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Virtual Customer Innovation: Staying close to your client, remotely

BASF develops a digital platform to help address customer pain points from a distance.

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As a longtime partner of BASF, Stanley Black & Decker had joined the chemical company’s Circularity Challenge last year in partnership with Greentown Labs, a collaboration project with start-ups to find innovative solutions for a circular economy. 

BY ANNA SPIEWAK

Companies BASF and Stanley Black & Decker (SBD) have a long-standing collaborative relationship.

Apart from being BASF’s customer, the industrial-tool manufacturer had joined the chemical company’s Circularity Challenge last year in partnership with Greentown Labs, a collaboration project with start-ups to find innovative solutions for a circular economy.

This year, BASF invited its customer to take part in Innovent 2020 – an internal innovation event designed to evolve novel ideas that strengthen BASF’s innovation power and co-create solutions with external partners. SBD was about to be one of those external partners – but then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the event was canceled for the year.

That’s when the BASF Innovation Panel offered its Virtual Customer Innovation (VCI) platform to connect with SBD. 
The chemical company held its first VCI event in December 2019, with Chevron.

Instead of gathering groups of people at a single location, the Innovation Panel developed a concept to use video-enabled tools to conduct ideation and engagement events in a more scalable and effective way – right online.

Little did BASF know that, in just a few months, this virtual way of communicating with a customer would become not only the norm, but an essential tool for conducting business.

“Our mission is to solve our customer’s unmet needs by providing access to the full innovative power of BASF globally,” said Brian Standen, Head of Digitalization, Materials & Chemicals, R&D North America and BASF VCI Program Leader. “Now in the time of social distancing and work from home on a broad scale as the norm, an approach to continue important innovation discussions with our customers is critical for maintaining our relationships and fueling our long-term growth.”

With that in mind, BASF suggested that SBD move its session online and propose a challenge that the company is facing to discuss with its material supplier (BASF).

The customer obliged – seeking help on a universal dilemma for companies – making packaging more circular, ergo sustainable.

The pressure is on for SBD, as it has committed to 100% recyclable, reusable, or compostable materials for packaging by 2025. The company’s packaging currently contains 17% non-recyclable materials, such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride, the world’s third-most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer), which is of the most pressing concern to SBD. With 50 packaged tools sold per second, this is a large amount of non-recyclable plastic for the company to address.

“Stanley Black & Decker is delighted to build on our successful past collaboration with BASF in the Circularity Challenge at Greentown Labs to engage in a Virtual Customer Innovation session,” said Mark Maybury, Ph.D., Chief Technology Officer, Stanley Black & Decker, who took part in the VCI session. “Our forces are joined to pursue extreme innovation that can accelerate new plastic packaging solutions to support our Ellen MacArthur Foundation pledge to advance reusable, recyclable and compostable packaging.”

Similar to its customer, BASF also keeps sustainability at the core of what it does. One of the chemical company’s ambitious goals is becoming carbon neutral by 2030.

“Deeply rooted in BASF is working toward a more sustainable future, so this challenge is second nature to us,” said Peter Eckes, President of Bioscience Research, North America Research Representative, and the executive sponsor of VCI.

The tool manufacturer and BASF held a four-hour VCI session recently, with a robust R&D and corporate team on both sides, brainstorming ideas for alternative packaging that brings the company closer to its 2025 sustainability goal.

“Our (BASF) role comes in because SBD wants to continue with the existing model of having the product on the shelf in some type of recyclable packaging form,” said Ben Glowacki, Sustainable Business Strategy Manager, BASF, who’s overseen the two-company collaboration from the start and also partook in the virtual session. “Can we offer alternative materials for that packaging that would make it recyclable? Is there some innovative material that we can develop in some way that minimally disrupts their current selling model?”

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Current SBD battery packaging are sealed with PVC, PET-G or GAG material clamshell. None of these materials meet the company's recyclability goals. (Photo courtesy: Stanley Black & Decker)

Some of the solutions discussed, among many, included the possibility of using BASF’s ecovio, a compostable polymer for packaging, although more research needs to be considered, according to discussions. “It’s not the solution that fixes all, there are limitations to that technology, but at least it’s something that moves us away from non-recyclable packaging,” Glowacki added.

Another BASF product suggested was using ACRODUR (acrylic binders) to bind recycled pulp to make a molded tray to protect the product.

Making packaging more recyclable has been a longstanding challenge in our society, and not one with a quick-fix answer. Both companies agreed to continue the discourse on sustainable packaging beyond the four-hour session that day.

“We are focused on driving sustainability and always improving our eco-friendly efforts throughout the world. As such, we actively embrace thought leadership and collaboration with others in those ecosystems,” Maybury added. “We are excited by the insightful innovation provided by BASF’s digitally enabled, virtual discovery process that has included collaborative expert discussions on innovative materials, design, redesign, reprocessing and business models that can advance a more circular economy.”

“Getting close to your customers doesn’t mean picking up the phone and saying, ‘tell me what you need?’ Most of the time, people won’t, because the trust isn’t immediately there,” Glowacki concluded. “It’s going through these processes, investing time into ultimately the relationship and the people involved – to be given the opportunity to work on a challenge like this. This is how you create partners and not just customers.”

For customers/companies interested in more information on Virtual Customer Innovation or to possibly hold a brainstorming virtual session with BASF, contact the VCI Team.

 

Published on July 14, 2020

For media inquiries or to repurpose this article, please contact: anna.spiewak@basf.com or mary.faye.dark@basf.com