Brand Innovators 2014
We award the people influencing branding and packaging today.
OLIVER CAMPBELL Dell
BP: Oliver, what’s your current position?
Oliver Campbell (OC): My official title is Director, Worldwide Procurement – Packaging & Packaging Engineering. But most people around Dell refer to me as the Packaging Guy.
BP: What led you to Dell?
OC: I grew up in a small farming community in the Finger Lakes of rural upstate New York. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, probably normal for a 17-year-old, that farm experience would later prove to be a great benefit.
I attended Cornell University where I majored in agricultural and biological engineering with a lot of mechanical engineering thrown in as well. I liked biology and big farm machinery. Cornell provided a foundation that prepared me well for a career progression at companies including Ford Motor Company, Eaton Semiconductor and Dell. These experiences in widely different industries helped me see how solutions in one industry could be applied to another. The ability to link ideas and technologies, I think, is the basis for my success in innovation. The one constant in these industries was how to relate to customers and team members. The customer focus has been a differentiator for me.
You could say love led me to Dell. At Cornell, I met my wife, who is from Austin. After graduation she returned home, and I went to Detroit as a product engineer at Ford. It turned out to be true love — the girl, not the car — so we started discussing which we preferred: Austin or Detroit. While I enjoyed my work, the sunny weather, high-tech culture and great Tex-Mex food here made the choice an easy one — sorry, Detroit.
When I’m not at work discovering the next sustainable packaging alternative, you can find me outside on my bike or in the pool. My oldest daughter, Juliet, got me hooked on triathlon. I would drive her to local meets and cheer her on. After several years of doing this, she asked, “Daddy, why don’t you compete?” So I tried it, and I loved the race and loved racing alongside my daughter. Her swim wave often starts behind mine and somewhere on the bike I usually hear, “Hi, Daddy,” as she zooms by. I still haven’t beaten her, but I don’t mind.
BP: Describe the Dell brand.
OC: As you know, Dell returned to private ownership last October. Since going private, the company is moving faster, and we have the freedom to make long-term investments in innovation. Michael Dell likes to say that he feels like he’s part of the world’s largest startup. I think he’s bringing back the original vision and energy the company had when he founded it in his University of Texas dorm room 30 years ago. What he did in redefining the technology industry and making personal computing accessible is really inherent in the brand. We have always been about enabling the human potential through technology. Technology evolves and changes, but the focus and dedication to help our customers be better at what they do has never been stronger at Dell.
BP: Dell has a goal of a waste-free packaging stream by 2020. How have consumers impacted what the brand does?
OC: Investing in sustainability is unavoidable if a company wants to be considered successful over the next decade. There are many good environmental reasons, but I believe the most compelling reason is population growth. By 2025, U.N. demographers predict the global population will be 8 billion. So the question becomes, where will the raw materials and energy come from, so we have a future defined by possibility and potential and not by poverty and scarcity?
Last year we announced our 2020 Legacy of Good program to accelerate the ways Dell and our IT solutions help our environment, communities and people around the globe. Through 21 goals related to those three areas, we will deliver on our commitment to leave a legacy of good through 2020 and beyond. Packaging has a key role in the environment portion by committing to 100 percent sustainably sourced packaging and a 100 percent waste-free packaging stream — meaning our packaging material is either recyclable or compostable — by 2020. One goal of particular note is our commitment to an 80 percent reduction in the energy consumption of our products. For customers in the EU and elsewhere who are facing energy restrictions, this will help them continue to grow their businesses and ours as well.
Dell has always been a company built on having direct conversations with our customers. It’s in our DNA. While developing our “3 Cs” packaging strategy, we spoke to enterprise, consumers, government and small business customers. They clearly told us they wanted smaller packaging (Cube), sustainable materials (Content), and a positive feeling about the ability to recycle when disposing (Curbside recycling). The consumer voice has a large influence at Dell.
BP: One of Dell’s first forays into greener packaging was bamboo, and then mushroom packaging, an idea directly related to your family raising shiitakes, and later, wheat straw. Explain how these alternative materials work.
