Heineken Mexico CEO, Dolf van den Brink, estimates that the company is saving several million dollars a year by selling their used paper bottle labels to paper companies to make napkins and tissues. "We were paying money to ship the spent labels to a landfill, and now we are going to earn money," he says.
But for van den Brink it was not just about the outcome, which came out of a company-wide sustainability challenge, but that the source of the "brilliant idea," was a maintenance worker in one of their breweries. Working on the frontlines, the worker saw firsthand how more than half of the waste coming out of the breweries was the paper removed from old beer bottles, that ended up in landfills when the bottles were washed to be reused. Where others saw trash, he had seen the potential to be a more sustainable business and make money in the process.
When he presented his idea to van den Brink’s team, "we just applauded him and he started crying. He was so touched that he completely became emotional and the tears were rolling." It was a powerful lesson for van den Brink. It helped him see, "what organizations are capable of if you manage to unleash all those hidden passions and energies that we all have," as he recalls.
Previously, van den Brink was named the CEO of Heineken USA, another division which needed a turnaround. He looked back at the origins of the 150-year-old, family-controlled company. In the early 20th century, Heineken was known for its "very progressive labor policies, offering savings and loans and healthcare to its employees, and taking care of the communities we operated in." He challenged his team, saying "if we were doing this in the early 20th century, why can't we do it today?"
The company put in place progressive employee policies, which include paternity and maternity leave, flexible benefits, and ensuring work-life balance. And van den Brink says it's working. Over the last six years, he says, they have experienced an "impressive business turnaround, restoring top line growth and consistent market share gains."
When he moved to Mexico to become the CEO of Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma/Heineken Mexico, Heineken’s largest operating company (the company's operations are structured like standalone businesses), he discovered that beyond the company's sustainability initiatives—like committing to large wind and energy projects and sourcing locally to reduce carbon emissions and water use in their breweries—it had not really engaged with the wider society.
To change this, the company decided to use the Tecate brand, which was perceived as a "very masculine beer" in Mexico, in an ad that would take a stand against gender violence. "Gender violence is a big issue and a very difficult topic in the Latin world. In Mexico, two out of three women are confronted by violence. What’s shocking is that 60% of the population thinks it's okay," he says.
Van den Brink knew they would be "walking into a minefield" by running such an ad, given they were sending a message of gender equality through an explicitly masculine brand. It was a risky move that could mean losing sales and the loyalty of their predominantly male customers.
But his millennial marketing team prevailed. By using the Tecate brand, Heineken was making a direct appeal to men who engaged in the violence against women, through the beer they loved. They were sending a clear message, graphically depicted in the ad, that if you are a man who abuses women, "We don't want you as a consumer."
The ad campaign is still in its early days, but it has sparked controversy and a heated debate on social media (with critics saying that Heineken, as a beer company, is part of the problem), even as the company has won wide acclaim throughout Latin America.
Van den Brink says the campaign was a big lesson in risk taking for him, "It allowed us to connect with civil society in a new way and be a part of the solution. We have hundreds of millions of consumers, and a big marketing budget. We can help change negative male-female stereotypes in ways that an NGO does not have the resources to."
By letting go of fear and stereotypes, something van den Brink has had to do multiple times in his career, he says, he has learned an important lesson "A big part of humanity is suppressed in organizations and bureaucracies. But when you can find a way to tap in that, and appeal to people's passions and unleash their energies, amazing things can be done."
Note: This article previously contained quotes that were misattributed to van den Brink and have been removed.
Aaron Hurst is a globally recognized entrepreneur and authority on social innovation. He is the CEO of Imperative and founder of the Taproot Foundation. His book, The Purpose Economy, is now available as a paperback.