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Design Thinking

design thinking
Stages of design thinking in a open notepad.

Design Thinking is more than just an industry buzzword;
it’s a problem-solving methodology grounded in
empathy, observation, and iterative learning.

It’s the cornerstone of human-centered Design—placing the needs, behaviors, and experiences of people at the core of problem-solving. Unlike traditional methods that start with a problem and look for solutions, Design Thinking starts with people and asks: “What do people need?” By diving deep into the human experience, Design Thinking gives practitioners a nuanced understanding that empowers them to develop products, services, or systems that are not just efficient but also emotionally resonant with both consumers and stakeholders. This creative problem-solving approach emphasizes understanding and addressing the needs and challenges of users or customers.

The Five Stages of Design Thinking

To give structure to the nebulous process of problem-solving, Design Thinking employs a five-stage iterative cycle that includes empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing.

The Relevance of Design Thinking for Brand Managers

Brand managers in the quick service restaurant (QSR) and consumer packaged goods (CPG) industries face a constant challenge: how to engage consumers effectively with their brands. We’ll explore how Design Thinking can be a valuable tool for brand managers in these industries, helping them create products and experiences that resonate with their target audience.


Empathy is the first step in the design thinking process, and it’s a critical foundation for understanding your audience first before creating innovative and user-centered solutions to complex problems. It ensures that the solutions are not only innovative but also practical and customer-friendly in a way that is meaningful to the user.
This step involves conducting field studies, making observations and utilizing various research methods with the express purpose of developing a deep understanding of the people you are designing for, their needs, challenges, desires, and the context in which they operate. Proper time should be allotted to this phase and these considerations should be incorporated into any approach:

User-Centricity: Empathy in design thinking is all about putting yourself in the shoes of the users or stakeholders. It means setting aside your own assumptions and preconceptions to truly understand the perspectives of those you are designing for. This helps ensure that the solutions you create are relevant and valuable to the end users.

the power of observation

The Power of Observation: To develop empathy, designers engage in various research activities, such as interviews, surveys, and observations. They seek to uncover the emotions, behaviors, and motivations of the people they are designing for. This often involves spending time with users in their natural environments to gain insights into their daily lives.

problem framing

Problem Framing: Empathy also involves understanding the core problems or challenges that users face. By identifying these challenges, designers can address the root causes rather than just treating symptoms, leading to more effective solutions.

At Pearl Strategy, we will often integrate specific research methodologies at this phase designed to uncover the deep connections people have with brands and products. By investing in human-centric exploratory methods, we uncover the deeper layers of the consumer psyche which is often missed with traditional research. Fieldwork methodologies that are built on the underlying principle of empathy are employed to ultimately deliver solutions that deeply resonate with the users because their unique thoughts, challenges, desires, and wants were properly understood from the beginning of the investigation. There are many activities that ensure research participants are uniquely heard. A few examples include the following:
photo elicitation

Photo Elicitation: Photo elicitation is an effective method for understanding customer stories. By asking customers to take photos related to their experiences with a product or service, we can gain insights into their values and feelings.

user journals

User Journals: Capturing customer thoughts and feelings is crucial for human-centered Design. User journals, whether in text or multimedia format, provide raw, unfiltered data that helps us understand customer behavior, expectations, and pain points.

motivational mapping

Motivational Mapping: We incorporate multiple activities to elicit revelations to uncover the deeper meanings and unmet needs behind customer actions and statements along their experience journey. These activities dig one level deeper to find the underlying motivations and typically include sections for capturing what users say, think, feel, and do. This tool helps teams get a “backstage” view of what is going on underneath the surface of a consumer’s feelings, beliefs and motivations, which are directing their actions and opinions.

Because of the foundational need for empathy in design thinking, it is important to note it is not only the first step, but it provides the directional guidance for the rest of the project. At every phase of the project empathy remains the cornerstone and guiding principle, but as a phase it creates the structure for the rest of the project to follow suit. This may include some connection with the users on an emotional level, but it is important that empathy goes beyond even emotional connections. Even when researchers cannot personally feel how certain things resonate with the target audience, this foundation keeps the work focused on the identified frustrations, aspirations, and fears of the user as a way to create solutions that will resonate with them.


