The artworld has taken a hit by the covid pandemic. But the experience has also helped to broaden the need for artistic commentaries and accelerated the online purchase behavior for customers around the world. It’s a pivotal moment for the online art space, if you ask Nahema Mehta, CEO and Co-founder of Absolut Art.
What’s going on with Absolut Art?
– For now, the art world has gone digital – and for us, that’s a good thing. Specifically, Absolut Art has seen a +25%, +102%, and +360% revenue increase in online sales YoY in the months of April, May, and June respectively. We’re a digital player in an industry that takes place predominantly in the physical world. And right now, the physical world is closed.
This sudden shift has proven pivotal for us. While we have always believed in an omnichannel experience (and we still do as there will always be a basic human desire to stand before a work of art in-person) we were guilty of relying too heavily on physical experiences and not focusing enough on optimizing our digital consumer journey and e-commerce experience. Covid-19 has forced us to hyper-focus on our online efforts on all fronts, and we’re ready for it, having recently welcomed the wonderful Martin Smeding to the team, who is co-leading the project with me as COO and Head of E-Commerce. We’ve been so proud of how the team has risen to the challenge and stepped up in the face of the many obstacles Covid-19 presents in pretty much all aspects of our lives.
How has Covid-19 affected the business?
– Part of the reason we’re seeing this kind of growth during Covid-19 is that crises like these tend to accelerate existing trends by at least 3 to 5 years, and there are two existing trends that align with Absolut Art’s digital first and curatorial approach:
First, an existing trend in the art world has been purchasing art online – of the USD 65 billion global art market, online art sales is the fastest growing segment currently valued at USD 5 billion and expected to reach USD 9.3 billion by 2024. Covid-19 is accelerating this already impressive growth trend as people are rapidly becoming fluent in purchasing art online as it’s their only option.
Second, art purchasing is part of the huge trend towards conscious consumption, which is also accelerating in the time of Covid-19: as people become more mindful about everything from what they put into their bodies (healthy eating) to “voting” with their dollars (deciding which brands they support), people are also becoming more and more conscious about what they bring into their homes. And with people spending more time at home, they are looking to upgrade their living spaces with objects that inspire them.
Now is the time for Absolut Art to put our foot on the gas pedal!
Will the art world move fully digital?
– We believe that it will always be both – real world and online. Our industry needs an “all of the above” strategy through this crisis and also through the very long economic crisis that’s going to follow. 50% of the people who have given their careers to the art world who are not collecting a paycheck right now. 95% of artists who have given their lives to creating art report that they are making less money or no money right now. 70% of them report that they are less productive as a result. This is a moment to lean in and support the art world in every way that we can – whether it’s shopping online, or supporting the virtual art fairs, or donating to our cultural institutions. Absolut Art is a dual-sided marketplace and we are hyper-focused on supporting both our consumers and our artists in a way that also serves the larger community and cultural conversation.
How are you choosing which artists to collaborate with right now? Can you give me some examples?
– We champion diverse, global voices which is core to our mission of making ideas and artworks accessible and open to all. In this current climate, we’re finding that two things seem to be particularly resonant with our audience.
First, we’re seeing a lot of interest in sales that support and celebrate important causes – there’s an enthusiasm for collecting with a purpose right now that is quite inspiring to see. For example, we commissioned iconic French photographer Brigitte LaCombe, who just graced the cover of Le Monde’s magazine, to shoot her life in isolation in North California where she is quarantined. The commission partially benefits the Coalition for the Homeless, shich helps the most vulnerable communities who do not have the privilege to quarantine at home. We’ll also be releasing a collaboration with celebrated female chefs including April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, and Natasha Li Pickowicz of Cafe Altro Paradiso, in support of rebuilding iconic local NYC restaurants that have been ravaged by Covid-19.
– Second, we’re seeing a heightened interest in works that are joyful and uplifting. In the face of a chaotic newscycle where we are bombarded with scary statistics, we commissioned British artist and The Guardian’s lead data journalist, Mona Chalabi, to create a series of drawings using positive data from the natural world in honor of Earth Day. It was very well received and ended up on the homepages of Cool Hunting and Dezeen. We’ve also started to release a collection celebrating the beauty of summer including new works by some of our best-selling Swedish artists like Anders Romare and Kristian Bengtsson, as well as works by new Australian artists like Stuart Cantor and Ryan Pernofsky.
What does the future look like?
– I’m hopeful that, in the long term, there will be a continuation of the progress we’ve seen, especially in the last few months, of the art world becoming more welcoming, more transparent, and more frictionless. Making the art world more welcoming is also going to help solve a significant problem that we have in the industry, which is insufficient diversity. The more that we can make this industry more welcoming and transparent, the better chance we have of making the art world more diverse and more inclusive. Digital spaces democratize access to art by breaking down the geographical and socio-economic barriers that exist in the physical art world, and that’s what Absolut Art is all about. We will continue championing diverse voices and innovating towards a frictionless art buying experience, both of which are at the heart of our mission of making ideas and artworks accessible and open.
A passion for controversial campaigns, long term impacts of the pandemic on the spirits industry and why she would never post a tweet on national security. Paula Eriksson, VP Corporate Affairs and Communications at The Absolut Company, doesn’t shy away from tough questions. We had a talk with her on how Sweden’s biggest food export brand Absolut has kept their pace over the course of history and why the future looks ever so bright and shiny, despite the gloomy times that’s currently preceding.
You’ve been with The Absolut Company (TAC) for many years and have seen changes in attitudes and behaviors towards spirits and alcohol brands. How would you describe that people outside the organization are perceiving TAC today?
– When I started at Absolut, we were a part of government owned Vin & Sprit. Then we were sold to Pernod Ricard and became a regular, privately owned company. In the beginning, focused on being fully integrated into the Pernod Ricard-world and adjust to their culture. And, with all the efforts put into assimilation, less energy was spent on maintaining and keeping good relations with Swedish public authorities and stakeholders. Earlier, when we were a government owned corporation, we had close and natural contacts with ministries and politicians but once we were settled in the Pernod Ricard-universe we realized that some of our old contacts were not even sure that we were still present in Sweden anymore. In recent years, we have therefore gone through great lengths to reconnect with our former contacts. We emphasize the fact that Absolut Vodka is Sweden’s single largest food export and that everything we manufacture is still produced in Sweden. Actually, my perception is that Swedish people are often positively surprised when they learn that we’re still made in Åhus and that we export 99 percent of everything we produce.
How do you work to stay relevant?
– For us it’s always a matter of finding and initiating collaborations with others. As an example, we didn’t create the brand Absolut Vodka just by ourselves – it’s always been done in collaboration with the most creative and forward-thinking people of their time. So, we are constantly working on our networks to be in contact with those who are shaping the present – right here and right now. For us, this is a way of ensuring that we’re relevant to in our time and for our time. That’s super important for a brand like Absolut. We need to be agile and quick to forecast trends and influences in order to be able to have a rewarding dialogue with people. For example, in the 80’s our focus was on art and artists, while today we’re perhaps more into people within the start-up scene. We are constantly trying to capture and absorb important learnings from what’s happening around us, locally and globally.
