Today’s spotlight is on:
Partner & Chief Marketing Officer at Soulsight, a brand design agency in Chicago.
Before Jim Pietruszynski could even read, he was interested in branding.
When he would eat breakfast as a young boy, Jim was transfixed by the colorful cereal boxes and wanted to recreate what he saw. So he would draw Tony the Tiger—the iconic mascot of Frosted Flakes—over and over again, re-creating the image so well that his mother assumed he had traced it. “It just came to me naturally at a young age,” he said of his penchant for design and branding.
Given such precociousness, “brand designer” seems less like a job description and more like a destiny fulfilled. From his first job at a CPG company to his current role as Partner & Chief Marketing Officer at Soulsight (a branding and design agency in Chicago), Jim has worked in a number of capacities and with some of the world’s most respected brands, including Kraft Heinz, Coca-Cola, Molson Coors, General Mills, and more. And when it comes to package design, he wrote the book—literally, in fact. Jim co-authored The Big Book of Packaging, an exploration of some of the most innovative package designs from around the world.
In speaking with Jim, two concepts emerge on a regular basis: Collaboration and empathy. Both seem to be intentionally infused into his relationships with each of his professional constituencies—his connections with the team at Soulsight, with his clients (which he calls client-partners, because he sees them as part of the team), and with consumers.
Over his nearly three-decade career, Jim has certainly developed an eye for strategy, as well as an inclination toward innovation that has garnered accolades from the London International Awards, the Creativity Awards, and the Pentawards, among others. But you can also still see that curious and imaginative kid who once drew a tiger at the kitchen table.
We talked with Jim about the role data plays in his work, the importance of empathy, how talking with and observing consumers can change a project for the better, and more.
What trends are you seeing in the package design world?
Storytelling is a big trend right now: Brands are creating a sort of narrative for themselves.
Some examples: Sustainability is “table stakes” now, but it's becoming more and more purposeful as we move forward. There’s also more cause-driven packaging—people want to be part of something bigger than themselves and make a positive impact, so that’s reflected in package designs. We’re seeing a lot of minimalism as well: Stripping your design down to the most honest, straightforward communication you can have.
How does data help Soulsight in its work?
Data is part of our process. We always recommend it to our clients, especially the iconic brands. The most important role it plays is in helping us make decisions and guide us. What I love about some of the new research is that it's helping us develop a “sandbox.” This is a creative space within which we can work while staying on track with our strategy. It allows us to work in a relevant and profitable space that's more efficient as brands are developed, rebranded, or repositioned.
You know you're onto something when the data and our creative work—the objective and the subjective—are aligning with each other.
Have you had any instances where you were going down a certain creative path, and your instinct for curiosity ended up leading you in a different direction?
Absolutely. Once, we were working with a client trying to build a new beer brand. As we moved through the process with them, we were having trouble connecting the idea with their target market.
So we ended up going out and talking to people. We visited homes all across the country… some people even invited us into their homes for dinner! And through all of this, we realized: Beer is not what they need.
So the product changed to something completely different. It was still an alcoholic beverage, but it wasn’t a beer. Because we actually asked questions and listened to the answers, we ended up with a product that was more meaningful to the people we were targeting.
According to your website, Soulsight is built on a foundation of “Empathy, Creativity, Vision, and Community.” The latter three are not out of the ordinary for an agency like yours, but empathy stands out. Why is that the first one listed?
Empathy is part of our ethos and part of our mission. It is so important to understand what it's like to walk in each other's shoes. Internally, it allows us to not get stuck in our own silos or in our own bubble.
It takes a lot of intentionality to keep reminding ourselves that teamwork is essential to growth.
Can you think of an example of how empathy helped make your work better?
We worked with an oatmeal company called The Soulfull Project in Camden, New Jersey. There’s a real “food desert” there and hunger is a major problem. So we talked to experts in the field, but we also did volunteer work at food banks and spoke with people there.
It was striking to me—the vision of what I thought the face of hunger was versus what it really is. And it looks like the person that lives next door. There were some very moving moments and that helped spur us to create something even better.
In the end, Soulfull pledged to donate to a food bank with every purchase of their oatmeal.
It sounds like having that connection with people made the project more personal and meaningful for you.
It did. I call it the “goosebump test.” If a moment or development in a project gives me goosebumps, there's something there. Something exciting.
What’s the one thing that you would tell CPG brands?
Everyone wants quick wins, but branding is a journey. It takes investment and time.
And stay curious. The marketplace and the culture are always evolving, and brands need to adapt with that.
Soulsight is a brand design agency based in Chicago. Learn more about them here.