Caroline Snyman, Group Innovation Lead at one of South Africa’s leading alcoholic beverage manufacturers, talks in our Innovation Rockstars Podcast about the power of purpose-driven innovation and the smart move they made to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Distell Group is South Africa and Africa's leading producer and marketer of wines, spirits, ciders, and other ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages. It is a global business with roots in South Africa and employs just under 5000 people. Distell is committed to a unifying purpose: "Creating memorable moments. Crafting a better future."
Group Innovation Lead, Caroline Snyman, has been part of Distell's growth journey for almost 22 years. With a Ph.D. in Wine Biotechnology, Caroline started at Distell in technical product development before venturing into a commercial career path first as Director of Distell’s Spirits business and then as Marketing Director for Southern Africa. She now leads innovation strategy and implementation for the group, focussing specifically on adjacent and transformational innovation. So she knows about the evolution of culture within an organization, what it takes to hold a perspective on the future and build strategic capability to meet the needs of a big, bold vision. For Caroline, purpose-led innovation has become a truly business critical capability as she and her team build the business of tomorrow through internal and external collaboration.
Caroline joined us on our Innovation Rockstars Podcast to share how innovation keeps a company moving toward realizing its purpose and ways business leaders can act now to have a significant long-term impact.
Distell has experienced significant disruption under the severe and unexpected pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic, as did the rest of the world. In reference to the resultant lockdowns of the pandemic, Caroline explains what this event meant for them as a business. She recounts the innovation decisions that they took to survive. And how it is that their investor relations were able to report a return to pre-pandemic profit levels in August 2021, despite the associated alcohol bans.
"Irrespective of where we were on the planet, March 2020 was a very uncertain time for all of us", Caroline reports. From a South African perspective, it was unclear whether or not the local government would follow suit with the protocol Europe had taken. By the 18th of March, borders were closed, and public gatherings were restricted, closely in sync with the rest of the world. A week later, Caroline details, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country would be going into a complete lockdown for 21 days.
It only became clear three days later that only businesses offering essential goods and services would operate during this time. Alcohol, of course, was not considered part of this list, and so, therefore, Distell was implicated. This decision did not follow the procedure that had been taken in Europe nor in the United States; there was no best practice model to follow. This meant that the team had four days to consider the full impact on the organization and respond accordingly.
Caroline recalls that what eventually materialized was a 66-day hold of all operations before Distell went back into business. She explains that it was essential for the organization to make a call on what could be done within the constraints they had. Caroline talks of how this was a collective effort as the team sprang into action to offer potential solutions. She reiterates that the situation presented an incredible platform for purpose as employees who could not do their day jobs came together online to make a difference. Caroline closes her statement to say that this was an incredibly compelling piece of energy and focus that enabled her team to think about how they could accelerate innovation.
Caroline details more of the actions they took together as a team. She confirms that before lockdown, when South Africa's first COVID-19 cases were announced, a small group had come together to initiate a very small innovation project. At that stage, it was a team of three who had sat down to find a way to produce hand sanitizer to at least make enough available to all Distell sites and employees within Distell. This initiative then expanded to a team of 28 people to support a cross-functional initiative across the business when there was an outcry for sanitizer from the government, the public, and charities country-wide. Caroline proudly tells how this enabled their team to go from ideation to production within less than 30 days.
When asked about the resources and capabilities that made this pivot possible so quickly, Caroline reports that it resulted from a single-minded focus with a huge base of able and willing highly-skilled employees who wanted to participate in making a difference. Caroline underscores that this nimble approach resulted from having the availability of open-minded, resilient, and fast-acting cross-functional team members who could see opportunity, even in such dire circumstances.
|The first production of Distell sanitizer||After several iterations, Proof is Distell’s branded product which is still sold in South Africa|
Caroline explains that as much as they created a brand new category for Distell in a short space of time, Distell saw other knock-on effects of their approach to innovation. This allowed them to think differently and gain a new perspective on what else might be possible. Over time, their teams started to see some real opportunities for the Distell brands to align with events and causes that were important to them. Such an example of this referenced applying the Distell marketing resources creatively, even while they could not communicate to their consumers about their products.
Caroline details the example of Savanna, a dry premium cider, which has always stood for its dry sense of humor and showcasing of local comedy over the past 20 years. She explains that the brand took on the plight of local comedians when the entire entertainment industry came to a screeching halt during the lockdown. The brand created an online platform where people could still enjoy entertainment and, in some way, provide a space for some continuation of livelihoods for comedians.
Caroline goes on to say that the restrictions of lockdown had also catapulted thinking around supplying non-alcoholic beverages. Recognizing that this was not a conventional strength for Distell, she recalls the incredible work done by the marketing and technical teams to produce a non-alcohol cider in record time. This cross-category thinking spurred on deep, thorough work for the innovation team to better understand what additional products could and should live in the Distell brand portfolio of the future.
Caroline speaks of how this experience genuinely altered perceptions of innovation in the organization as disruption suddenly became tangible across the business. It compelled employees to think of where else they might prevent or mitigate future scenarios that could put them in a similar position. Caroline says that the pandemic created an immense shift in the prioritization of their innovation strategy. Recognizing that the company's core business remains critical, she talks of how the unfolded events have strengthened their collective commitment to driving innovation beyond core and into adjacent as well as transformative spaces. Caroline emphasizes that this also brought the organization to realize that greater focus is needed in applying their people's capability and professional skills: to enable cross-functional teams to recognize and leverage new opportunities quickly.
When asked about these potential opportunities within the industry, Caroline reveals that much of their initiatives will be driven around expanding beyond the core to adjacent and transformative innovation. She reports that considering adjacent opportunities has meant thinking long and hard about existing capabilities and how they can be applied in new ways. As a beverage company, this could result in the creation of other beverages. However, it could also be to look at new ways of applying go-to-market capabilities, deep consumer insight, and understanding the future needs of consumers. In terms of transformative innovation, she states that they might look to entirely new and different business models. And to no surprise, Caroline insists that a prominent focus for Distell is to understand the value of digital platforms and ever-changing consumer engagement models in completely different ways.
A focus on foresight is imperative in innovation. Still, Caroline encourages organizations that hope to prepare for both the knowns and unknowns to adopt human-centered design principles and nurture a strong sense of culture. She ties this together by saying that implementation relies on "building strong cross-functional teams with open-minded, resilient agile team members who most importantly can connect the dots across various pieces of the organization." And that all this is accomplished through a unified purpose.
We thank Caroline for this insightful interview!
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