OC: Ensuring our customers receive undamaged products is our top priority. The physics of how that is accomplished is the same regardless of the material. The hard work is to characterize the mechanical and manufacturing properties so we can make a commercial packaging product that delivers on the brand promise our customers expect. No books or textbook data existed on how to convert these technologies into packaging. Our teams were literally experimenting. I’m extraordinarily proud of how the work they did enabled a green transformation of the packaging industry.
Funny that you mentioned our family’s shiitake mushroom farm. We sold the mushrooms at local farmers markets and to the chefs at local restaurants. The mushroom business was very much a family effort. Juliet, who was much younger at the time, would help us pick, and then we would go to market on Saturday. We dressed her in pink striped OshKosh B’gosh coveralls, and she was irresistible. We sold a lot of mushrooms that way! The mushroom experience came back to help when we first met with Ecovative, our mushroom packaging supplier.
BP: What was it like to imagine, then implement, such changes from typical packaging materials?
OC: It helps to ask a lot of questions and to have confidence in your team. The types of questions one asks, and I can’t stress this enough, is the most critical step in innovation. Interesting questions lead to interesting and breakthrough results. But we don’t just randomly riff on asking things; it occurs in a defined framework. For example, in our 3 Cs framework we had a section in agricultural materials, because we had a general interest in investigating plant-based materials. We had some fun by asking things like, “what if we could use the world’s fastest-growing plant,” which led to bamboo, and, this is my favorite, “what if we could eat our packaging,” which led to mushroom packaging. With that last one, the team was a bit skeptical when we started. Actually, they thought I went off the deep end. I told them they would make history, and they did just that. That type of response is a sign of a championship team. Extraordinary things happen when passion is combined with technical excellence and a supportive environment.
BP: Cost savings weren’t Dell’s driver, but it has seen bottom-line benefits. What can brands do to overcome the idea of added expense?
OC: We have always been clear that our sustainable packaging must be at cost parity, or preferably better, than traditional packaging. A pleasant surprise has been to see the speed at which sustainable packaging has become a disruptive pricing agent. So I think we’re proving green done correctly costs less. Plus, we’ve won numerous design awards, so we’re proving sustainability can look good too.
Dell has certainly benefited from the brand exposure we’ve received for our packaging. But more importantly, we’ve been a positive influence in the communities in which we do business and for our customers. Wheat straw is a good example. This is a material that was considered waste and burned. By creating a new application, we help avert the air pollution caused by burning, increase rural farm income, pay less for the end packaging material, and help our customers meet their sustainability goals. A quadruple win, if you will.
I think a good way to help overcome the notion of added expense is to start small and be open to experimentation. Get your most passionate people involved. That’s how we started at Dell. The approach is really no different than managing any other technology shift.
BP: Sustainability at Dell came top-down. What can brands do if they have to work bottom-up? Is sustainability for all companies?
OC: We certainly had an advantage in that Michael Dell has always been supportive of our sustainability efforts. But, in reality, nearly all of the sustainability ideas in the company came from the bottom up. Structures have been created to help channel that employee energy. Our employee resource group, Planet, has over 1,300 members across the globe and executive sponsorship. For governance, we have a corporate sustainability council, of which I’m a member, that helps guide and prioritize our sustainability efforts. These are two good ways for brands to develop their sustainability efforts and involve the ideas of team members.
I think sustainability is for all companies. On college campus recruiting trips we hear prospective employees ask about it; increasing numbers of customers are including sustainability requirements on their RFQs, and governments have increasing regulations on packaging disposal. Those are three good reasons.
BP: What are some favorite projects of yours?
OC: I think some of our best work is still ahead of us, so stay tuned. But of all the projects, I have to say the mushroom project is my favorite.
BP: What excites you most about your work?
OC: The best part of my job is the various people I get to meet and work with. They have an incredible creative energy and entrepreneurial passion rooted in sound business practices. The combination is what makes it all work. I tell people asking about careers that packaging is the place to be. I hope the success we’ve had at Dell encourages others to do the same.