Global Design Strategist at Absolut
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that a large part of the blog network relies on Boss Ladies recommending other Boss Ladies I should lunch with. This keeps what I’m doing on a role and opens doors (or inboxes) to women that ordinarily, I might not have access to.
But there are times, when you least expect it, that you end up in the same room as a new Boss Lady. Caroline Mörnås was one such Boss Lady who happened to be the guest speaker at a Marketing Mornings breakfast seminar. I had never been to a Wednesday Relations seminar before so I had set my expectations to “inspirational morning”. I had no idea that I’d walk away with a booked lunch with Caroline.
Caroline and I actually penciled in multiple dates and times for lunch but like many of you know, the Spring in Stockholm is filled with meetings, projects and work quicker than you can say “Spring is here!”. There’s also a public holidays every other day so setting a day and time for lunch is almost harder than finding the needle in the haystack.
But once we finally had a date that wasn’t whisked away by last-minute meetings, lunch was set to be at Hornhuset. However, last minute spontaneity led us to jump over to Klang Market. With summer shining her friendly warmth through the clouds, we took a table outside to watch passers by.
A big Brand with big ideas but a small team
Like most Boss Lady lunches, we start to talk about Caroline’s current role as Global Design Strategist at Absolut. After hearing her visions and experiences at the Marketing Mondays seminar, I had been captivated by how someone seemingly so young had landed such a leading role at one of the world’s most iconic liquor brand.
“Being Global Design Strategist entails translating business and brand strategies into tangible design strategies, and then an actual design.”
Caroline goes on to explain that that can mean everything from delivering the value the brand is meant to deliver, but to also ensure the product is easy to industrialize and manufacture and ship. Part of the role is to brand the identity throughout different channels and recently, that has extended to working more with brand experiences as well.
Being Global Design Strategist entails translating business and brand strategies into tangible design strategies, whether that is design of packaging, brand identity, or a space.
“It’s a pretty broad role and it can be slightly different, depending on what needs to be done. So it’s a lot of fun.”
Given the influence Caroline has on brand strategy and direction, I’m curious to know how big her team is. My assumption is that it’s at least 20 powerfully creative minds. I’m shocked to learn that there is actually just 10 people on the in-house design team.
“It’s only me who works on design exclusively, but I sit in the brand strategy team and I think we’re about 10 people. I work with external agencies, of course, to create the design; so I’m not alone. I’m just the only design person on the inside.” she says with a grin.
It’s extremely impressive for such a global brand; that a team of 10 can create the Absolut brand that we all know (and probably buy).
Everyone knows Swedes for design…except Swedes
Talking about her own specific title, Caroline explains that a design manager role is relatively new in Sweden.
“In Sweden, it’s only quite recently that people understand that it’s a profession or that it’s actually a thing. Whereas in England or in the US or in a lot of other places, there are lots of educations that have these words attached to them. That hasn’t existed in Sweden for very long.”
It’s an interesting observation because I’ve always associated Sweden with sleek brands and even sleeker design. So how is it that her role came to be at Absolut? Has design previously been known as something else? Or is it in fact, as new as Caroline says?
“I don’t know, but if I’m speculating, I would assume that design has always been part of the core business. So designing furniture for IKEA, for example, that’s IKEA’s core business and it’s always been that way. Maybe they just haven’t defined such a clear line between what’s business and what’s design; it’s been integrated.”
Aside from IKEA, Caroline points out that it’s not just Absolut who have taken that approach.
Early impressions can be everything
We shift focus a little and dive into the time Caroline has spent at Absolut.
“I’ve been in this role for 3 years, but I’ve been at Absolut for about 7 years; since I started consulting for them and as a freelancer. I used to work together with woman who then became my boss as a global design director. She then started working at Absolut as a consultant, and after a few years of me being very ready and the “Please take me in” kind of eagerness, eventually the chance came and I jumped on it.”
I was a very 'seeking' kind of person.
Some of the Boss Ladies I’ve been fortunate to lunch with have industry experience twice or three times more than what I’m looking for when searching for lunchers. But for someone like Caroline, it’s been less than a decade at Absolut before she has moved into a leadership role equivalent to other Boss Ladies with two or three times that experience. How did that acceleration occur so quickly? Was it simply based on previous work results and experiences?
