Robert Long joined Kimberly-Clark, the nearly $20 billion-dollar multinational personal care company, in March of 2021 as the company’s first-ever Chief R&D Officer.
He oversees global R&D operations at the company, which he joined after over 40 years spent in various R&D roles — most recently as Senior Vice President of R&D at Coca-Cola. Kimberly-Clark, based in Irving, Texas, owns brands like Kleenex, Huggies, and Scott.
We caught up with Long about the state of R&D today; the importance of diversity of thought in a large organization; and external scouting, and published some of his insights as part of our recent research report, Benchmarking Innovation Impact 2023.
Highlghts from our October 2022 conversation are below.
Tell me a bit about yourself and about your career path.
Long: I’m a chemical engineer by training, and I’ve worked in consumer packaged goods my whole career — starting with detergents, and eventually having a chance to work on cosmetics, coffee, food products, and paper products. From a company standpoint, I’ve worked for Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and now with Kimberly-Clark, and my career has taken me to different continents around the world. I’ve worked in Venezuela; I’ve worked out of Germany and Europe; I’ve worked out of Japan and Asia; and, of course, I’ve worked in the US.
How do you see R&D today, after a long career like that? What are the biggest challenges that are facing R&D leaders?
Long: I would say the biggest challenge is to meet the needs of consumers for better products, taking advantage of technical innovations that are coming — but doing that in a way that also reduces our environmental impact, and allows for scaling to the maximum number of consumers we can around the world.
Doing those three things is a real challenge for us in the context of affordability of some of the solutions that give you better performance, but don’t have as big an impact on the environment. Sometimes those materials are more expensive.
Scaling around the world [can also be a challenge]. Consumers sometimes don’t perceive products the same [way we do]. Even though they can get sustainability benefits, they may not accept the format. An example is, we sell diapers and thin diapers — in some markets, consumers haven’t really converted to thin diapers, which can often give us some sustainability benefits.
Are you back to being fully in the office and lab five days a week?
Like many organizations, our team is currently working in a hybrid environment. Much of our work in the R&D space requires a physical presence in the office, lab, or pilot line in order to make products and prototypes and properly test overall performance. Collaboration is a key pillar of innovation, and we find that being in-person unlocks new ideas and fosters overall team building.
…We find that being in-person unlocks new ideas and fosters overall team building.
At the same time, we accommodate personal schedules and continue to offer the option to work remotely, allowing flexibility for team members so they can thrive in all aspects of their lives. Also, this flexibility gives our teams in different regions an opportunity to share ideas and tackle challenges together on a regular basis when meeting in-person isn’t feasible.
Why is diversity of thought important when you’re creating new products and working for and with customers?
Long: Diversity of thought, I think is most relevant in the context of the fact that we have a lot of segmentation among consumers, and you want your technology to meet the needs of the maximum number of consumers possible. To have some sense of all the different segments’ needs is important.
How do you see diversity affecting teams, cultures, and workforces inside of an R&D group or large organization?
Long: We would like our workforce to look like our consumer base, because we believe a workforce that is representing the consumer base is likely to get the maximum appeal within that consumer base. But when it comes to the actual dynamics in the culture, it’s really important to create a safe space for everyone to bring their lived experiences… These experiences shaped how you look at the world. Gender diversity, age diversity, ethnic diversity brings a collective set of experiences that no individual can bring to the table alone. So as we’re looking to satisfy a broad array of consumers, having those perspectives is very helpful.
I think most people who work in R&D-type organizations understand the value of diversity of thought. I think it’s a welcome thing… What I would say is the bigger conversation among leadership is how do we make sure we can access the diversity of thinking that’s out there? That is both inclusive of our employees, but also outside our employee bases to fill gaps that we may have internally.
When you’re talking about looking outside of your employee bases, what kind of things are you talking about?
Long: We know there are lots of entrepreneurs out there that have their own way of looking at how to solve problems or consumers. Often, big companies miss a lot of that information. But we’re trying our best to understand how external stakeholders are thinking about solving these problems.
We recently took a significant stake in a product called Thinx — that’s reusable underwear for periods and light incontinence. That is something that was nurtured and developed external to our company, and we saw it as a trend and realized it was a good idea, even though it didn’t come from our internal R&D machine.
Do you see that becoming more of a trend in R&D, that people are looking outside of their organization and investing in startups or other companies? What are the pain points that might come with looking externally?
Long: Yes, I think it is a trend that all big companies are trying to figure out how to access that external innovation more effectively.
…All big companies are trying to figure out how to access that external innovation more effectively.
I think the pain points are, in doing that, you’re probably going to get a low yield of ideas that actually translate into actual projects. But you have to cast a broad net against an area of interest. Otherwise, you might miss things. So, how do you organize to cast the broadest net, provide the right review quickly, and keep people interested in coming back with their ideas?…
[Kimberly-Clark has] a place where we funnel most of the ideas, so that we have visibility in one place. Then we have those sent to the right subject matter experts… who can really discern, ‘Is there something here that we should show interest in or not?’ [We] try to give that feedback as quickly as possible, so people feel like we treated them the right way.
What’s an example of a project that came out of R&D that has recently been launched? What metrics are you using to gauge that product’s impact?
Innovation and advantaged technology have enabled Kimberly-Clark to bring more sustainable products to market. We recently launched a product featuring alternative fiber – Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified bath tissue in Australia made from 100% bamboo fiber and wrapped in recycled paper packaging. We also launched 100% Huggies® biodegradable baby wipes in the UK, made with plant-derived fibers.
Our ambition with innovation is to deliver these value creation metrics, while also improving the sustainability profile of our products and operations.
Impact is measured by two key metrics: financial impact (the contribution to incremental volume and margin growth) and consumer impact (trial and repurchase rates). Our ambition with innovation is to deliver these value creation metrics, while also improving the sustainability profile of our products and operations. This approach not only helps confirm we are meeting consumer needs but propels us toward our global ambition of cutting our environmental footprint in half while improving the lives of 1 billion people in vulnerable and underserved communities around the world – all by 2030.
What would you say, over the course of your career, has been the biggest learning that you could share with someone just starting now in an R&D role?
Long: The biggest learning is to really be a dreamer. Don’t think about what you can do in two years. Think about what you can do unconstrained by time, and then backtrack and say, ‘How much of that can I do in the next two to five years?’… Not every one of those [ideas] will yield a fertile path forward, but all you need is one big one to create a big opportunity for yourself.