After gathering deep human-centered insights, this phase focuses on crystallizing the problem at the center of the study and the intended audience of the proposed solution. This should capture the essence of the challenge from the user’s perspective.

The “Who”: Persona Development

Developing avatars, or personas, as representative characters created based on real user data to represent different user groups can be an effective way of applying user empathy across a larger target market group. Designers use personas to humanize their target audience and make it easier to design with empathy. Personas help teams focus on specific user needs and goals in a way that would be relevant to more than a single user.

The “What”: User-Centered Problem Statement

Work at this stage often takes clues from the problem-framing activities in the first phase as they set about clearly articulating the problem statement. The end result is to synthesize the insights and information gathered during the empathy phase into an easily understood User-Centered Problem Statement.
As this synthesis occurs, a natural narrowing down of the scope also occurs, which aims to make the problem more manageable. Along with this focus comes a need to define what success will look like. These criteria are closely tied to the problem statement and provide a clear benchmark for evaluating the success of any proposed solution and, ultimately, the actual Design later on.

With this definition of the scope of work, a design thinking team may consider using frameworks like the “How Might We” (HMW) format to frame problem statements. This format encourages creative thinking by posing the problem as an open-ended question, such as “How might we improve X for Y?” Many methodologies and frameworks can be used and should be chosen specifically for how they can provide meaningful alignment between the user’s desired experience and any final outcome.

At Pearl Strategy, we integrate the SPICE Framework to understand customer needs. The SPICE framework helps understand customer needs by focusing on Social, Physical, Identity, Communication, and Emotional factors. It provides a comprehensive picture of what customers truly desire, well beyond traditional metrics.

spice profile
Consider a beverage brand aiming to target health-conscious urban professionals. Using the SPICE framework, they identified:
Social: These consumers often lean towards community-based fitness activities. They’re likely to join local fitness groups or attend wellness events, valuing the sense of belonging and mutual motivation.
Physical: Many urban professionals lead busy lives with packed schedules, making it challenging for them to visit physical stores frequently. They prefer products available via online platforms with delivery options that accommodate their time constraints.
Identity:They have a strong desire to associate with brands that not only promote health but also advocate for sustainability. Their purchasing choices often align with their personal ethos of making environmentally conscious decisions.
Communication: They appreciate brands that have a transparent and interactive approach to communication. Detailed insights into product sourcing, the environmental impact of production, and the benefits of organic ingredients resonate with them. They’re more likely to engage with and trust brands that use QR codes or apps, offering a deeper dive into product origins.
Emotional: The emotional satisfaction these consumers derive isn’t just from the health benefits of the product. It’s also about the broader impact of their choices. They feel content when they know their purchasing decisions contribute positively to both personal health and environmental sustainability.
By understanding these detailed insights into their target consumers, the beverage brand can tailor its marketing strategies and product offerings to deeply resonate with this specific audience.
Before completing this phase, special attention should be given to total team consensus around the proposed problem statement and its importance. Once that is accomplished, group agreement is also needed on the preferred visualization and communication to be used throughout the process. Alignment on what frameworks, tools, maps or diagrams would best represent the problem, context and nuances will result in better communication throughout all phases.
Along with a narrowing of the focus that comes with proper definition, this phase can also help define what flexibility is welcome. The team should get clear about what steps should be taken when new insights emerge and what the steps should be to adjust or refine the problem statement. In this way, the maximum benefit of narrowing a field of study can be met with the maximum benefit of being continually open to critical thinking to evaluate how the spirit of the project continues to focus on the original intent.


