Updated: 3 days ago
If you like beer, you should know AB InBev, the biggest brewer in the world.
For our last interview of the season, we have been fortunate to have with us a Global Director of Innovation at AB InBev, a real expert on packaging, and a commercial innovator in sustainability, Keenan Thompson.
Science by Trianon :
Mr. Thompson tell us all about yourself!
Audrey, Markus, thanks for having me.
Where to begin, well I grew up on the edge of the cornfields in Indiana.
My parents didn't have the chance to go to college and I was the first one in our family to get that chance.
At school, I loved science and math, and I was lucky enough to have mentors who pointed me in the direction of engineering.
I came very close to attending Colorado School of Mines (nestled between the Rocky Mountains and a Brewery who knows where that path would have gone), but at the last minute chose Purdue University, a bit closer to home and one of the best, most innovative engineering schools in the USA.
I specialised in Mechanical Engineering and what I liked about it, was that it gives you an overview of all the science disciplines (static, dynamic, fluid systems, thermodynamics, electricity, chemistry etc.).
This background was both wide and deep and made me look at the world and its problems in a very tangible way – it turned me into a problem solver.
Mechanical engineering as seen by Science by Trianon 
Science by Trianon:
So, you are an engineer, but if we look at your background, we also see that you are a marketer! How did you then get into marketing?
By the time I left Purdue I was a solid analytical thinker, a top of the class engineer, ready to take on the world.
I joined Kimberly-Clark where I learned how to build machines, how to design materials to run on machines, how to develop a product etc. but at the same time I was working with the commercial business team, i.e. marketers and salespeople who were building brands, who were understanding the consumers.
They were writing the briefs for what they needed the engineers to create.
I found myself discovering this completely different world, the world of Marketing.
These commercially minded people were always giving the technical folks like me directions, but I didn't have enough experience to understand why I was asked to do certain things, what was the importance of a small detail here and there.
So, the next best thing you can do if you don't understand something is to go physically put yourself in those shoes.
Marketing to engineer translation 
I moved to Barcelona and obtained my MBA and having done that I returned to Kimberly-Clark and worked in corporate innovation incubator as a business creator on brand and category expansion projects.
After a few years there I transitioned into brand-management, where I learned about and had responsibility for the business financials, the brand’s equity, the portfolio strategy, product development planning, marketing campaign creation, etc.
I also worked for a while as a shopper-marketer outside the Walmart headquarters, where I learned from the best sales and trade marketing folks in the business, yet another perspective.
Science by Trianon: So you are combining science and communication, which is what is needed in sustainable development.
When did you realise that you needed these two elements and from when on did you use these elements to make people more aware of sustainability issues?
I realised during my MBA in Barcelona that diversity matters.
We were 60 students in the class and represented 28 different countries, depending on their educational and cultural background everyone of the students had something different to offer to the case study discussions.
Taking all these influences together made us come up with better solutions to whatever the problem was that we were faced with.
From that point on, whenever I had the opportunity to do a role that was truly different, I grabbed it.
While on the surface it looks like I left engineering to take on more marketing and managerial roles, I never really did because I was still in contact with engineers and R&D people on a daily basis, and that is what I still do today.
Science by Trianon: So, exactly what is it that you do?
Instead of explaining it, take a look at this video. It pretty well sums up my current role.
Science by Trianon: You are doing secondary packaging. What is that?
It is the packaging that surrounds the beverage containers.
It is the canvas on which the product comes alive.
It is the visual and tactile expression of the brand equity.
It is the first thing you, the consumer interacts with and
it is my job to make that interaction a positive one.
That involves a consumer perspective, a material perspective, a design perspective, and a machinery perspective, and, of course, there is an overarching environmental dimension to it.
To find a great solution, we need to balance the various material, design, machinery, and environmental/regulatory requirements with what the suppliers are offering.
Often, one supplier cannot solve this balance on their own, so it is my teams' job, to manage the work/scope/brief and play the role of the integrator, building the optimized expert team and value chain needed to see the new capability come to life.
The different kind of packaging explained 
Science by Trianon: What are the current trends in packaging?
Using the least amount of material possible, improving water and energy usage, reducing CO2 emissions, using recycled material if possible, and making sure that the packaging is itself recyclable, all while at the same time creating a premium look and feel which works better than the incumbent.
One of my favourite tricks is trying to combine existing materials and processes in new ways, to fulfill the requirements outlined above.
Science by Trianon: There is a big debate going on at moment concerning the respective pros and cons of plastics and bioplastics. What is your view on plastics and bioplastics?
It comes down to consumer behaviour, hence, it is up to us as consumers to make the necessary decisions to drive the market into the right direction.
As plastics go it is very simple: If you don't recycle it, it is a bad thing.
If you do recycle it, which is to say if there is a sufficient functional recycling stream in your country, then it is a good thing. Circular plastic is a very good solution.
Circular plastic alliance to boost the European market of recycled plastic 
But as I said, it is the consumer who needs to push the market in this direction. If people buy plastic packaging and throw them away, waste ends up in landfill sites, oceans, or incinerators… we need to look at the full value chain to increase the recycling rate: returnables, incentives, collection, and recycling technology itself.
Returnable glass has a very good CO2 balance (provided it is not shipped too far). However, consumers want goods to be more convenient, and returning bottles is not the most convenient thing.
A guide to Consumer behavior 
My job is then, to make shopping more convenient, usage more convenient, return and collection more convenient...
Science by Trianon: Let’s compare two ways of returning returnables: Here in Belgium, plastic waste is collected as part of but separate from our household waste. In Germany, they run a deposit system on plastic bottles. In your experience, which scheme is more effective?
Consumer habits are difficult to change, so this is not an easy question to answer in detail.
It boils down to having a circular system that is supported by the local value chain players, and the consumers.
Innovation in the waste market itself could be the key to unlocking the best solution, we just need to remember that consumers are a driving force.
What is the consumer willing to do and at what cost?
Science by Trianon: Is there big sustainable innovation coming in AB InBev in 2021?
Our corporate website goes into detail about many of the activities that are underway.
Let’s talk again early next year, and I will able to tell you more about a few breakthroughs…
Science by Trianon: That is a date! We always end our interviews with the 'magic-wand' question so here we go: If you had a magic wand (with respect to sustainability) what would you do with it?
I would use it to make the different parties involved in sustainability more collaborative, make it easier to see the bigger picture, learn from each other, and find commercially viable solutions together. It’s about continuous learning, iteration, and doing what’s right.
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