Jackson Wang, Head of Design at Mars, explains why branding is especially vital at this societal moment.
Holly Camponez: Allow me to introduce Jackson Wang, Head of Design at Mars. Jackson has held leadership roles at a variety of industries, from automotive to beauty, and has worked globally throughout the Americas and Asia. Jackson, tell us about your career journey and how your focus evolved from being primarily visual to being strategic.
Jackson Wang: I actually started with an undergrad degree in Fine Arts. It was my curiosity about how art impacts business that guided me to get a second degree in graphic design. My first role was as a typographer at Hallmark, after which I worked at The Richards Group in Dallas. My biggest career breakthrough was working for Ford Motor Company’s Brand Imaging Group in the late ‘90s.
Then I had the opportunity to work in Asia with Procter & Gamble. I started in China, but my role was expanded to include all of Asia. Right after that, I moved to New York to lead the design innovation work for L’Oreal Paris, and from there to my current role in Nashville as Head of Design and Consumer Experience at Mars.
HC: I noticed that as you told your story, you switched from talking about art to talking about design. Was there a pivotal moment where the two became distinct for you?
JW: I think the definition of art and design is really blurred at the consumer level, because consumers don’t intentionally differentiate the two. Design has a much more intentionally commercial side, however, which is what prompted me to dive deeper into understanding how design impacts our daily lives. There are moments in my career where it’s been very helpful for me to understand the intention and measures of great design.
HC: One thing that impresses me about your career trajectory is that you are very rooted in your craft. You have a technical understanding of design. Now as a Head of Design, your perception has evolved to be more strategic. What does design mean to you now?
JW: Design is a big word, and it’s different for different parties. From a consumer perspective, design is about experience, delight, and satisfying needs. From a business perspective, it’s about innovation for growth. I think design is a spectrum, that it’s not only for aesthetics, but also for function and strategy. Design is also about creativity and thinking outside the box, so there’s an obvious link to innovation. Everyone knows the success of design thinking, which is a showcase of strategy as well as execution.
HC: Do you believe that design as a discipline and design thinking as a philosophy are starting to get more of a seat at the table when it comes to strategic decision making?
JW: I believe so. Design thinking is being leveraged across industries, albeit at different levels. Some organizations see it as very philosophical or inspirational, others as a matter of execution and practice. Design thinking is not just two words, but more of a belief and a way of problem solving that is intentional and immediate and really grounded in getting results.
HC: How do you define branding, and what is its role in the success of an enterprise-level company?
JW: Branding is critical because consumers are looking for meaningful experiences and purposeful lifestyles. So for any enterprise that wants to be unique, purposeful, and meaningful, branding is critical, not only from an execution standpoint, but also at an emotional level. There’s a book called Lovemarks by Kevin Roberts that celebrates branding at its pinnacle, which has a lot to do with making an emotional connection with the audience. At the end of the day, we all need a sense of belonging and meaning in our lives. We can especially see that this is true after the pandemic.
HC: And you believe branding can provide that sense of belonging and meaning?
JW: I believe so. Branding helps magnify our intentions; many times it’s almost a springboard to our intentions. For example, a lot of brands are championing sustainability in a way that is a springboard to the public, who feel that they also want to take responsibility for things like climate change. Branding helps people voice their stance on key issues.
HC: We’re talking a lot about the impact and power of branding, but I want to zoom out: what is branding, and what isn’t branding?
JW: Branding goes beyond just a logo or a tattoo. We can think of a tattoo as a personal choice someone might use to document a moment or to reinforce a personal belief. It’s an innate and private decision, whereas branding is a tool for broadcasting. Successful branding is a voice that can create great impact and change how we think or even change our society. That’s why we say branding is so important, and why it’s more than just a physical logo.
When I was a typographer, I felt the importance of different typefaces because of the associations and history each evokes, but what makes them more meaningful is how they are used and how they’re connected to all of the other activities that create a social influence.
HC: When you personally go about creating, rethinking, or articulating a brand, what’s your process?
JW: I’m sure it will continue to evolve because we live in a changing world. Currently, the process is about understanding the social climate and consumer behaviors, needs, and wants to hone in on the innate transformation that’s happening in order to create solutions that satisfy consumer needs in a very creative and efficient manner. That’s the number one goal, and it applies across industries.
HC: What advice do you give to young designers and creatives on your team?
JW: Be passionate, believe in yourself, and always be curious, because design is not just an industry or career that creates beautiful things. Yes, we can create beauty, but we’re also capable of and responsible for creating solutions for a complex and changing world. It’s proven that the age-old business models are not enough. We have to really think out of the box and look at how we’re solving problems. It’s an exciting time for design!
HC: You’ve mentioned curiosity a couple of times. Is that a core value for you?
JW: I grew up in Southern California, and my curiosity about middle America took me to Kansas City and Dallas. Then I was curious about Asia and moved there. Every market and country I’ve traveled to is not just about the job or the career, it’s also about my personal growth. I hold dearly to experiences. By being in these environments, I appreciate and value what design can do to create experiences for consumers and the greater public.
HC: What keeps you up at night, whether it’s a problem you want to solve, or an idea you want to try?
JW: On a personal note, these last few years have been tough for everyone with the pandemic, the situation in Ukraine, shootings on the streets and in schools, etc., so I am kept awake wondering what’s next. Society as a whole, I’m sure, is asking this with me. We’re in changing times, but I hope everyone can stay positive, and I believe things will get better.
In terms of my career, what keeps me up is wondering if I’m getting the right insights, understanding the needs of my consumers, and helping my business deliver excellent and unique solutions.
HC: You’ve called out some troubling events that have occurred, and I'm wondering if the work that you do, specifically looking at consumer insights, gives you any peace of mind or at least understanding about what could cause people to behave in the way that they do. Do you find peace through data?
JW: We live in a very complex world. In the midst of turmoil, chaos, and negativity, what is good is that there are positives on the other side. I believe that society as a whole is still optimistic and hopeful. A lot of data shows that there’s a lot of care and an emphasis on the importance of relationships. Wherever there is something negative, there is something positive too.
COVID, for example, brought families together. Never has there been such an opportunity for families to spend more time together and enjoy that connection. Likewise, the positive side of the Ukraine/Russia situation is that nations are coming together to support Ukraine and its refugees. There’s always that balance. I think that’s what humanity is – a balance of the negative and the positive.
On a personal note, my work right now is about delighting pets and pet parents, which is completely positive, so I’m very happy about that!
HC: There’s certainly a lot of love and positivity in this space! It was such a treat to speak with you today, Jackson, and to hear about your journey. Thank you for joining us!
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Holly Camponez is the Director of Design & Creative Services at Avenue Code. She is passionate about the potential of design thinking to create a positive impact both socially and economically. Holly lives in Northern California with her husband, son, and three cats.