How do you and TAC work to avoid being accused of communicative “washing”?
– In my opinion, the truth is the communicator’s greatest asset. To be transparent about what you do – without hiding anything or exaggerating matters. It may not always be so easy to live up to this motto, but for Absolut, I think it’s relatively easy for us as we have all our production in Sweden. But, at the same time, we have other TAC brands that operate in several countries, such as Malibu and Kahlua, and both these brands are managed globally from Stockholm. And there, the supply chains are much more complicated. That’s also why we invest a lot of time and energy to map out and understand how we can influence these. As I see it, as a large company, you have an obligation to be transparent with what you know and what you may not know. My experience is that consumers are both accepting and forgiving, as long as you are open to and about your challenges and have a plan for how to deal with them.
Which market do you see as the most challenging from a communications perspective?
– My initial instinct is to say Sweden, although it obviously depends a little on what you mean by challenging. In Sweden, it is a challenge that there is a limited understanding domestically for our industry and our specific terms and conditions. We have quite unique historical conditions here at home given the long Vin & Sprit monopoly. This means that we have to think in a completely different way about how, where, when and what we communicate in Sweden. But there’s obviously other markets with different challenges that we need to address. In the US, for example, need to tell a new generation about all the fantastic values that Absolut stands for.
Which values do you think Absolut creates?
– I think that a lot of the values we create are based on our passion for progression. We are constantly trying to find new circular sustainability models and innovative solutions and we always aim to have an entrepreneurial mindset. In Sweden, we are a well-integrated part of the economic ecosystem and in our large network we can contribute with a lot of good things that helps to pave the way for a more circular economy. Two examples; we sell stillage – which is a by-product from the fermentation – to livestock farmers and we sell C02 from our fermentation to algae cultivation. We create job opportunities for around 2000 people in southern Sweden. Both directly in the form of our 500 employees at TAC, but also by generating additional business in and around Åhus. We have a visitor center, so we are part of the tourism industry now too. And we also contribute a lot by being a big advocate of Swedish values. We believe in openness and inclusiveness regardless of origin, sexual orientation or gender. This is always expressed in some way in our campaigns. One might think that we’re stating the obvious, but sadly you don’t have to travel far beyond our borders to learn that this kind of position can be perceived as quite provocative and controversial. But we want to contribute to a development where individuals can live their lives as they wish.
Alcohol and communication can, of course, be seen as not entirely unproblematic. How do you and TAC work with responsible consumption and responsible communication?
– When it comes to consumption, it is always a matter of treading with great cautions. I believe that there is a legitimate position for our products in-between abstention and abuse. Where the actual boundary goes is obviously individual, but in general, I think you can say that when your alcohol consumption is becoming a problem for either yourself or for others, then you’ve most likely passed it. When it comes to our communications, we are always extremely careful – both in what we say and what we don’t say as well as in what we do and don’t do. Our communication should be responsible and follow good taste and good manners and we would, for example, never try to piggyback on people’s insecurities nor imply that one becomes more popular or successful by consuming our products. Or that you perform better. And, of course, we never target or address minors. We sell premium products and our whole business idea is based on people drinking less, but better.
Art, fashion, culture and gastronomy are all natural parts of the Absolut brand – how does TAC work communicatively to tie these various initiatives together?
– Everything we do is held together by our motto Passion for Progression. By that, we mean that we like to be a part of and a driver for progress. This is nothing new to us. It actually goes back all the way to L.O. Smith and the way he liked to do business. He was a curious guy and we’ve tried to incorporate his sense of curiosity into the foundation of the company. We want to be relevant to our consumers and to be present in a context that’s natural and familiar to them. But – and this is important – we want to be there with integrity. For us, as I said earlier, it is about sharing and disseminating our values of openness and of having an inclusive attitude and constantly seeking partnerships that can help us develop and progress. Regardless of issues, matters, genres or sectors.
Absolut has, over the years, built brand identity by questioning norms and stick it’s neck out. Which is your favorite campaign?
– And this is something that I, personally, is very proud of. One of my favorite campaigns is actually our latest major initiative #SexResponsibly. I think it, in a good way, touches on and raises a difficult question that is extra relevant to us as a spirit producer. Alcohol can never be used as an excuse. There´s no exceptions to that fact. But there are also other historical initiatives that I’m very fond of. One example is that we were so early in our support of the LGBT movement, already in the beginning of the 80s. And I’m proud that we didn’t back away when HIV came, I mean – we even organized a fundraiser to support HIV-infected people.
The Swedish food and beverage industry is going through one of its most trying times right now. What do you at TAC do to support them?
– In almost all of our communications at the moment, we try to find ways to lift how we can support small producers who suffer extra from the fact that bars and restaurants are unable to keep up their usual pace. For many smaller businesses these are their most important distribution channel. We try to support them by paying attention to their situation and help market the immense variety of fantastic products that you, as a Swedish consumer, can order at Systembolaget. At the same time, we also encourage and remind people to support bars and restaurants. Buy take-away or gift cards that can be used later. Help to put a silver lining on their existence now, in the same way that they help you in more normal times. As a company, we try to avoid canceling as much as possible and instead reschedule or postpone planned events, so that they can be held when society returns to a more ordinary everyday life again.
How are you affected yourself?
– We are very much affected by the fact that people cannot travel or go out as they used to before covid-19. Our whole business is built around socializing and social interaction. But we are also fortunate to be part of a large and stabile group during these trying times. It is a very privileged position to be part of a big company with so many strong and beloved brands and that also has a sound strategy on how to act during extraordinary circumstances.
How do you forsee the development of Swedish gastronomy over the next 10 years?
– I think it might be good to look in the rearview mirror sometimes to better be able to predict what’s coming ahead. We have had an incredible gastronomical development at home over the past 10 years. You can almost talk about a Swedish cooking wonder. The quality of the craft now is so incredibly much higher compared to 10-20 years ago. Today, there is so much knowledge and passion amongst Swedish chefs, combined with a kind of humble compromise. You dare to take your skills to the limit and see what you might find. And I think this mindset will continue and prosper and also transfer into the way that we, as food and drink producers, will think and act. We will see more niche producers making amazing products. And we will see an increasing willingness amongst consumers to pay for quality. I also think we will start to talk more about regional cuisine, about terroir and about origin, and not just talk about “Swedish” food. There is clearly an increased pressure from consumers that wants to know where the products they’re being served comes from and how they are manufactured. This means that we need to accept a greater responsibility at the producer level. We need more transparency and more knowledge. Consumers are discerning and as a producer, you must be able to answer whether what you produce or manufacture is justifiable.
You have, not least because being so active on Twitter, from time to time been acting spokesperson for the entire TAC. How do you handle that?
– Well, for starters, I do consider my Twitter account my own. With that said, I am also aware that I use it as a professional, meaning for work purposes. So what I say might have an effect on the company, and this is something I always consider before posting a tweet. Bur all misinterpretations are my own and it is entirely up to me and my own judgment govern what I publish. To some extent that naturally holds me back from posting to much private stuff on my Twitter, as they run the risk of being seen in the light of the company. I won’t post any security policy-related comments for example.
