November 11, 2021

Univar Solutions Marketing Chief on the Science of Service

When Univar, the second-largest chemical distributor in the world, acquired Nexeo Solutions, the third or fourth-largest, VP of Global Marketing Rob Whitney had a challenging task on his hands. This M&A wouldn’t be about absorbing a smaller company, it was about creating a whole new brand culture out of two strong organizations.

Enter Univar Solutions. In this episode, Rob shares the story behind the brand consolidation, demonstrating a strong sense of what it takes to revamp a B2B brand that’s more than just a coat of paint. Tune in to hear how the new brand story of “Growing Together” came to life as Univar responded to the pandemic, with marketing leading the way as the company pivoted to the ultimate form of customer service: solutions-based service.

What You’ll Learn in This Episode

  • How Univar became Univar Solutions after acquiring Nexeo
  • How Univar pivoted to solutions-based marketing
  • How Univar is bringing its new B2B brand story to life

Renegade Marketers Unite, Episode 266 on YouTube

Resources Mentioned

Time-Stamped Highlights

  • [0:27] Merging Univar and Nexeo Solutions into a New B2B Brand
  • [5:47] New Brand Colors That Aren’t Just a Coat of Paint
  • [9:51] How Marketing is Transforming Univar via Service-Based Solutions
  • [14:38] How Univar Pivoted Post-COVID
  • [20:36] How Univar’s “Growing Together” Brand Story Evolved
  • [24:43] Bringing “Growing Together” to Life: Culture Workshops and Storytelling
  • [31:45] Strategic, Solutions-Based Ingredient Marketing at Univar
  • [35:15] Univar’s Key B2B Marketing Metrics
  • [42:02] How Supply Chain Shortages are Affecting Business

Transcript Highlights: Drew Neisser in conversation with Rob Whitney of Univar Solutions

[0:27] Merging Univar and Nexeo Solutions into a New B2B Brand

“In four months, we came out with a brand-new brand, a brand-new palette, launched a brand-new website.” —Rob Whitney @UnivarSolutions Share on X

Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Marketers. I’ve had the privilege of being on a lot of podcasts lately, and it’s been a hoot talking about my new book, Renegade Marketing: 12 Steps to Building Unbeatable B2B Brands, with so many great hosts like Douglas Burdett, Alan Hart, Andy Paul, and David Lewis, among others.

In the course of all these conversations, one of the things I’ve realized about myself is that most of the great things that have happened in my life were the result of what you might call a hiccup or even a crisis.

Whether it was losing four jobs in a two-year period or having a client stiff us half a million dollars because of Bernie Madoff, which happened at the beginning of the Great Recession, or staring down the pandemic, each of these crises resolved into a pivotal inflection point for me, so much so that I now associate crises with opportunity.

And just so this doesn’t sound like I’m an ambulance chaser, it’s worth noting that the root out of these challenges for me has always been, “Okay, this sucks, but it’s probably worse for others than me. What can I do to help others get through this? And maybe they’ll bring me along the way.”

And then the second part is, how can the CATS framework I outlined in my book… CATS as in courageous, artful, thoughtful and scientific… point the way, which as you will soon learn, leads us directly to today’s guest: Rob Whitney, Vice President Global Marketing of Univar Solutions. Rob started his career as a political consultant and pivoted to marketing after getting a master’s degree from Georgetown in PR and Corp Comms. Hello, Rob. Welcome to the show.

Rob Whitney: Hi, thanks for having me. And congrats on the book by the way!

Drew Neisser: Thank you. It is a thing! It’s the moment, and any listeners who are thinking about writing a book, keep in mind it’s like another job. So!

Rob Whitney: It’s in my backpack over there for my trip to London coming up.

Drew Neisser: I love it. All right. Well, you ought to be able to read it, at least in that plane ride in between getting some sleep and having a cocktail. So first of all, where are you? I always like to ground guests in their location.

Rob Whitney: I’m based in The Woodlands, Texas, which is a town just a little north of Houston.

Drew Neisser: Alright, okay. Woodlands, Texas. And how’s the weather?

Rob Whitney: It’s good today. It’s the time of year you want to be in Houston.