“I have not thought about it so much.” Caroline admits bashfully. “I was a very ‘seeking’ kind of person before I met Anna (who I used to work with) and I was very interested in the field of managing creative processes and how to do that.”
Caroline continues to explain the influence her previous boss, Anna, had on her own development. “For a long time, Anna was the global design director for Absolut. And when I met her, I was still at university. She started talking about design strategy and design management in a way that was extremely inspiring and I became very interested in the field of work and in the actual tasks.”
“I had the pleasure of working with her for a long time, and she provided a very solid foundation for me. She was also a great support in the company. When she left, I had a lot of projects in my backpack and I had a proven track record so I was given the chance to do this job and, so far, I’ve been able to do it.”
Let’s be exclusive
I’m curious to hear what the shift was like between freelance and full-time. When I made the shift myself, a few years prior, joining a team brought a whole new level of energy to my work and my own creative process. What was it like for Caroline? She explains that the level of access to information and being included in the team were the biggest changes.
“They (Absolut) are a very inclusive company in terms of always inviting you, but it was inclusion in a different way.”
It’s a little bit like establishing that yes, we’re exclusive now.
Caroline draws similarities to dating; “It’s a little bit like establishing that yes, we’re exclusive now. We’re in it together. It’s long term. We’re not just dating, it’s actually a relationship. And it did change a lot of things to the positive, so that was a surprise, a very pleasant surprise.”
On the topic of inclusion we start to talk about the inclusion of diversity at the workplace. Working in tech means that I am lucky enough (and sometimes take for granted) that I work in an industry where individual difference is seen as an advantage. Is that the case at Absolut as well?
“I haven’t been on the inside of a lot of big companies in Stockholm, but I think that one of the many pleasures of working with Absolut is just the people from all over the world.”
She gives the example that if you needed something proofread in Mandarin, Portuguese or another language not often spoken in Stockholm, you will find someone in the company that can help. “It’s exceptional…and we need this.”
Caroline continues to explain that for Absolut to be successful outside of Sweden, they need to diversify their talent. “We need to understand different parts of the world and the best way to do that is, of course, to internalize all that knowledge.”
Diversity can, of course, mean different things to different people. But one particular definition, the equality of genders, has arguably held most of the attention here in Stockholm in recent years. What’s the culture at Absolut? Do they aspire for gender parity? It’s clear that yes, very much so.
From Caroline’s perspective, reaching (almost) parity has been a combination of leadership mindset and recruiting exceptional talent. So while it’s one thing for the company culture to want to have parity, they have to actually walk the walk and hire the diversity to fill those roles.
I feel more at ease with being myself.
She starts to list leadership positions that traditionally are held by men; “We have a female head of finance, a female head of production and a female CEO. All those typically being male positions. It’s fairly recently that we’ve come to that point. But they do have a very firm mindset of an equal line between genders.”
I question how this affects her day to day routines at work. She considers her answer slowly, a hint that she has spent a lot of time thinking about this in the past regardless of who had asked the question. “I think the major difference for me, when there are more women in the leadership team, is on a social level. I feel that the chance is different when there’s a majority of women (or an equal part of women) and that I feel more at ease with being myself.”
With a touch of disappointment she points out that it is sad that women in the workplace can’t feel at ease just by being themselves. She continues “I don’t have to think about what I’m like in social settings or in professional settings because there are so many people that are like me. So representation matters.”
I ask Caroline for an example of a time where she has faced gender adversity. Interestingly, the memory takes us outside of Sweden to Warsaw, Poland.
“I was 20 or 21 and I was working for a different company and I was there to educate a new customer service affiliate. I got there and I was meant to say hello to the CEO before kicking off the education of the staff but he couldn’t figure who I was (that I was his client).”
With an intro that was already slightly concerning, I held my breath listening to Caroline’s story because I knew it was going to get worse before it got better.
“So I walk in, he shakes my hand and says “Hello” and “Goodbye”. Pushes me, physically, out of his office and slams the door in my face. I’ve got all the staff behind me and I turn around to just say “Hello”.”