Do you have any role models and if so which ones?
– One person I admire greatly is the murdered human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. She was basically a just an ordinary history teacher who had an inner conviction to seek the truth about human rights. Someone, who so selflessly stands up against a system, is impressive. Her integrity, despite living with a death threat, is astounding and I think it is very important that she – and others who have acted unselfishly because they believe in something greater than themselves – are never forgotten.
What would you have done if you had not worked at TAC?
– I dreamed of becoming a journalist, but, unfortunately, I think I am a little too uncritically. I tried my luck at it a few times, but I never really got the hang of it. But I’m also very much into problem solving, so engineer is also something I might would have considered today. I feel great inner calm and satisfaction when I solve a problem.
Next person in line to be interviewed is Johan Radojewski, VP Marketing Malibu. What question would you like me to ask him?
What’s it like to lead to a global brand like Malibu from Sweden, given that the brands biggest markets are the United States and other key markets include the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain? How do you know what consumers around the world actually want and how they like to be addressed?
Going from strategy to action isn’t always as smooth ride. Especially when it comes to making major sustainability-changes in an organization. But for Vanessa Wright, Group VP Sustainability & Responsibility at Pernod Ricard, making a real difference has been a strong driving force to getting people enthusiastic about reaching the ambitious goals. And the road was in fact less bumpy than anticipated.
You’ve been heading the Sustainability work for Pernod Ricard since 2017. How has your work changed in during this time?
– A lot, I’d say. When I joined the team at HQ, progress had already been made on some key sustainability issues. Responsible consumption was a key focus then and there was also a 2020 environmental roadmap in place. However, I thought that a more comprehensive strategy for a broader scope of our sustainability work was missing, so that was what I wanted to start with. In order to do that, I first had to do due diligence on better understanding the material issues of the business, followed by articulating the vision and then building a strategy so that the entire organization felt onboarded and included. For me, involving all parts of the business and getting engagement and support from all levels was fundamental in making such big changes. In April last year, we launched our strategic 10-year plan – our 2030 S&R Good Times from a Good Place roadmap – a strategy that addresses every aspect of our business from grain to glass. So now our focus is on making the strategy come alive. From an outside perspective of the organization the whole view of sustainability has also changed a lot. It’s gone from being in the philanthropy box to being fully embedded in the business s. The level of maturity has increased and with that comes the notion to address broader topics.
What was most important when you started?
– Responsible drinking was the key focus in 2017. Today, all our four pillars (Nurturing Terroir, Valuing People, Circular Making and Responsible Hosting) are equally important. But key for us is of course terroir – all our products come from nature and are rooted in the countries where they originate from. So, it’s very important that we maintain and build good relationships with all the farmers and producers we work with and that we nurture nature and its ecosystems. Otherwise we simply won’t have a business for the future.
Corona, climate and changing the world: how do you see that the industry and business must change in order to help create a new, more sustainable society?
– I think it’s a matter of looking at the bigger picture. Nature, climate and people are all interlinked. That means we must strengthen what we rely on. Conviviality is all about sharing and that goes beyond people. We need to take social responsibility and do what we can to help, both during this imminent crisis, but also in the longer run. Sustainability takes forever and that’s the point. We need to balance all elements, from raw materials to finished product. From people to business.
2025 is an important year for Pernod Ricard in terms of sustainability, with some high set goals: 100% recyclable, compostable, reusable, or bio-based packaging and no single-use plastic in point-of-sale materials. How will this be achieved?
– By hard work and a change of our mindset. By exploring different materials, by altering our marketing briefs to our agencies so that including eco-design principles is mandatory in execution. By working even closer with all our suppliers on how we, as a joint team, we can reach even further. And by making sure all our affiliates adhere to our guidelines. And by investing in innovations that we’ll enable us to impose change quicker.
Good Times from a Good Place is an initiative to be fully implemented by 2030, from what I understand. What can you tell me about this ambitious program?
– Our roadmap is for 10 years, so most of our targets are 2030 but some are 2025. However, we need to go step by step on this journey with our affiliates so that we help each other and learn collectively. We’re all in this together and it is a long-term plan, fully aligned with the UN SDGs global agenda and timeline as well. The strategy was built like a pyramid, where the bottom is the fundamentals, the middle is more focused on business strategies and the top the most ambitious, where areas of leadership is addressed. The framework is key to ensuring that we all work in a consistent way towards the same goals.
What motivates you?
– I loved my job in communications. It was interesting, it was varied, I got to travel the world and do extraordinary things. But when I got the opportunity to take on this role, I felt a strong calling to be able to make a real difference. We are lucky at Pernod Ricard, we’ve got a young CEO (Alexandre Ricard, editors note) with his name on the door and that, for me, ensures a long-term commitment and a continuation of a great legacy started by his grandfather. We’re doing something valuable and that’s something I feel very passionate about. It feels good to do something that matters, driving change and working with others to achieve it.
What do you consider your biggest achievement so far?
– Launching the Good Times from a Good Place strategy. We’re a small team in a large, global organization and I’m very proud of the way we’ve galvanized our affiliates internationally and engaged them to build and drive their own local actions. Only eight weeks after launching the strategy, some 76 percent of the people working at Pernod Ricard said they were aware of the new strategy. The awareness of the importance of what we’re doing is very high and we’re also started to be seen as global leaders in within the industry.
Which sustainability issue is closest to your heart?
– All our four pillars are equally important, but for me, terroir is the closest to my heart. I am a scuba diver, so I have very strong affiliations with nature. I’ve seen the negative impact on our oceans firsthand, and that really motivates me to make a change. At Pernod Ricard all our products come from nature and I think this is a very important topic for us to address and help improve globally – nature, people and climate are all linked.
Reconsider, redo and always rethink what you do. Those three mantras can perhaps summarize Absolut’s CEO Anna Malmhake’s view on how to stay on top in an industry where traditions and heritage constantly must be balanced against having the courage to stick your neck out and take a stand. We had the opportunity to sit down with her and talk about the importance of innovation, how to best nurture a centuries old cultural heritage and why you no longer need to go to New York to know what the next big food trend will be.
You have worked for Absolut previously, but was away on another assignment within Pernod Ricard for a few years. What has been most fun and challenging so far?
– I would say globalization. To me, it’s a privilege to so often to be able to meet and interact with people I would never have come into contact with otherwise – both inside and outside of the company and the group. But of course, there are also some challenges due to us being present at so many diverse markets at the same time. As a company, we’re always at different phases on different markets, which is something we always need to take into careful considerations. In some markets, we are a clear challenger, while we are the leading brand and mature in others.
In which ways have TACs developed itself to keep up with innovation, globalization and digitalization that have been the driving trends lately?