Drew Neisser: Not July, but probably October. Very cool. All right. So let’s go back a little bit. You were at Nexeo when it was acquired by Univar in 2019. Walk us through, because I know when we talked earlier, the integration process and the strategic process for these two brands and companies.

Rob Whitney: Yeah, so it’s quite interesting. Univar was the second-largest chemical distributor in the world at the time. Nexeo Solutions was the third or fourth. And they in many ways have come from two different lineages.

Univar was almost always a chemical distributor, almost 100 years of existence; Nexeo was relatively new, had been a spin out of Ashland Oil. We had to really pull two organizations that on the surface looked very much alike together to create, ideally, a new and interesting culture, right?

This wasn’t your typical M&A of a really big company swallowing up a really small company. It was the bigger buying and trying to find ways to integrate someone that was nearly 80% its size, which has a lot of its own challenges.

Drew Neisser: And so, from a strategic standpoint, what were some of the challenges that you folks had to address in bringing these two organizations together?

Rob Whitney: The first thing was just what to call the company. That’s always a fun experience. One of the great things our CEO did, David Jukes, right after the acquisition was announced is he and the Nexeo CEO actually held a town hall here in The Woodlands, which was Nexeo Solutions’ global headquarters.

He came in and told us how great he thought this integration was going to be, how excited he was about pulling these two cultures together. And right there said, “We’re merging Univar and Nexeo Solutions, let’s go ahead and call the company Univar Solutions.”

At the time, the CMO for Univar was there with me and we looked at each other and said, “I guess we’re doing a rebranding project!” And off we went on that journey over. In four months, we came out with a brand-new brand, a brand-new palette, launched a brand-new website. It was, from a marketer standpoint, stuff that would probably take you 12 to 18 months condensed down into such a short period of time.

Drew Neisser: Well, it certainly saved you a lot of time and the agony of “What do we call it? Univar? Nexeo? Do we make up a new word?” He just said, “No, we’re gonna just stick with what we got and add the ‘Solutions’ as an homage to the Nexeo one.”

[5:47] New Brand Colors That Aren’t Just a Coat of Paint

“It signaled to the employees of both companies, this is a new company.” —Rob Whitney @UnivarSolutions Share on X

Drew Neisser: So, when you’re doing a rebrand, there’s playing it safe and there’s having a little courage. Were there any elements that you felt really helped differentiate the brand as you were thinking about this rebranding that strike you as, “Yeah, that was a little bit more bold than average”?

Rob Whitney: Yeah, so I’d say the boldest thing we did was around, of all old-school marketing things, color palette, right? This is an industry where everybody’s reds and blues. We decided to come out and go this very in-your-face orange and gray palette that really started to differentiate us.

What was amazing was, at first, the reaction was, it almost looks like it’s Halloween in some ways. But then when you started actually bringing it to life—put it on the side of our trucks, build the digital assets, things like that—it really started to pop, and it really allowed us to at least visually differentiate ourselves in the marketplace.

And then, of course, the next piece, the follow on to that is how do you actually talk about who we are in the marketplace? What are your core values? What are the messages you want to send out into the market?

It really started to home in on that “Solutions” end of our name, right? Focusing on collaboration, providing technical advice, technical solutions, not just what on its surface seems like something simple. We move chemicals from point A to point B, but there’s a whole lot of complexity that goes in between those two stops.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, and I want to pause and go back first to the color point. I make a big point in my book, Chapter Two: Dare to be Distinct, and then later on in Artful Ideation, talk about how color is an opportunity.

It feels very superficial, and it can be very superficial, but it can also be a signal of a pivot for a company. Because if you go from red and blue like everybody else where you behave like everybody else to orange and gray, it sets the tone that we’re not going to be like everybody else.

And then the challenge, as you described it, is how do you make it real so that it isn’t just a coat of paint, but it is actually something new?

Rob Whitney: What I would add to that is another point of going that palette was—and it was a throwaway thought at the time, but it proved very powerful—it signaled to the employees of both companies, this is a new company.

This is not—while, yes, from a legal standpoint, Univar purchased Nexeo—that was not the approach we were going to take culturally in the market or with our employees. This was brand new, right?

We tell you the first day of our company was March 1st, 2019. Even if both Univar and then the legacy Ashland business are 100 years old, we’re a two-and-a-half-year-old company.