The beauty of a successfully completed definition phase is that it sets the stage for an explosion of ideas that can come from a dynamic ideation phase. As the third phase in design thinking, teams armed with a clarified problem statement engage in a dynamic and open-ended brainstorming process to generate many creative solutions. Ideation is a pivotal stage that encourages thinking outside the box, challenging conventional solutions, and exploring uncharted territory.
During this phase teams should encourage many approaches and discuss the merits of divergent thinking, brainstorming, creativity, non-linear thinking challenges and more. Some great questions to ask include the following:
  • How can we encourage divergent thinking?
  • How can we diminish judgment of thought to gather a wider range of ideas?
  • Have we cast a wide enough net to create a greater likelihood of variation of thought and perspectives?
  • How can we remove social hierarchy from the way brainstorming sessions are conducted to allow for less experienced researchers or participants to be heard equally?
  • What preconceived ideas might hold us back from finding the right solution?
  • What mix of group and independent brainstorming sessions would be useful to generate more ideas?
  • How can we make sure even the place we are recording our ideas is not imposing an unnecessary limit to creativity?
  • How might we challenge ourselves on assumptions we are making about the product or service we are studying?
  • What unrelated or even adjacent fields might spark inspiration?
  • How can encouraging wild ideas, impractical solutions or wacky concepts help us work backward from hyperbole to innovation?
  • How has this dilemma never been visualized?
  • What ideas in initial rounds could be reconsidered or “stacked upon” so as to build off others’ ideas?
  • How should our sessions be documented or recorded so as to interfere as little as possible with the free flow of ideas?

Ideation Methods

Related Worlds

Exploring unrelated domains or industries often leads to unexpected solutions. By looking at
“related worlds,” you can find novel perspectives that bring innovative solutions to the forefront.

Mind Mapping

Mind Mapping simplifies complex ideas by creating graphical layouts. It helps visualize
connections and generates nuanced solutions during brainstorming sessions.

Forced Connections

Forced Connections involve linking seemingly unrelated elements. While unconventional, this
technique often leads to the most innovative solutions.

P.O.E.M.S Framework for Idea Generation

At Pearl Strategy, we really like using the POEMS framework to help flesh out a few ideas and stress-test their plausibility. The POEMS framework considers People, Objects, Environments, Messages & Media, and Services to capture all solution components. It helps in generating and refining innovative ideas.

poems framework
The goal of this phase is to generate as many ideas and as much fodder for the next stages of prototyping and testing, where the most promising solutions are refined and validated based on user feedback and needs. The Ideation phase is a testament to the power of innovation and collaborative thinking in problem-solving and must be given adequate time in the process before moving on.


The fourth phase of design thinking is where ideas are transformed into tangible solutions for testing. This solution can take the form of a product, a service model or any kind of testable representation of an idea. In this phase, the focus shifts from ideation to putting something quickly and inexpensively in front of users for feedback. Experience Design, Stress Testing, and Co-Creation can play significant roles in this phase:
experience design
Experience Design (XD): Experience Design is a key aspect of the Prototype phase. Building on the P.O.E.M.S. framework, solutions are crafted with a strong emphasis on the user’s experience. Designers create prototypes that not only address the defined problem but also consider how users will interact with and perceive the solution. XD aims to ensure that the final product or service is not only functional but also delightful and intuitive for users. The experience is viewed holistically, from the client experience to those involved on a brand level all the way through the marketing, communication and media experiences alike.
stress testing
Stress Testing: Stress testing is a crucial step in the prototype phase to validate the robustness and resilience of the proposed solutions. It involves subjecting prototypes to various challenging scenarios to identify weaknesses and potential failure points. Stress-testing ideas on paper comes first and includes a rigorous examination to identify weaknesses and refine concepts before development. More significant stress testing can be done on physical prototypes or simulated websites, digital mock-ups, rough sketches, virtual reality experiences or beta devices. Regardless of the degree of the nature of the prototype, the goal is to evaluate the solution’s reliability and performance under different conditions.
co creation
Co-Creation: Co-creation involves collaborating with end-users and stakeholders throughout the prototype development process. This participatory approach is invaluable as it allows for direct user input and feedback at various stages of the prototype’s evolution. Co-creation occurs with active customer involvement to ensure that the final solution is aligned with user needs, preferences, and expectations, leading to higher user satisfaction and acceptance before market launch.
This phase is highly iterative, and multiple iterations of prototypes may be created and tested to refine and improve the solution continuously. User feedback is invaluable during this phase, as it helps identify areas for enhancement and guides further iterations. It also serves as a bridge between ideation and implementation, allowing designers to refine their concepts and move closer to developing a successful and user-centered solution.