– We’ve always had to realize that we must be agile. When we started exporting Absolut Vodka in 1979, we were the “underdog” in the market. We had no experience of exporting – Vin and Sprit, which previously had a monopoly, was a fully state-owned company operating solely in Sweden. So, we had no established distributors overseas. We had no experience in markets where alcohol advertising was allowed. We were the challengers, simply, and meant we always had to think like challengers. It made us entrepreneurs. Later, when we had transitioned into market leaders in the US, we were still new to other markets at the same time – so the culture of being fast-paced and entrepreneurial lies in our DNA.
How do you and TAC act to create and maintain an open and inclusive organization?
– I think it’s about having a good balance. For a while everyone said it was cool and good to fail. But it is not at all always cool to fail; there is a big difference between for example failing because you did not spend enough time and effort or failing because there were unknown factors you couldn’t have foreseen before you started. When you do fail because of something unknown and you learn something – great! What you learn from that situation can probably be applied to lots of projects in the future. In an organization as big as TAC, there is room for several different types of entrepreneurship and innovations. We have those who like to sit by themselves and twist and turn a problem, throwing a solid solution on my table later. Then there are intrapreneurs who love the power and collaboration opportunities that exist in large companies. Absolut art.com is a good example of this type of intrapreneurial initiative. Here you have all the power from TAC summoned behind an initiative – with financial muscles and amazing contacts in many countries – but the project is run by a small group of committed and initiated people who themselves have a mandate to influence, in an entrepreneurial way, everything they do and want to do.
Is development constantly required or are there still some old truths that always apply?
– I’m very conservative with everything that has to do with safety in product development, manufacturing and transport, for example”. I think it’s great to be able to lean on practices that have been tested and evaluated for a long period of time. However, there are always people in the organization who are a little more uncomfortable with innovation, but you have to remember that within such a large company as TAC there are a lot of positions where this is considered a strength. Not everyone needs to be creative or innovative.
What do you think TAC’s Swedish heritage means for how you act when it comes to innovation?
– I am convinced that Sweden’s long and successful engineering tradition is very important. It’s always been at the forefront of finding new and creative ways of doing things. We are used to rolling up our sleeves when it comes problem solving. There are, among other things, clear examples of this in our own industry’s history. When Eva de la Gardie came up with how to make vodka on potatoes and was elected to the Academy of Sciences, or when L.O. Smith presented the best way to make absolutely pure alcohol in Paris 1878. What he created back then has over decades become the company we are today. Our industrial heritage is deeply rooted in the values of our company.
What other innovative companies or entrepreneurs inspire you?
– Many of the companies I am inspired by are in a completely different place or sector compared to TAC. They’re usually smaller and more highly specialized. For example, I am very impressed by a L.A based company called Wave. I met the founders in February and was completely fascinated by their product. They do virtual concerts. What was most inspiring was that they, themselves, fully understood the power of their product. Their unique selling point revolves around design and creativity of what they do. Their approach to building and producing concerts and making them accessible – it is so much more than simply just another virtual experience. They work with creating different types of worlds, tailored for the musician and the music being played. For me, it was very visionary – not just the technology itself, because I’ve seen it before – but how they use and build around it. It is the kind of company inspires me very much.
How do you and TAC work to avoid being blamed for different types of communicative “washings”?
– When you are as big as we are, it is inevitable that sometimes people disagree with what you do or say. And as we sometimes talk about issues that are sensitive to some – LGBT rights for example – sometimes people assume we use do this for some kind of opportunistic reason only. But the truth is – all things we talk about are in our heritage and in the brand DNA. Of course, there are “trends” in which issues that are currently on the agenda. If you don’t genuinely have an authentic point of view or commitment to a particular question, it is better to stay away. After all, brands have no general public mission to work with activism. There are plenty of things that are right or worth fighting for, which is nevertheless inappropriate for us as a company or brand to begin to communicate around.
Which values do you think TAC brings to the table?
– First of all, I think Absolut vodka is an excellent product. Of course, alcohol has its pros and cons like everything on earth, but I genuinely think the world is a better place when people have the opportunity to go out and have a drink with their friends. I’m convinced that we can contribute a lot to Sweden’s reputation and how us Swedes are being perceived, as we at TAC are so international. Especially within the world of foods and drinks. TAC is a company that demonstrates that you can create a strong, idea-driven world around a brand that can live through the centuries. We show that communication can be both contemporary and relevant, but in a timeless manner: We’re timeless in a timely way, as my colleague Ann Mukherjee who is CEO in the US, so nicely puts it.
What do you see as your greatest opportunities going forward?
– A continued globalization is a huge opportunity for us. There are countries where we are beginners as a brand, where we have a great opportunity to talk through our products. We have been working in “stealth mode” for a long time with things that are very important and valued today: environment, sustainability, ethical business, communities and partners. These are all subjects that are becoming increasingly relevant and modern in all markets. We know that we are at the forefront in many areas here in Sweden, but the world is catching up.
And the biggest challenges?
– It is extremely important to know what is really relevant to people in different countries and it is obviously difficult to constantly keep track of it. It’s not possible for us to just sit in Stockholm and think that it is the center of the world and that all external monitoring can be done from HQ in Liljeholmen, Stockholm. Sweden is not the whole world and it is easy to overestimate what we have here on our home turf and believe that it is the benchmark for everything.
For many, at least in Sweden, Absolut has a strong connection to our cultural heritage. How is that reflected in TAC:s business?
– We are always very attentive to the fact that we are the heirs to the entire Swedish aquavit heritage. After all, LO Smith’s creation did evolve into State-owned Vin & Sprit, which was then sold off and became TAC. I think it’s an interesting circle that has been closed – that the company that was created to make absolutely pure spirits then became The Absolut Company. And given that Vin & Sprit was a monopoly in Sweden for decades, we are now sitting on the whole cultural heritage, which we care for and nourish very tenderly with the help of our archivist Lovisa. Among many things, we have a fully functional distillery from the 1920’s. Talk about cultural heritage! It’s also visible in our products. Take Åhus Akvavit for example, here, we’ve worked with Swedish craft throughout the product. Absolut was also the company that started and led the trend with flavored vodka and it ties back to our history with aquavit – pure spirits with added flavors. We find lots of inspiration for our products in the unique heritage that we have access to.
What impact does Swedish food and beverage heritage have on your business?
– It has a huge impact! We have amazing flavors and ingredients here in Sweden that’s also greatly appreciated internationally. And we have fantastic chefs and restauranteurs who know how to make the best of the best. This means that we have a unique situation when it comes to product development. Our team in Åhus have access to our entire cultural heritage and then add to that the fact that we have a domestic gastronomy that can give us fantastic inspiration about what is happening here and now. Today we have access to so many talented and creative people close to us. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was obvious that you had to go to New York or London to learn from the top chefs and foodies. But that’s simply not the case anymore. Today we have everything right here at home and people comes to us instead. Working with Swedish food and drink today is incredibly fun and rewarding. We’re also avid supporters of Swedish gastronomy through our initiative Tomorrow´s Table.
What do you look forward to the most if you gaze into the future?