Drew Neisser: I love that. And why was it so important that you involve employees and get them to realize this was a new company?

Rob Whitney: Because we took it as an opportunity to not just mimic both legacy organizations or even say, “Hey, what are the good things that Part A does and the good things that part B does?” We took it as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and go, “What can we do new and different?”

Within reason, right? You still have a lot of legacy baggage you have to carry from process and IT and HR and things like that, but where could we challenge the conventional thinking and do something different in the marketplace was the assignment the CEO gave us.

Drew Neisser: And again, I’m just gonna reinforce this because it sounds obvious, but it isn’t and doesn’t happen in practice. We talk about the need to be distinctive in the marketplace, we talk about how colors and design can help you do that. But that is not the idea here. The idea is to do something real that represents a transformation that this is a really different new company.

[9:51] How Marketing is Transforming Univar via Service-Based Solutions

“That was a constant journey with the commercial team, to understand and ensure that what we were marketing was not only forward-leaning, agile, but relevant and practical to what the organization can do.” —Rob Whitney @UnivarSolutions Share on X

Drew Neisser: Talk a little bit more about—so we’ve got orange and gray, we’re saying to employees this new company starts in 2019. You then talk about this service shift. Is that the big part?

We’re just not moving chemicals, but we’re a company and a resource that you can come to for more than that, like a business partner that will help you use these chemicals to the optimal opportunity and help you get competitive advantage.

Rob Whitney: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It was burying the needle on the solution side, right? Our opening tagline was “Innovate, Grow Together.” Really focused on that innovation and that collaboration with our customers and suppliers so that we can be seen more than just the truck that shows up and delivers stuff, even though that is a vital important job.

If we can’t do that, we can’t do anything else. It’s, how do you get the market to view you beyond that so that you can really start to provide some value to your suppliers and customers beyond just the transportation side?

Drew Neisser: And I am going to make a point—if you’re in the chemical business and you’ve been moving chemicals, then you will obviously see the value add as a huge way of differentiating, which essentially is a commodity, right?

But I’m going to say the same thing to a SaaS company who is thinking about their multiple and saying, “We’re a SaaS company, we just sell software.” But the truth is that a lot of times the services that you can provide on top of that are the things that will differentiate you and allow your customers to use your product more effectively. And you’re seeing that more and more at a lot of companies that would surprise you where their service part is growing to the point where it’s a revenue center.

Anyway, all right, we beat that one home pretty carefully. As I think about this part of this journey for you—we have a new brand, a new color, we’re really telling this, we’re going to the market… Were there any elements where you are a little bit nervous about it at all that, “Is this gonna work?”

Rob Whitney: Every day, right? I think the one add-in to that, from a marketing standpoint, both companies had been on a relatively new journey of actually standing up what we would call a modern marketing function, right? How are you going beyond just trade shows and brochures and making things look pretty?

We really started to pivot as a brand into, “Let’s go sell solutions, while at the same time having to actually stand up the marketing capability to achieve that.” And by the way, we just pushed a new brand out while we’re trying to integrate two multibillion-dollar companies together, right?

I think what gave me pause as a practitioner the whole time was, “Can I back up the stories that we’re telling to the market from a resource and capability standpoint within the marketing function? And then also, is the business ready to really meet those promises into the marketplace?”

That was a constant journey with the commercial team to understand and ensure that what we were marketing was actually not only forward-leaning, agile, but relevant and practical to what the organization can do.

Drew Neisser: Well, I love that. This is part of the thinking, that the courageous part of marketing is you can lead an organization forward by promising solutions. Even if you didn’t have them, the organization is going to have to figure out a way to deliver on them, and in the process, you’re going to solve a lot of other problems.

Show Break

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[14:38] How Univar Pivoted Post-COVID

“It really allowed us to go out there and execute and be more confident in the story we were telling out there, moving us beyond just chemicals as a commodity.” —Rob Whitney @UnivarSolutions Share on X

Drew Neisser: We just talked about how maybe the solution story might have been a little bit ahead of the organization, the organization has to catch up, and you had a marketing engine that you needed to build to help drive the solution sell. Then along came the pandemic. Let’s talk about that moment and what that meant to your organization.