The final phase of a design thinking research project is where the proverbial (or actual, if you’re innovating for the tire industry) rubber hits the road. It is the critical stage that puts the developed solutions to the ultimate test through user testing and evaluation. The primary goal is to gather real-world feedback from users and stakeholders. Many methodologies are useful in this phase, including usability tests, surveys, interviews, and more. A focus is on measuring how the solution is performing relative to the established project goals and agreed-upon measures for success. These are often divided into assessments for usability, functionality and overall user experience.
This phase is inherently interactive as the feedback collected during testing becomes a valuable source of information for improvements. The progress should follow a course to deliver an end result that evolves to become better aligned with the user needs and expectations by further testing and running iterative cycles and prototyping.
In addition to improvements, this phase also serves to identify key components and capabilities that achieve the desired user experience. This process includes the visual and interactive aspects of the solution and its overall ability to solve the defined problem, its user-friendliness, its alignment with overall design objectives and more. At this stage, designers evaluate whether the solution effectively addresses the identified pain points and whether it resonates with users on an emotional level. This evaluation takes into consideration all internal and external options for building capabilities that matter.
The test phase, depending on the scope of the work, can consider the scalability and sustainability of the solution. It can assess whether the Design can be implemented on a larger scale and whether it can adapt to changing circumstances, market volatility, potential innovation and user requirements over time.
As the test phase validates solutions, the original intent of the project is made manifest. By continuously testing and refining the solution, designers can create more effective, user-centered, and successful outcomes for better brand impact.


BUSINESS CHALLENGE: Hershey aimed to gain in-depth insights into the various segments of baking chip users to inform brand positioning, shopper communication, and innovation strategies.

Step 1: Empathize

Ethnography Research: Enhanced client empathy and understanding of priority user segments.

Step 2: Define

Qualitative & Quantitative Research: Conducted national studies to understand baking chip user segments.

Step 3: Ideate

Ideated ideas for brand architecture and the possible directions the company could move.

Step 4: Prototype

Strategic Recommendations: Collaboratively refined Chipits brand architecture, strategy roadmap, and innovation pipeline.

Step 5: Test

Ongoing in-market testing for refining and optimizing.

What we delivered:

Priority Segments
Priority Segments
Shopper Communications
Shopper Communications
New Positioning Territory
New Positioning Territory
Innovation Platforms
Innovation Platforms
Strategy Roadmap
Strategy Roadmap

What our clients are

“We recently worked with Pearl Strategy on an innovation and positioning project. We initially came to Pearl with a business problem and purpose to reignite an existing category. Pearl brought a level of strategic leadership to the project and immediately recommended a workshop and online qualitative approach that worked within our tight timelines. Throughout the workshop, Pearl helped us refine our innovation platforms and develop positioning areas with alignment from key stakeholders. The outcome was a clear consumer insight-driven recommendation on how to proceed with specific innovations, recipes and positioning territories. Further to the planned outcome, the project identified a new framework for the team to use for future innovation work. I would highly recommend Pearl Strategy for any innovation or strategy work where consumer insights are integral.”

Senior Insights Manager

Transformational growth

Your Partner for
Transformational Growth

Nowadays, as consumer preferences are ever-evolving and market dynamics are in constant flux, Pearl Strategy serves as a beacon for businesses striving for sustainable growth—particularly those in the food & beverage sector. With market expertise in beverages, including coffee & espresso, and food service, we are uniquely positioned to bring insight-driven marketing strategy and innovation to these industries.
At the core of our approach lies Design Thinking—a methodology not just for designing products but also for strategizing innovative solutions that resonate with your customers on a deep, emotional level.
Why is Design Thinking pivotal? Because it shifts the lens through which we view challenges, placing humans— your customers— at the center of problem-solving. This approach transcends the traditional boundaries of market research, branding, and innovation, creating a seamless, cohesive strategy that genuinely connects with people and drives business growth. The time for Design Thinking is now. It’s no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ but a ‘need-to-have’ strategic approach. In an age defined by instant gratification and short attention spans, only those businesses that truly understand their customers will survive and thrive, especially in the highly competitive food & beverage landscape.
We invite you to consider implementing Design Thinking into your strategic arsenal. Whether you are wrestling with intricate business challenges, looking for disruptive innovation, or simply aspiring to connect more authentically with your customers —Pearl Strategy, with its specialized expertise in the food & beverage industry, is equipped to guide you to success.
Seize the opportunity to transform your business. Reach out to us today to explore how Pearl Strategy can elevate your food & beverage brand through Design Thinking.