– To see the continuation of developments on the US market. With Ann Mukherjee coming in, I’m sure a lot of exciting things will happen. She is exceptional when it comes to product marketing. I think a good example of this is that campaigns such as SexResponsibly have already been launched. It’s a more challenging way of communicating than what’ve done in a long time in the US, but the reactions from consumers has been very positive. It will be fun to see how we can continue down this chosen path. I generally think that we recently have done things that are more in line with what we used to do historically, where we dared to take a stand and stick our chin out way more often. I look forward to doing more of this in the future. My vision is for TAC is to become Northern Europe’s most innovative company and for Absolut vodka to become the largest spirits brand in the world. We will achieve this within the next 15 years. I am sure of that.
Paul Ricard had a motto to “make a friend every day” which is still a guiding principle within the group. What is your best practice for achieving this?
– If you are curious, it is easy to make friends! This can be exemplified by realizing that this chef you just met at a restaurant probably knows a lot of things I don’t know, and that I can learn something. Or that the bar owner I meet knows a lot about what it’s like to start a new business and work at this particular place. For me, it’s important to try and absorb all the knowledge that is around me all the time. Regardless if it’s while traveling or back home at the office. And when you listen to people, learn from them and share your own knowledge – then you make friends.
If you weren’t the CEO for TAC, what alternative career do you wish you would have pursued?
– I probably would have wanted to become an engineer. Astrophysicists for example – but of course it is only a daydream that I would be sufficiently talented for that kind of work.
This is an interview series where several members of TAC’s management team will participate. Next in line is Vice President of Corporate Affairs & Communications Paula Eriksson. What question would you like to ask her?
– Wow, how fun. Then I wonder how Paula Eriksson would describe that people outside the organization is viewing TAC today? I’m sure she can give a good answer to that.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, or so they say. And for Ann Mukherjee, Chairman and CEO for Pernod Ricard North America, business in the US, as well as in the rest of the world, is indeed looking grave at the moment. But if you manage to gaze beyond the current corona-crisis, there’s brighter times ahead. We had a chat with her on all the great things she’s bringing to the table at Pernod Ricard, but also on some of the challenges of being a noob in the spirits business and why that’s so alluring to her, both professionally and personally.
You’ve been with the company for less than half a year, but long enough to get to up to speed a bit. Would you say it’s all that you expected?
– For starters, when I joined, nobody had corona on top of their mind. This crisis wasn’t at all part of the job description. But, apart from that, I’d say that working here has by far exceeded all my expectations. There’s such a strong entrepreneurial side to the organization that I didn’t expect. All the affiliates are having a say around how to build their business and there’s an incredible amount of trust in the leaders, in the teams and in the brands. I can confess that I had a little apprehension coming in, since I knew that this was a tight organization. People have worked here for ages and it was nervous being the new kid on the block. But the way everyone has put their arms around me and trusted me so early in my tenure have both empowered me and surprised me. I got a few warnings about joining the spirit business since I don’t have a background in it. People said it’s a very male dominated industry, and if you don’t know spirits or the US market, you’ll have a hard time fitting in. But this has by no means been an issue for me.
What has been the biggest challenges for you personally so far?
– I have a clear mandate from Pernod Ricard’s CEO Alexandre Ricard that we need to beat the market here in the US. The goal is to become the no 1 spirits company in the world. To accomplish this, the US market is critical. So, we need to deliver great results – which I truly believe we can. However, there’s a fine balance the need for speed, with the need for making change in a sustainable way that doesn’t overwhelm or intimidate people. So, we’ll grow our business, but we’ll do it in a sane and balanced way. That means prioritizing the right things at the right time. Walking that fine line can be a challenge sometimes.
One of the first things you initiated as CEO was to launch an Absolut Vodka campaign called SexResponsibly, which deals with the subject of consent. One might say that’s sticking your neck out a bit. How come this was your first initiative?
– Right after I’d joined Pernod Ricard, one of the first persons who reached out to me was Anna Malmhake at The Absolut Company. For me, Absolut has always been a great inspiration. It’s such a strong brand that transcends its category – a brand that has become an icon in itself. But I felt that it had been marketed in the US in a way that didn’t resonate with the brands true identity. It used to be a brand that always took a stand on issues no one else wanted to talk about. To give an example: in the 80’s it helped give voice to gay men by actively being part of their culture, especially at the legendary Studio 54 in New York. Absolut enabled people to be better and to be heard. So, I wanted to bring back the brand, so to speak, to the US market by once again connecting it to a timeless story in a contemporary way.
How did the campaign come about?
– The first company visit I did after joining Pernod Ricard was to The Absolut Company in Stockholm. Luckily for me, I happened to be there when Anna Malmhake was presenting ideas on how Absolut could instigate in culture. One of her propositions was based on the notion on sex responsible and consent. For me, it was a no brainer. I just said “Let’s do this. And let’s do it now!” Three weeks later the campaign was off the ground and I couldn’t be more proud of it.
What effect do you wish the campaign will have?
– I hope it’ll have a human impact. That it creates conversation. That it creates change. Consent is a grey area in many cases. As a women, when it comes to consent, the aggressor is in charge. So, people will likely side with the aggressor, saying that that the victim is responsible for creating the impression that this is ok. And that’s just wrong! I hope that the campaign can and will help create a conversation so that people stops and thinks “Wait a minute! That’s not ok!” In many ways, society has pressured people to behave in a certain way and I believe this needs to change. People needs to do what they deep down feel is right. To be in total control of their own lives. In my opinion, this is a timeless story that’s been twisted to suit a contemporary world. As I mentioned earlier, for me Absolut is a brand that can take a stand on this issue and speak to the target group in their language. That’s important.
What are you passionate about?
– I have three things that guide me in life. Well, they started from a business point of view, but they’ve become personal as well now.
First; my job as a leader is to create a roadmap for sustainable growth. That means having the right portfolio in place and the right strategy for optimizing the portfolio – both short and long term.
Second; we live in a VUCA world. There’s just a lot of uncertainty and volatility and adversity is the only constant that we kow of. So, we need to be agile and risk taking as an organization, so we’re able to adapt quickly. That means we have to have a culture and a mindset that can cope with the constant changes. And this is super motivating for me as a leader. I’ve gone through a lot of changes in my life, both professionally and personally, so this is close to heart for me. Third; I’m all about people. Great business come from quality of the people working. I love to help unlock potential in the organization. To give people the freedom and encouragement to achieve what they didn’t think they could do. And all these three motivations are the same for me on a personal level. I live by them as a wife and as a mother. It’s part of my job as a parent and family member to create sustainable growth for my children. To give them a future and help them navigate in life. To teach them the value to see adversity and help the accelerate as persons.
How are you dealing with the current Corona-crisis in the US operations?
