Our Nestlé USA Chief Strategy Officer weighs in on how we’re innovating every part of our business… including how we innovate.

Rui Barbas
Aug 13 · 6 min read

I spend a great deal of time, thinking about what a different kind of “big company” could look like. We’re driving our own disruption, instead of waiting for the market to do it for us. That’s part of leadership at Nestlé.

From top-to-bottom, we’re innovating everything we do — making our packaging more sustainable, developing delicious new products, engaging with consumers across new channels, launching new delivery models, and reiterating our manufacturing processes to save water.

We’re even innovating how we innovate.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve moved at a breakneck pace. For starters, we’ve launched employee innovation crowd-sourcing, acquired the rights to sell and distribute the Starbucks brand in retail, developed a centralized analytics team and brought Goodbe (granola bars with probiotics) and Goodnight (snack foods that help you sleep) to market — both created through an internal incubator model.

The past 18 months have been a whirlwind, but a whirlwind that has helped us grow our capabilities and knowledge. With those learnings, we’ve moved innovation from the lab and concept notes to every meeting, plan, and consumer interaction that we touch. And here are four ways we’re doing it:

1. Embrace a multidimensional innovation mindset

Innovation in food & beverage used to be focused on flavor and formulation. Now it’s about everything. We’re not only raising the bar on our products, but on every consumer touchpoint: product delivery, how we communicate about our brands, how we use packaging and leverage — even artificial intelligence to streamline our supply chain (more on that later).

Click to Read: Bringing Häagen-Dazs to Your Door in a Reusable, Recyclable Container

Sweet Earth, our leading plant-based food brand, showcased this mindset with a fast extension into pizza and healthy snacking. Their recent expansion shows the benefits of this approach, combining start-up creativity with the breadth and depth of Nestlé’s R&D, manufacturing, and sales capabilities and winning VegNews Best of Show at the Natural Foods Expo in 2018. Large brands are no stranger to this mindset either. In partnership with TerraCycle, an innovative recycling company, our Häagen-Dazs team designed a whole new approach to your pint of ice cream through a reusable container that gets delivered to your door, picked up, and refilled. And in a new collaboration between two powerhouses, Starbucks by Nespresso launched in May, leveraging strong consumer-centric capabilities from both brands.

2. Create a faster, more agile innovation process

We need to move as quickly as our consumers do. That’s fast, and it’s only getting faster.

Our expanded incubation model allows us to launch, test, and learn quicker than traditional models, both within our teams and through close partnerships with external innovators. We’re able to develop and release products faster so our consumers can enjoy them right away, while we learn how we can continue to improve. It’s no different than how you might turn a really good recipe in your own kitchen into a great recipe over time.

Our incubator teams work outside traditional development processes, operating like a start-up within Nestlé using design thinking, fast prototyping, and collaboration with external innovation partners to explore new growth platforms. Incubator-born products like Outsiders, Goodbe, Goodnight, and Wildscape are already in the hands of consumers. Brands like these have shown how big and small brands can thrive in a large company through a deep understanding of our consumers and an unwavering commitment to exceeding their expectations.

Learning to build more agile systems for fast, nimble launches is also rewiring how our big brands operate. Look at Coffee-mate. Its new oat milk is just the latest way Coffee-mate leads, rather than follows, consumer trends.

3. Drive a culture where innovation is everyone’s job

I’ve always believed a company’s success is directly tied to its talent and culture. Steve Presley, our CEO, has increased my belief tenfold. We’re actively building a culture that will drive us forward in the growth and innovation space.

Our employee crowdsourcing, for example, is about tapping into the collective intelligence and innovative spirit of thousands of employees. After all, our employees are our consumers. Our first crowdsourcing effort drove incredible ideas (like Jacked Rabbit, a nutritious and tasty protein drink and Blenderful Smoothie Cubes) from every part of the company. What’s more, it mobilized the entire organization around innovation, inspired us to engage, and made us all part of something bigger together.

4. Ensure that technology is a core driver of innovation in products and beyond

To us, technology isn’t a product or an end unto itself. We embed technology as an integral part of how we innovate and engage with consumers. At Nestlé, we’re always evolving and staying future-focused so we can creatively, efficiently, and smartly serve our consumers. Technology allows us to stop guessing about trends and instead truly understand what people want and need. In today’s always-on, connected world, Nestlé is leveraging technology, for example partnering with cognitive-computing company Enterra Solutions on artificial intelligence to revolutionize our insights on consumer demand.

Beyond the role that technology plays in understanding our consumers, it also plays an enormous role in our whole value chain, creating insights and efficiency that helps us deliver to these consumers. Leading technology can drive how quickly we can bring new products to market, along with how we can connect you to the right products through a personalized consumer experience. With new digitally-enabled flexible manufacturing capabilities, we can quickly prototype and see whether we’ve hit the mark with a product or need to move on to greater things. Then, taking a holistic approach to e-commerce means people can buy our products how and when they want them. Technology has brought us closer to the consumer than we’ve ever been, and the personalization of the consumer experience at scale is the next frontier leveraging advanced analytics and new delivery models.

A future zooming into new territory

You might say I take my work home with me. Some days, it’s a just-right cup of Nespresso coffee in the morning, a just-out-of-the-oven slice of DiGiorno pizza around dinnertime, or browsing options in my weekly grocery delivery order. I’m fortunate to be able to see how the work we do at Nestlé reaches me, as a consumer. And what I see in the office, at home, and in-between is a world of exciting disruption and fertile ground for innovation.

Functional foods, like those with probiotics, are changing the very way we view food and nutrition. The globalization of flavors means that a trip down the grocery aisle can feel like a new world of discovery. And even the way food and beverage products reach us is evolving in ways to make the consumer experience easier and seamless. I want to touch, feel, see and assess some foods, and others I want to arrive as regularly as the mail. Auto-order purchases suit my lifestyle, and getting my Häagen-Dazs via Instacart for my family’s Friday movie night is the perfect ending to a long week.

What’s next? You’ll find out quickly. The journey from great idea to tasty product and unique consumer experiences is getting shorter by the day, thanks to a company of innovators who love food as much as you do.

More to Explore:


Enhancing quality of life and contributing to a healthier future in the U.S.

Rui Barbas

Written by

Chief Strategy Officer at Nestlé


Enhancing quality of life and contributing to a healthier future in the U.S.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade