but actually educational moments for the longer-term play.

It’s a great example. It brought to mind something I’ve always wanted to know about Coke, and then I thought about it now that I have you here. What’s the difference between Diet Coke and Coke Zero?

TTL 649 | Developing Curious Cultures
Developing Curious Cultures: What is ideal today is for consumers to want to come to the product rather than brands pushing their products onto the consumer.


I think the sweetness is different. I’m not the R&D science guy, but I think Coke Zero is zero sugar, and Diet Coke has aspartame. There is a sweetener choice. If you’re a Diet Coke fan, a VIP, no beverage is going to take you away from your Diet Coke. It has a unique Coca-Cola taste. Coke Zero is the zero sugar equivalent of classic Coke. Its taste profile is closer to the original Coca-Cola where the taste profile of Diet Coke is quite unique in its own right. There are large groups of people out there that prefer both and individually for their own reasons.

I saw so much Coke Zero in Europe compared to here. You see more Diet Coke here in the US, maybe it’s just my experience. I was always wondering why it sounded similar and I never looked into it. I figured that’s probably what it was, but I wasn’t sure. I got the inside scoop. Going back around to what you’re doing. I had met you at this Prince’s Trust. Do you do much with The Prince’s Trust anymore or are you an occasional speaker for them? I’m curious because I know they’re trying to expand more in the US. What’s your position with them?

Back to when I was helped as a nineteen-year-old, there’s a “pay it forward” mentality in my mind. I was that young person once so it’s important for us to always help the next generation. Now is the time. This Royal Highness’ comment, which is kind for him to say, “James is part of the virtuous circle,” was also a reflection of now being involved with The Prince’s Trust. Certainly from the outside, but helping them stretch the charity’s message beyond the UK whilst I’m a resident here in the US. Seeing whether we can expand the brand in America, The Prince’s Trust America. Being on hand for many events, any young person in their system that may be a young designer coming through maybe needs to speak to a more seasoned designer like me. To be on hand to the mentoring, but they’re mentoring me. At the same time, for those larger messages where the charity and the brand of The Prince’s Trust is trying to expand. I’m at their disposal to give back, to help the charity grow even further. I’m trying to hit their next one million young people that we can help.

I met some other people at that event who had great experiences like yours who shared. I was excited for you to share what you had experienced with them here. I appreciate having you on the show, James. A lot of people would like to know how they can find out more about what you’re doing and contact you.

LinkedIn is probably the digital business card for everybody. That’s a great, “Please send me a message if you’d like to have a discussion about anything on LinkedIn.” The agency that I’ve started, the network is called Known–Unknown. Partly the notion behind that is I love to match the unknown designers out there on known brands. It’s giving the unknown a stage, highly-creative individuals out there as a network, but let them play on a brand that we know so well. Known– is another opportunity to check out, but shooting me a direct message or even Instagram. There’s nothing exciting about those channels, but we all exist on those. Those are our go-to channels every day and you can find me on that. I would love to connect with anybody who may be interested in furthering the discussion.

Thanks, James. This is great and I’m so glad that you agreed to be on the show because your story and all the work they’re doing also at The Prince’s Trust are so inspirational. Thank you so much for joining me.

It’s been a real pleasure and I appreciate the invitation. I can’t wait to do it again in the future.

I’d like to thank James for being my guest. We get such great guests and I enjoyed meeting him and working with The Prince’s Trust when I was in New York. It was such an inspiring group. What he’s working on now is also fascinating to me. His story was inspirational and we get many great stories like that. If you have missed any past episodes, you can go to to catch up. You can find out more about Cracking the Curiosity Code or the Curiosity Code Index there. Everything’s there and I hope you take some time to explore some of the different stories that are out there because some of them are amazing, like James. I enjoyed this episode and I look forward to the next episode of Take the Lead Radio.

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About James Sommerville

TTL 649 | Developing Curious CulturesOver the course of his 35-year career, James Sommerville has made a huge difference and global impact in his field of work, namely the design and creative industry, both within the UK and on the international stage as a professional designer, public speaker educator and someone who has experienced the evolution of an industry over 35 years from traditional drawing board artwork, to fully immersive consumer experiences.

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