“Sustainability needs to be integrated into your business, it cannot be a parallel workstream”- Jonas Brennwald

May 20, 2022

Jonas Brennwald, Leader, LIXIL EMENA, has very interesting viewpoints on managing brands, relating empowered people to long-term brand value and even the art of great pepper sauce. During a short visit to Dubai, he elaborated on key trends shaping the way we live today, Grohe’s new go-to-market strategy, the need to define technology and the Sauce Atlas.

In a post-Covid world, what would you say are the key trends shaping the way we live? And how do you see Grohe playing a part in that transformation?
Covid gave us a wakeup call of what our way of working should be. We were embracing digital interaction and how the digital journey will play a role for the way of working, but Covid gave us no alternative but to start looking at new ways of interacting. We were not trained to interact in a digital world in this way to make business, recruit people and to train people digitally. So if someone said to me ‘You’re now the CEO of Grohe, but for the next three years, you will run the business digitally”, I would have said ‘Is that true? Is that what you see?’ But we were pulling up our sleeves and started to think differently, we started to experience and learn new ways of working, and we realized that it worked out well. So I can today be in Dusseldorf, sitting in my office and have a meeting at headquarters, and we can say to ourselves, we have so many data sheets to go through, we will do it on Zoom. So even in an environment which is enabling a physical possibility, we are still in the digital environment, because some of our ways of working are more efficient digitally than at the physical level. Then there is the training of interaction which we also need to take into account. People need to be trained back into society and working, which I think will take a little bit time, to be honest. But we learned a lot, we have a fantastic team who came together during an uncertain phase, and this has helped us to deliver our results in a very good way.

What were the specific lessons from the Covid timeframe for the brand? Would you say the lessons learned influenced the product portfolio that you had planned say three years ago compared to today?
Covid did not change our roadmap in any way. There was always a focus on certain products, and while there were a couple of products that were accelerated, like the touchless faucets, the roadmap in itself was established, and was met according to the plan. What was really obvious was how customer relationships are key to success. There are challenges to building up customer relationships in a digital environment, with people you have never net before. The pandemic gave a very clear message that strong partnerships with our customers really was crucial to help each other maneuver the situation. But the product roadmap was planned ahead, and we were on track.

How important is the Middle East for LIXIL, and can you showcase a few reasons why it’s an attractive region to invest in?
This part of the world is very important for us in many different ways. What this region has shown over the past many years has been a mature development of an international, reliable region. That is very important for us when we decide to invest in a market, as we want to see long term stability, which is a core consideration when we decide to invest. If we look at the Middle East, it’s a very diverse region and they have really stepped up development initiatives. For example, in Saudi Arabia, in the United Arab Emirates and many other countries in the region, we really see a positive message to the world that this is a market you want to invest in. The region is now in the international inner circle, and I really respect what I see in this development.

Mr Jonas, prior to this role, you headed the EMENA region in LIXIL. How would you say the brand’s perception and positioning has changed in the region? What are the opportunities and challenges that you envision?
In the Middle East, our brand reputation was very cemented before Covid. An early decision we took was to make sure our key market were having the full backup for continuing that journey. During Covid, we also decided to open up new markets within the Middle East region and also Africa, which was showing a clear picture to our customers that we see this region seriously. Many of our competitors started to focus on their home markets, and we saw that some of our competitors did not want to continue in certain markets, because they wanted to protect their home markets. For us, it was very clear that we wanted to develop our business in this part of the world, even if was Covid. The only way to do that is to ensure that we have a very strong local team. Our Middle East team is one of our best teams in the world, and that has really helped us really take the next step in that journey. So that is why we have been successful, we have had a very consistent, highly motivated team, who want to develop a business. That’s a key differentiator.

Tell us more about Grohe’s new go-to-market strategy that seeks to move away from what was perceived to be a one-size-fits-all approach?
We had in the past a one-size-fits-all approach. The channel businesses which existed limited us in a way of not seeing the full potential. So we realized the need to differentiate the many ranges of a product. As an example, our quick fix is an Ikea solution, when you buy something from Ikea, you get the tools to mount and the instructions and you can do it all by yourself. When our products sold in that channel, for example, there were no tools, meaning the consumer was left to figure out how to fit them. With our new commercial strategy, we differentiated products based on what channel we are selling into. So we were delivering a promise to our end consumer that they don’t need to be disappointed. The whole new commercial strategy has been implemented, and we’ll be even more easier to do business with.

So that strategy is specific to commercial activations and end-consumer, individual users as well?
Exactly, so we do different kinds of marketing to end consumers, so for instance, here is a product that you can install yourself, and here is a product for which you may need help.