She continues to reflect on how that moment felt, not just for herself but also the Polish staff. “That was awful. And they (the staff) were very embarrassed. So they whisked me off and we drank two pitches of margarita and then went back to the office.”
I jump in and ask that if had of known what the climate would have been like in that office, what advice would she have given to herself?
“I would have told myself to think about what you need to establish in terms of ways of working. I would have asked myself two questions before going; how is this going to work out, and how do we get in place the things that need to be in place? I hadn’t spent a minute on answering those questions. They asked if I wanted to go to Poland and I said Yes! Yes, I do. The event itself was quite hilarious, thinking back on it. And it was hilarious even in that moment because it was so strange.”
While a funny story to tell now, I can’t ever imagine being put in such a position now and Caroline adds that it’s probably no longer the norm.
“I think Warsaw and Poland in general has gone through quite a transformation in the past 10 years and this was more than 10 years ago, but they didn’t know how to handle it.”
Managing stress is both physical and mental
Our food arrives at our table and we start to talk about the stress of the job. Is her job stressful?
“Sometimes it is.” she answers with a shrug. “It’s also exciting when things progress in a quick way. Every company has different production time between when you initiate the project and when it’s going live. But I do appreciate it not taking forever. I think I’d lose patience. So, of course, that puts a timing aspect on things that’s very real.”
The stress really kicks in when you have to make difficult choices when prioritizing what to focus on.
So timing is everything. Caroline reinforces its importance by informing me that today, she knows there are 358 days and roughly 2 hours from opening of a project. “It’s very real.” she laughs.
Continuing between mouthfuls of lunch, she goes on to explain that she enjoys the fast-paced action of it all. “I like it somehow because then it becomes much more tangible. I think the stress that comes with juggling priorities is more difficult if you have to deprioritize something.” But just like everyone else, her role sees some periods of high pressure and other periods that have been a breeze. It’s comforting to know that even top-tiered talent can’t escape this inconvenience.
So when it’s stressful, how does Caroline manage the stress? Other Boss Ladies have their partners, their families, their colleagues to reduce the tension. Did this Boss Lady also have a similar tactic? She tells me that it’s part physical, part mental.
“(It’s) partly physical exercising and then, fortunately, I’m in a financial position where I can go have a massage. And I’m so grateful that I’m able to do that because it’s not to be taken for granted in this world.”
She continues to explain the mental aspect. “I have a lot of friends who have been coaches or mentors so they can help me navigate when things are very complex. As I’ve grown more interested in my personal life, it’s put a healthy emphasis on work, but it’s also easier to detach emotionally from it.”
Equal parts calm and succinct
I ask about Caroline’s goals that she’d like to see successfully ticked off while in her role at Absolut.
She is humble in her response as she tells me that “I’ve been fortunate to see that happen already. There’s been a few things, and not necessarily under my leadership, but on my watch at least. But we’ve done a few things that have been very important to me personally. One of those projects is the one that is least visible to everyone, but it meant so much to me, was reducing the amount of glass used in our bottles by 12 to 13%. When you produce 650,000 bottles every day, that matters a lot.”
“It was a big process to go through and now in hindsight, it was very clear that this was always the way to go. But when you have that conversation with your stakeholders that you’re actually going to make the bottle smaller, in a category where value of the money in store is the aspect to take care of, to make that decision at that point seems super scary.”
We’ve done a few things that have been very important to me. One of those projects...is the least visible to everyone.
“Now we’re very happy with it and very confident that it was the right decision. But that was one of those things, just to make every little thing that you can to make the product small and sustainable and the packaging more sustainable.”
“I have also had the opportunity to redesign the portfolio of Malibu and Absolut, and to some extent Kahlua, so it’s also kind of under my belt now.”
Once again, it’s crystal clear that while young, Caroline is a force to be reckoned with; but a force that’s more subtle than the overt personalities most people would think of here. In a way that’s equal parts calm and succinct, Caroline shows you what’s really important in design. Which, if those two qualities had alcoholic equivalents, would produce your new favorite cocktail.
You can follow Caroline over on Twitter.
These beautiful chapter images were found over on Klang Market.