– We’re all facing and fighting this crisis at the moment and I think it’s just astonishing how people can come together in times like these. And I’m so grateful and proud of my organization for keeping such a high level of positive energy. And I’m truly amazed by the compassion and creativity that I’m witnessing every day. We’re really focused on keeping our people safe at the moment. Our offices’ are closed, we have an crisis committee summoned, and we have a lot of initiatives ongoing to offer what we can to help ease the situation society is facing. For instance, we’re producing hand sanitizers for the government, we’re donating to help bartenders with their livelihood, we’re supporting hospitality workers through charitable organizations with free meals and we’re setting up tutorials to help laid off workers in our business increase their skills and capabilities. And these things are done all over the country. I really think that times of crisis reveals your character – it just doesn’t build it. And I can honestly say that the character of this organization is beyond belief.
How do you think this crisis will affect you long-term?
– We’re going to come out of this eventually, and when we do, I’m sure that the shape of our business and how we do things will change. I’m certain that new ways of working will emerge. Especially online. This has been a pressure test and the organization is definitely build strong enough to withstand it. Working in a new, virtual way has given us time and opportunity to really take a stand back and reflect on all kinds of changes that needs to happen – in a positive way. I think we’ll find many new ways to both grow our business and ourselves.
How do you envision future?
– As I mentioned before, we have a clear goal that we’re working hard to achieve and that is Pernod Ricard US needs to beat the market growth. The American operations is very important as it is an engine for growth for the entire group. We build great brands. We build great people and we do this both on our own soil and as exports to the rest of the group. We are a company that doesn’t just adapt best practices, we invent them.
Ever since the black-ops initiative Our/Vodka opened its first distillery in the German capital Berlin in 2013, the outspoken ambition has been to build a global business through local relevance. But it takes a lot of commitment, courage and dedication to walk the walk and talk the talk. Specially if you strive to be an independent player like Our/Vodka in a major team such as The Absolut Company. Meet David Mizrahi, captain of a ship with the ambition to become a small fleet.
During the American prohibition period that lasted between 1920 and 1933, alcohol was completely banned in the US. No manufacturing, transportation, importing, exporting orselling of spirits were allowed. Of course, that didn’t stop thirsty Americans from drinking. Instead, a black market for moonshine spirits, speakeasy-bars and mob-controlled establishments blossomed in all the major cities. When the ban was lifted, things went back to business as usual in most parts of the country, except for in one location: New York City. The complicated zoning regulations in Manhattan made it (almost) impossible to open and run any local distilleries. The dry-spell lasted for a good 85 years until a bunch of Swedes decided a change was due. But the struggle was real. It took the passionate people behind the brand Our/Vodka 5 years, some 200 meetings with city officials and a change in the zoning law to be able to finally fire up the distillery pots.
And the very same passion that could impact local legislation and pave the way for artisanal spirits manufacturing in the borough of Manhattan, runs as pure as New York City tap water through the entire Our/Vodka organisation. And at the very top, CEO David Mizrahi is in control of the flow.
Could you give an elevator pitch on the story of Our/Vodka?
– Our/Vodka is an intrapreneurial venture funded by Pernod Ricard. We make spirits in our micro-distilleries located in the heart of cities, by partnering with local individuals and organization that love their city as much as we do. Currently we are operating in New York and Los Angeles with a Miami facility to open soon.
How do you find the right people to collaborate with?
– We aim to find people that have a similar set of values as we have. People that view the world in a similar way. That care about similar things. Like developing the community. Helping the environment, making the neighborhood more inclusive and better for all. This is a key element for Our/Vodkas success: to develop authentic, long lasting relationships with the community. From our neighbors, suppliers, customers and consumers to city officials and other stakeholders. We strive to make everyone in our communities feel proud of having us around. Our way of doing this is to always try to connect and interact with those around us in our “mutual love for the cities we are in”.
How do you work with creating a sense of loyalty and companionship within the organisation? There must be some specific challenges heading a company with so many operations in different countries, with different languages and different cultures?
– To begin with, at Our/Vodka I get to work with a phenomenal group of diverse people who love being entrepreneurs. I truly believe that this is the source of our resilience and cohesiveness. On my side, it’s my priority to instill a strong entrepreneurial culture in everything we do, where people feel encouraged to experiment while knowing that someone has their back. This, together with keeping our communication channels constantly open, has helped us overcome the challenges of running businesses located in different regions.
David himself is no stranger to be the odd one out in a foreign culture. Being a native Venezuelan, he is now residing with his family in the Big Apple, but his professional career has taken him from the warm Caribbean beaches of South America to the icy cold shores of northern Scandinavia.
– While completing my MBA in 2008, I asked a former colleague who worked for Absolut if I could have an internship. My application was accepted, so I packed up my life and boarded a plane to Sweden. Lucky for me, it was in the middle of the summer so, of course, I fell instantly in love with Stockholm.
Since David first joined The Absolut Company, Pernod-Ricard has acquired the business and things are now, at least partly, run from Paris, France.
But Our/Vodka has HQ’s set up in the US and is currently operating distilleries in New York and L.A on US soil.
Our/Vodka started as a black-ops within the Absolut family – how have you been supported throughout the journey of building a brand from scratch?
– We remain a black ops set up, as we are slightly removed from the corporate grid that our “sister” brands are in. I say “slightly” because we still keep ties to the larger corporation, specially when it comes to oversight and governance. For example, we have a Board of Directors with senior executives of the Pernod-Ricard organization.
How do you strategize being a small company with big financial muscles?
– We are part of Pernod Ricard group of course. But every start-up has a financial backer. Ours just happens to be Pernod Ricard. That does not mean that we have big financial muscles. It just means that we are likely never going to be late in paying therent, our suppliers or paying our team’s salaries. But that does not mean that we have the power to spend more than what our start-up business can afford.
The concept of Our/Vodka is to market small-batch spirits made in close collaboration with the local neighborhoods, nearby suppliers and produce sourced locally. This means that the location of the distillery is a key element for success. There needs to be a strong sense of community and local pride at every new destination that Our/Vodka is opening up at.
What characteristics are you looking for when deciding on expanding business into new markets in new cities?
– We are of course always looking into new possibilities to expand the business. However, our strategy is first and foremost focused on making sure the ones that are open are working well and meeting the high expectations that we have for them. We are looking for “new partners” but not for opening new cities but rather to engage in smart and interesting programs that can bring to life what our brand is all about. For example, we are partnering to launch a new product in New York in March 2020. It’s a Basil Infused Vodka produced in partnership with an organization that has a beautiful mission called Rethink NYC. We use “excess basil leaves” that are harvested in an urban farm in Brooklyn. Excess leaves means that if we had not used them, they would have very likely gone to waste. It really is a great product with a big mission –to avoid food waste. We are also exploring plans to move into other vodka infusions and perhaps even other spirts such as gin and tequila.
The Culinary Olympics is one of the world’s most prestigious cooking competitions with traditions dating back to the last turn of the century. After months of hard work, everything that the National Culinary Teams have been practicing is put to the test in one big battle of pots and pans. And in the midst of it all, at the heart of the Swedish National team, you’ll find three newcomers fighting to keep their heads cool in the heat of the kitchen.
The Culinary Olympics isn’t perhaps the worlds’ most renowned competition. But for chefs, it’s about as prestigious as it gets. This is where, since the year 1900, the best culinary teams in the world go head to head in a cook-off designed to test both individual skills, and the ability to function as a team. Singapore is defending champion, but Sweden has avictorious past, with wins in 2000, 2004 and 2012.
This year, the competition is held in Stuttgart on 15 to 18 February and chefs from about 70 nations are traveling to Bavaria to join the battle. The objective for the participants is to gain as many points as possible from the three course meals that are being prepared in the kitchens. Everything they do is scrutinized by the rigorous eyes of the competition jury who values perfection. Adding to the drama is the fact that every plate needs to be equally perfect in execution, since the chefs don’t know which plate that’s going to be judged.
At the heart of the Swedish competition-kitchen, you’ll find three aspiring young female chefs who have been granted a scholarship to join the Swedish National Culinary team as interns. The young trio; Matilda Ewaldh, 22 years old, Hanna Claesson, 20 years old, and Matilda Pylkköö, 19 years old, are all newly graduates from different culinary schools in Sweden. They are also all winnersof the Malin Söderström scholarship, which has enabled them the hot spot in the team.
The Swedish National Culinary team has been very successful over the years so there’s a lot of talent and experience combined in the kitchen when the team practice and compete. What are you hoping that youcan bring to the chef’s table, so to speak?
“For me, curiosity, the willingness to learn and the notion to constantly ask questions like: What are we doing? Why are we doing this? How can I help?” Hanna says.
“I also think that we bring a youthfulness and an ability to help out with the tasks that needs to be done, but that’s perhaps not everyone’s favourite thing to do” Matilda Pylkköö adds.
For some years now, the Swedish National Culinary team has struggled with getting women on the roster. And, of course, this is no good. That’s why initiatives like the Malin Söderström scholarship has come about. But for Matilda, Hanna and Matilda, the male dominance in the restaurant kitchens, has never been an issue. And that includes getting accepted into the all-male National Culinary team.
Would you say that a professional kitchen is a man’s world?
“I’ve never encountered any issues nor ever been treated unfairly in the kitchen. Sure, the environment can be tough and the jargon a bit harsh sometimes. But I’ve never experienced sexism or jokes on my behalf because I’m a woman” Matilda Ewaldh explains.
“I have the same experience. I guess that it in most cases comes down to your own type of personality – how you’re able to cope with certain issues – and I don’t necessary mean gender-related incidents. If you’re clear on where you’ve set your own boundaries, then it’s also easier to communicate if they’re about to be crossed” Matilda Pylkköö concludes.
Roughly half-an-hour drive north of Stockholm lies a special farm, Torsåker Farm. What makes it special is that besides being a farm it’s also a research and development centre aimed at transforming the whole chain in food production into becoming more sustainable.
Torsåker Farm is run by Axfoundation, an independent, non-profit organization whose objective is to establish venues and conditions for real change that propel us toward a sustainable society. At Torsåker, farmers, scientists, food producers, cooks and contractors meet in order to come up with creative solutions that speed up that process. Involved in the projects that are initiated at Torsåker is Anna Henning Moberg. We were given the opportunity to meet with her to discuss some of the things they are currently exploring.
Early in our interview, it becomes clear that several of the ongoing projects at Torsåker relates to the fact that we’re so heavily dependent on soybeans in our food production. Sweden imports huge quantities each year – around 200,000 tons – of which roughly 90 percent is used only to feed animal in food production.
“That’s a shame”, says Anna Henning Moberg, continuing “because it’s not sustainable to import so much of what’s considered perfectly fine food for us and instead feed it to what we later end up consuming. That goes without saying, so we base many of our projects on the idea that our food should not eat our food. That’s also why we’re looking at alternatives to soybeans.”
Sweet lupine – a Swedish answer to soybean?
One of the alternatives Anna Henning Moberg is referring to is sweet lupine, a legume that shares many of the benefits of the soybean. Like soybean, sweet lupine is full of nutrition and proteins, and needs less nitrogen fertilizers because of its ability to fixate nitrogen from the air. However, the sweet lupine outshines the soybean in one crucial aspect: it’s much better suited to the Swedish climate.
Anna Henning Moberg’s optimism is underpinned by the fact that of one of Sweden’s more progressive grocery chains, Urban Deli, recently decided to replace the minced meat in their ready-to-eat lasagnas and bolognaises with a plant-based mince containing sweet lupines.
Although the plant-based mince is a product developed at Torsåker, Anna Henning Moberg says that product development isn’t part of their core business. However, if we are to significantly reduce our meat consumption, we really need to find more good alternatives to meat in addition to soybean.
“We try to be creative in every way we can and to stimulate the industry to make a change. To do that, we have to rely on companies to show courage and test what we come up with, which is exactly what has happened with the plant-based mince.”
Bugs as part of the solution
Another alternative to soybeans explored by Torsåker is insects. Together with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU, they are looking at the possibility to scale up the use of insects as feed for fish.
“Half of all fish we consume comes from fish farms. That in itself is not bad, but when you consider the fact that they’re usually fed fishmeal from wild caught fish, fish oil and soy, you realize the negative effect it can have on global fish stocks.”
To help ease the burden on our ocean resources, Torsåker has teamed up with a large vegetable wholesaler (Sorunda), grocery stores (Axfood) and a salmon farmer (Älvdalslax). With leftovers, such as peeling and bread from Sorunda and Axfood, they feed and breed insects that are in turn are used as feed in Älvdalslax’ salmon farms.
“Feeding insects in fish farms has only been legal for two years, but we’re already seeing some great results. We already work with a few companies, but now we’re looking at involving far more,” says Anna Henning Moberg.
Taking a deep dig into perennial crops
When asked which of Torsåker’s projects that could help the beverage industry become more sustainable, Anna Henning Moberg says their ongoing studies of perennial crops might be a game-changer. Most beverage companies use large quantities of various sorts of grain in the production. The Absolut Company is no different; they’re one of the largest purchasers of winter wheat in southern Sweden.
Today though, almost all grain crops are so-called annuals. This means that farmers each year need to buy new seed, plow and harrow the soil, sow new seeds and fertilize the ground – year after year. Annuals also have shallow roots, which makes it harder to capture carbon from the air. In a perennial crop, the roots are allowed to grow deeper, which makes carbon capture significantly easier. And since there’s no need for plowing the soil each year, the carbon also stays underground.
“The switch to perennial crops will take several years, but it’s easy to see the benefits. We’re looking both at what type of perennial crops are best suited for the Swedish conditions and what we need in terms of infrastructure to speed up the transition,” says Anna Henning Moberg.
Inspired by wine makers
Anna Henning Moberg’s interest in food and sustainability goes way back. Before she was asked to work at one of Sweden’s most innovative farms, she was a food and wine journalist.
“Back then, I often travelled to French vineyards. I think that some of my passion for sustainable food production actually comes from the French winegrowers. They know how to take care of the soil and they know how to value their terroir. The same goes for the whole beverage industry. Sustainability and quality go hand in hand, and everyone knows that the winery with the best grapes gets paid more. In the food industry, a lot is about volume, and not quality. If we could value food the same way as we value, say, a good wine, I think we would come a long way.”
