As someone with a particular interest in building tough, resilient brands of the future, I’m always curious how big companies keep their innovation, well, innovative. After all, innovation tends to thrive in open, collaborative environments where failure is welcomed and old ideas can be jettisoned — not what you find in your typical multinational.
So when I was introduced to Volker Schaedler as a preamble to the 2012 Sustainable Brands conference, I sat up. Schaedler is head of innovation and technology for BASF North America. What did the chemistry giant have to say about innovation and sustainability that would warrant a keynote at SB 2012?
Turns out, the chemistry Schaedler wanted to talk about was not of the molecular sort.
Diverse People, Diverse Results
Schaedler is a chemist who never lost his passion. “I still love the new, unexpected results that can come from blending two seemingly ordinary elements together. It’s what makes chemistry magic.”
That said, he was quick to point out the time of just creating new molecules had passed at BASF. Instead, the company’s focus had shifted to integrating their molecules into smart solutions and bigger systems. That meant partnerships.
“What does our ‘Creating Chemistry’ tagline mean in this context? That great results are the result of ingenuity on both sides of the table,” said Schaedler.
To illustrate, he described a BASF/Daimler partnership on the Smart Car Smart forvision project that led to – among other things – heat reflecting paints that reduced the need for air conditioning, transparent solar panel materials for the roof, and all plastic composite wheels.
Even inside the company, the focus is on creating new partnerships in the form of cross-functional, diverse teams — a far cry from the days of chemists in their lab, and all others outside.
Focusing Chemistry on Sustainability Megatrends
Schaedler then described another key element that fostered innovation: focusing on issues that lead to a sustainable future.
BASF has organized its innovators around four key “sustainability megatrends,” as Schaedler calls them:
- Energy and resources
- Health and nutrition
Grouping technologies around these big challenges doesn’t just provide focus, but it fires up the teams working on them – working for a greater good has proven to be extremely motivating.
A final point Schaedler made was that “game-changing” innovations were being accelerated through appropriating technology from the outside.
“Make no mistake – we still have massive R&D resources in house. But why would we try to replicate a technology that someone else is willing to share with us?”
Of course, outside partnerships did have their own complications – the sharing of IP, for example. But the benefits of accelerated innovation tended to overshadow these issues.
We finished our chat with a conversation on how Sustainable Brands fit into the equation. Not surprisingly, Schaedler was going to the conference to share his story, but also learn from other sustainability leaders (from what I understand, experts from Wal-Mart, Patagonia, Dell and Best Buy are confirmed).
This seemed like a fitting lesson for other innovators. The way to get accelerated thinking was to put yourself into a situation where chemistry happens. Granted, it may not happen with every experiment. But the results at BASF seem to underscore the upside of sticking with it.
Marc Stoiber is a creative director, entrepreneur, green brand specialist and writer. He works with clients to build resilient, futureproof brands. Marc’s leadership positions have included VP of Green Innovation at Maddock Douglas, President and Founder of Change Advertising, National Creative Director of Grey Canada and Creative Director of DDB Toronto. He has helped two ad agencies rise from obscurity to market prominence, and his work has been recognized by virtually every international industry award for advertising and design. Marc writes on brand innovation for Huffington Post, Fast Company, GreenBiz and Sustainable Life Media. He also speaks on the subject from coast to coast, and has been featured at TED. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was reprinted with permission from Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series.