The food industry is no stranger to change. From ingredients and production to packaging and delivery, what consumers want rarely remains static for long.
For Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company, keeping pace with those changes requires a nimbleness befitting a startup. “Our world is being completely rocked by what the consumer expects,” says Rui Barbas, Nestlé USA’s chief strategy officer. “This leads to an absolute need to evolve our innovation model to be even more consumer-obsessed.”
To better predict consumer trends and deliver quick solutions, the company has leveraged the creativity of its staff and worked to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in every corner—an agility that has earned it a spot on Fast Company‘s list of Best Workplaces for Innovators. “We don’t have just a few select individuals doing innovation,” Barbas says. “Each and every person across the organization is enabled to be an innovator and tasked with embedding innovative thinking within their business.”
EVERYONE’S AN ENTREPRENEUR
A year and a half ago, Nestlé launched an internal crowdsourcing platform to further tap into the brainpower of its entire employee base. The platform, called Open Channel, allows workers to weigh in on various challenges posed by the company. When a compelling suggestion emerges, the employees who receive the most votes from colleagues have the chance to pitch their ideas to Nestlé’s executive leadership team. The company then gives the selected employees the time and support to develop their ideas. “We call them ‘internal founders,'” Barbas says. “We treat them as if they are running a startup. We fund them and surround them with cross-functional resources.”
In the short time since its inception, Open Channel has already resulted in new products, such as Stouffer’s Mac & Cheese Bites and Chameleon Organic Cold-Brew Tea with Apple Cider Vinegar. That last concept was created by a sales analyst named Marissa, who’d been tinkering at home with her own recipe for a palatable beverage that capitalized on apple cider vinegar’s potential health benefits. She had a hunch other consumers might also like it. Her colleagues agreed.
Marissa was plucked from her regular job, provided with a team of collaborators and allowed to focus on her product exclusively. The result: A line of apple cider vinegar teas in three flavors hit shelves this spring, with plans for further expansion next year.
LETTING INNOVATION LEAD
Barbas says the company’s investment in its employees’ ideas has invigorated the staff and helped boost Nestlé’s culture. “It has transformed us for the better,” he says. “It made us faster and more agile, and it broke down the functional silos because you have everybody collaborating around a challenge in a truly inclusive, multi-dimensional innovation approach.”
While the Open Channel platform has proved to be an effective tool, it’s hardly Nestlé’s first foray into innovation. The company has also invested in newly acquired brands that are creating products at the edge of consumer trends, such as plant-based Sweet Earth Foods. With the legacy company’s support, Sweet Earth, which produces popular plant-based meat alternatives, was able to quickly launch a line of frozen plant-based meat pizzas and the plant-based Awesome Burger. Nestlé is also working with food and tech startups to help drive new revenue sources for the company and its brands. And it’s using a lean test-and-learn approach to launch new products within its portfolio of familiar brands, such as Coffee mate’s natural bliss Oat Milk Creamers.
“Innovation is our lifeblood,” Barbas says. “We believe it’s essential for every employee to embrace innovation as part of their job in order to unleash their entrepreneurial potential and for us to drive the future growth and transformation of Nestlé.”