Bill Mehleisen started his career at Wall Street as a high-achieving young man seeking success and growth. Today, his life looks a lot different, focusing his work around a more holistic approach to life, spanning from self-development at Burning Man to helping organisations create regenerative business models.
In many ways, Bill’s personal journey mimics the journey our modern society is now embarking on. As Bill explains it, ”we face real problems that our existing models aren’t equipped to handle, including many catastrophic issues such as global warming, ecological resource collapse, water shortages, food waste and wealth disparity. Business is one of our tools to design a better future, but we won’t succeed in that as long as the dominate business story is one about pursuing infinite growth”.
We meet up with Bill in Almedalen, where he has been invited by Anna Malmhake and The Absolut Company as the guest speaker for Tomorrow’s Thought Leaders – an event for some of Sweden’s most prominent change makers. He shares the story about how is own life took a turn when he started exploring the work of Buckminster Fuller – the American architect, inventor and futurist. Bill began understanding the problems of the world’s current capitalistic system, which promotes growth at any cost, and learn about alternative perspectives on how to grow a healthy new world. The problem, as he explains it, is that never-ending linear growth of any structure will eventually become a cancer on the ecosystem it inhabits, and that’s what we now see happening in our capitalistic society. The eternal pursuit of increasing revenue and profit is draining the resources of our world, and that is the result of our narrow-minded storytelling about business.
Bill is working to change this narrative into one that includes not only financial profit, but also qualitative factors of wealth and well-being. ”We now have an opportunity to live a new story – one that moves beyond linear growth to circularity or balanced flow economy. For companies, this new story offers a more sustainable, long-term profitable and human way to cooperate, and in that lies a competitive advantage. For consumers, this new story of balance allows us to move from disposable consumerism to a well-being-based economy”, he explains.
The key is create a more responsible culture among both companies and consumers, and circularity is only the starting point. In order for humanity to thrive in the future, businesses must apply regenerative thinking to its operations. That entails moving beyond just ”sustainability” to create production and distribution systems which will regenerate value for its ecosystem, making it stronger over time. Regenerative thinking imagines business as a force to revitalise both environment, community and human flourishing.
A good analogy for this approach comes from nature, where a monoculture (i.e. only one organism taking control of an ecosystem) will drain the resources over time, while a permaculture (biological diversity and balance) thrives over time. As Bill puts it, ”A permaculture mindset changes how we look at business. Profit still matters but it’s not the point. The point is to build creative and generative capacity, resilience and diversity, making the ecosystem stronger. We need to stop looking at our operations and staff as machines we can control, and instead start treating them as a garden that can grow freely under our gentle care.”
This shift in business storytelling and mindset is starting to take hold in many parts of the world, and there are many examples to be inspired by. One is the startup Ecovative, which turns mushroom mycelium into packaging, and has recently started collaborating with furniture giant IKEA. Another is Loop, a TerraCycle company that reimagines fully circular delivery of home goods. General Mills are committing to bringing regenerative agriculture practice to one million acres of farmland by 2030, making it a pioneer in environmental regeneration. A pioneer of community regeneration can be found in Juno – the car service competitor to Uber and Lyft, which is designed as a cooperation platform sharing value with its drivers. With this mindset shift happening at an increasing speed – which is also what’s needed if we are to leave a healthy society for the next generation – the attitude on the stock market will have to change too. And maybe, Bill Mehleisen will find himself back at Wall Street, as one of pioneers who are changing the story about what business is all about. In any case, we are grateful for the important work that he does – whether in Almedalen, at Burning Man or at Wall Street.
Johan Swahn is one of Sweden’s most sought-after sensory designers and holds a PhD in sensory marketing. However, instead of working with car doors, he specializes in culinary experiences. Together with his wife, Charlotte, he runs a culinary sensory agency since 2017 and is also Head of Sense Lab at Örebro University, Department of Culinary Arts and Meal Science.
When experiencing something new, there is almost always more to it than meets the eye. The same can be said about what we eat and drink; there’s always a combination of senses at play. The art of designing this combination is called sensory design. Basically, it’s the idea of considering all human senses – vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch – when creating an experience. Think of the ‘exclusive sound’ when you close the door of a brand-new car. That sound is no coincidence; it’s part of a well-designed experience.
Earlier in his life Johan had a promising career as a chef, with gold and silver medals at the Culinary World Cup, and worked in some of the most renowned restaurants in the world including The Fat Duck. There he worked under head chef Heston Blumenthal, who has spearheaded the so-called ‘molecular gastronomy’ movement for over a decade now and is world-famous for his scientific approach to food.
It must have taken some convincing for you to leave the world of fine-dining and enter the world of science?
“Honestly, it didn’t. In a way, it was already in the back of my mind when I went to London to work. I was studying at that time and was already extremely interested in the theory of taste and in science in general. So, as I was working at The Fat Duck, I realized what a great opportunity I suddenly had to put my ideas to the test and combine theory with practice. I was of course very lucky to have great professors at home in Sweden that backed me. And not long after I went back to Sweden and finished studying, I was offered to enroll as a PhD candidate within the field of sensory marketing, which I gladly accepted.”
How do you apply sensory design to food and beverages?
“One of the best examples I use is an experiment which was conducted by the pioneer in psychology and sensory marketing, Louis Cheskin. His experiment showed that once 7UP added 15 percent more yellow color to the brand logo, the consumers perceived a higher intensity of citrus flavor. This is something I work with today, creating sensory design of food and beverages that will make a difference to the greater sensory experience.”
When it comes to taste, how much is ‘built-in’ and how much is acquired by our experiences?
“It’s hard to determine, but let me give you another example to illustrate. The sensory field is basically about the concepts of sensation and perception. If we take coffee for instance – let’s say you’ve never heard of coffee and have no idea what it is. When you take a sip, the sensation in your mouth tells you that it’s hot, it’s bitter and it’s most likely disgusting. Because you know, most people don’t enjoy coffee the first time they drink it – at least not without a ton of sugar. Anyway, the thing is that you teach your brain what coffee is. There’s a ritual, a social context around coffee – we drink our coffee in the morning and start the day with an energy boost. That’s the perception part – what we teach our brains to accept and enjoy. So, all of a sudden, once you’ve grown accustomed to and made to understand the ritual of having a cup of coffee, you begin to love it.”
So how do you use this in your research?
“We have lots of ongoing research studies within areas like digital media, sound and music, product design, as well as newer science like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Our VR study is very interesting, where we’re looking at what happens if you tell your perception parts of your brain something entirely different from what your sensation parts are telling you. Say for instance that you’re chewing on a piece of black radish, while you’re inside a virtual reality that tells both your eyes and ears that you’re in a fishing boat out to sea – what will the black radish taste like? There’s a real chance that it at least comes close to the taste of fresh fish. I think this is really interesting, because if we can alter our experience like that, we might be able to move away from many ‘bad habits’, like using overexploited produce or eating unhealthy food without the feeling of missing out.”