When you joined as Leader LIXIL EMENA, one of your focus points was enabling a more agile culture. What does an agile culture entail for you?
I think this is based on my heritage of being Swedish, because we are all equal, and we are all human. In a company you have different roles and responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean that you are worth more if you have a bigger position in the hierarchy relative to someone else. We are all equal, we are all here for one reason. The leadership that I want to execute is that I want to give people responsibility. I have seen too many times that people work for other people, do all the work and they will never be able to taste the apple. I can never forget a specific incident, I was at a restaurant and I asked the waitress which item in the main course menu she would recommend. And she said ‘All the dishes’. So I asked ‘What’s your favorite?’ She said ‘ To be honest, my boss does not allow us to eat from this menu’. If you take for instance our environment, if you are responsible for something, you are also responsible for owning it. That means that people in my organization are in the spotlight. I’m so happy to see my people being in the spotlight, because the smile and the ownership of taking on responsibility is really a pleasure to see. Because I believe in an environment where people own the responsibility, people own the company, and people are responsible for making their brand competitive. And making sure that they protect that environment. It’s always about creating an environment for people that they feel no pressure, but they feel that they really want to do. And if they have that kind of philosophy, they will also protect it. And they will be proud of it. We have unbelievable results, but it’s totally based on the people’s love, that we have become the No.12 globally in Great Places To Work, something I’m really proud of.

In terms of smart technology, devices that have smart touchpoints, what markets do you see being the most perceptive to smart technology, and what markets do you feel show resistance or certain roadblocks?
I think that smart technology is something we as individuals need to decide how much technology we have in our lives. And there is not one market that is more sophisticated than another one. The journey for technology can be different from market to market, but it can also be that the definition of technology will also be based on what that markets starting point is about. Take the AirPods versus wired earphones as an example. The AirPods are the new technology, but I love my wired earphones, I know it’s always here, I don’t need to charge it, the chances of my losing it are less. If I look at our industry, the technology has become far more sophisticated, but we also look at how durable it can be. So I cannot say there that there is one country that is more technology driven than others. I can only say that technology is something we are working on, on a regular basis, to upgrade our assortment. The innovation ratio is also very high, products that are less than 5 years old are driving over 70% of our turnover. We are a highly innovative company, where innovation becomes more critical to differentiate yourself from the competition. It’s also a great boon that we can utilize the innovation and technology, and the progressive culture of LIXIL. Innovation and technology doesn’t mean the same thing, but technology is be showcased as we progress forward, but in new form factors. It’s about selling water and new technology while taking our sustainability to a whole new level. So digitization, technology and innovation goes into one bracket.

And finally, as an enthusiastic chef myself, I would love to hear more about the inspiration behind the Sauce Atlas, and how it came about?
My son is a 3 Star Michelin chef, so that is a good start! I was out with a friend, we talked about where we should go and eat, and I said it would be great to have a really great steak, combined with a really great pepper sauce. Unfortunately, I was really disappointed with the pepper sauce, and I asked myself, ‘How difficult can it be to make a great creamy pepper sauce?’ That’s where the whole idea took shape. No matter the dish, its always the sauce which transforms the experience. So I got together with a great Swedish chef, Chef Paul Svensson and a nutrition professor, and a key point I focused on was how we can make it healthy and sustainable. That’s how the Sauce Atlas journey started. A few months after we released, I got a call from a leading Editor, and he said the Sauce Atlas had been nominated as one of the best cookbooks in the world! Within a short time after, the Sauce Atlas has been chosen as the best cookbook in both Sweden and Norway. Happily, the Sauce Atlas took on a level I could not imagine.

In all the promotional material released for the Sauce Atlas, a key element Grohe highlighted was sustainability…
Sustainability is something that needs to be integrated into your business, and it cannot be a parallel workstream. If it is not integrated into your ethos, it becomes more marketing than something you actually seriously focus on. At Grohe, we look at conceptual priorities. So we have a concept and we think of a bigger picture. This year, for instance, we will launching up to 100 plumber schools (GIVE schools), with the first GIVE school in the MENA region being started in Ghana. We are opening next in Nigeria and Pakistan. The GIVE schools are equipping the young generation with life skills, paving the way to create a positive livelihood. By this we give the younger generation the hope for a optimistic future. We want to build an upward position with our brand in our society by enabling a purpose-driven way of working. This way, we inspire happier homes and a positive reality for everyone, everywhere. So if we can generate that holistic view of the brand, of a brand that takes care of you and your family, we will sell more. This is what a brand should stand for. I always say our competitors can copy our strategy and copy our product, but they can never copy our people. And our people are the most important asset of our company.

by Anil George
Avid follower of all things tech. In between his quest for the ultimate gizmo, Anil fiddles with light meters, collects rare books and feeds his fetish for Jap horror movies. As Managing Editor of T3 Middle East for the GCC, Anil oversees content direction across print and digital. He was a CES 2020 Innovation Awards Judge, reprising his role as an Innovation Awards Judge at CES 2018, CES 2017, 2016 and 2015. Anil is also the Middle East's first Brand Ambassador for Ashdown Engineering. Reach him at: editor@t3me.com.