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This content was paid for by Henkel and produced in partnership with the Financial Times Commercial department.

Q&A: “As a business, we must make a positive contribution to society”

Nuria Ribe, Corporate VP Global Marketing Home Care/Sustainability Laundry & Home Care at Henkel

How do you approach innovation on a strategic level?

We cluster innovation into two buckets. The first is core innovation, which enables us to remain competitive. This includes any improvements and further developments of our current offerings, relaunching products or introducing line extensions. The second is breakthrough innovation — the ideas that can really transform our business and markets.

We need the two, because if we focus only on the second, we could lose our business. And if we only focus on the first, we do not transform enough. The two sides of innovation are crucial in steering the portfolio.

A lot of innovation today is geared toward sustainability. What is key to becoming a more sustainable business?

We must drive sustainable innovation in many ways. We need to look at the whole value chain, and ask ourselves at every point “where can we become even more sustainable? How can we improve here?” Forming strategic partnerships is key to being able to innovate and to transform our portfolio, to achieving our sustainability goals and, for example, becoming a climate-positive company. The circular economy model plays a key role here.

We need to transform our portfolio, operations and supply chain; we need to transform our marketing mix. So, we want to use less plastic—fine. But is that easy? No! Some papers cannot hold liquids. And there’s not enough recycled material to transform our CPG business. Which means we need to explore new technologies, like chemical recycling, bio-base materials… and keep partnering to find other technologies that may not yet be feasible but might be in the future. This is just the beginning.

We also need to educate consumers on the usage of our products – because this is actually where we could leverage the biggest change to our carbon footprint. Last but not least, as a business we must make a positive contribution to society. It is not just about selling products; it is about giving back and doing good as well.


Presumably, this big sustainability push requires everyone to be on board. How do you promote sustainability within your business as well as with your clients?

First: sustainability is not the responsibility of a small team of experts. It must become an integral part of our actions and our thinking. Therefore, all employees are asked to make a contribution. To this end, we must empower and support them. That’s why we have created an internal movement in the company where we have what we call “ambassadors and promoters” of sustainability. They are spreading the message about our sustainability innovations but also the challenges that lie ahead of us – within the company and externally.

But of course, our experts also play a major role. Sustainability managers, supply chain experts, product and packaging developers…they are highly skilled in what they do and, above all, they are highly committed to driving innovation in sustainable solutions.

Sustainability has also become an important component of our brand promise – this goes hand in hand with our internal efforts. It’s a long journey, but we are making progress.


Does having a diverse team make any difference?

Definitely. You need to have diverse leadership profiles. In a “typical” innovation team, you have the “experts” and consolidators, who are the rocks of your team, but you also need the disruptive people – those who question the processes, break down boundaries, and are more risk-friendly. These different approaches must be balanced out by the team. It is sometimes challenging to make these teams work, but that is what you need to be innovative.


That balance is vital, but a risk-taking attitude is also a key innovation driver. How can you empower employees to be more adventurous?

In Henkel, we are committed to making our colleagues act as entrepreneurs, because it is the entrepreneurial spirit that enables people to take the right level of risk. I tell my team that they should behave as if this were their own business. They obviously have their own responsibilities, but within this framework they have the freedom to operate.

The beauty of a big corporation is that we also have a lot of resources, both internal and external. We have a lot of experts in many fields, and we use all this to bundle our strengths – and to minimize risk.


So you have encouraged employees to be bolder, but how do you manage to keep the spirit of innovation alive in the long term?

Innovation must be embedded in your company culture, and in every single team across the organization. The onus is not just on those teams that are responsible for product or business innovation: everyone should have this mindset – legal, supply chain, formulations. To keep the spirit of innovation alive, leaders should give their teams challenging and ambitious targets, they should empower people and give them freedom to operate, and they should nurture a diverse team with the creative and curious minds that are key to innovation. Don’t allow them to get bored, give them the freedom to make decisions, but also set clear expectations to take responsibility and own the results.


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