Rob Whitney: I think, like many organizations, we sat there for that first couple of days going, “Oh, gosh, what’s about to happen?” Right? And then very quickly, I think it was an inflection point for our business for two reasons.

One, I would characterize the culture of this or organization as humble entrepreneurs. Never overly braggadocious, but get the job done, find solutions, deliver those solutions into the marketplace. What ended up happening as part of the pandemic is, first, we had an awakening on what our purpose was as a business.

All of a sudden, it dawned on us, as we started getting a lot of rated orders and things like that from governments and municipalities that, many people in this country can’t have drinking water unless we’re delivering the water treatment chemicals. Many businesses that are in food manufacturing rely on the products we bring to bear to be able to safely make food. And multitudes of others.

The first thing that came out to us was our purpose as a business really became clear to us. To keep the communities and people we work with healthy, fed, clean, and safe. And that really became a crystallizing moment for who we were as an organization.

Drew Neisser: Yeah. Before you get on, let’s focus on that for a second. I’ve talked a lot about this on this show—there was a moment right after the pandemic began where every business had to look at itself and say, “Are we essential? And if we’re not, we’re gonna either have to make ourselves essential, or we’re gonna have to figure out another solution.”

And you all of a sudden realized, “Whoa, we’re not just delivering chemicals; we’re essential.” And what a moment for an organization to discover. In some ways, it must have been a great sort of, “Whoa, that’s cool!”

Rob Whitney: I think at least, for myself, it gave you a renewed vigor on who we are and what we do. In a time when all of us were, at an individual level, personal level, at a very odd mental state of what’s going on in our world and what’s happening around us, it drove a lot of clarity to our purpose as employees and our purpose as a company. Not that I would ever wish a pandemic, but I think it was a very good clarifying moment for us as a company.

Drew Neisser: Well, again, I spoke to this at the very beginning of the show—and this is the thing that’s been a revelation for me: Inflection points are moments of opportunity. If you look at them in the right way and if you sort of stare them down in the face and say, “All right, it didn’t kill me. Now what? What can we do? How can we help others? What role can we play in this to bring a more favorable outcome?”

Meeting that moment is a big opportunity, as long as you’re not overwhelmed by it, and that’s easy to happen, right? You get deer in the headlights. You go, “Oh my God, what are we gonna do? What are we gonna do? I don’t know, what are we going to do?”

But there’s a playbook for this now. And that’s thinking about how you can help your community because you described your purpose as doing all these things that help others as a result of showing up with chemicals. Okay, so we got that, we’re beating that one up. It feels like that’s a moment for the organization to both look internally and externally. Then what was part two of this before I so rudely interrupted?

Rob Whitney: Part two goes back to the earlier part of our conversation: We want to be a solutions-based company, can we actually do it? Very quickly what happened is, all of the sudden—I guess I have to take a step back.

Yes, we’re a distributor. We also have a large group of technical specialists around the world. We’ve got labs, world-class labs, and facilities and test kitchens all around the world. Suddenly, we started pivoting those to helping customers develop their solutions to tackle COVID-19.

I can think of some very real examples—on the news, you heard all about breweries and distilleries are making hand sanitizer. They were turning to us and saying, how do I make hand sanitizer? What are the products I can put into my tanks that aren’t going to ruin my tanks so I can go back to making vodka or beer in 6 to 12 months?

We were helping solve massive logistical challenges like with the TSA, helping the TSA get enough sanitizer into the airport checkpoints so that they can make sure all of the checkpoints were getting cleaned routinely and their employees were safe.

All of a sudden, this solution story we had been telling ourselves that our humble culture said, “Oh, are we really there?” It was, “Oh my gosh, we actually are. All of the things we hope to be, we actually are those things!” And it really allowed us to go out there and execute and I think be more confident in the story we were telling out there and moving us beyond just chemicals as a commodity.

A third of our business is highly specialized ingredients and chemicals that go into makeup and food and things around your house. It really brought that to bear as well that that was such a vital part of our business.

[20:36] How Univar’s “Growing Together” Brand Story Evolved

“We felt like we had too many messages in the marketplace. We needed to slim things down, we needed to be clearer on who we are as a business.” —Rob Whitney @UnivarSolutions Share on X

Drew Neisser: Let’s go back to this point. Now all of a sudden, all these stories are starting to emerge of the critical role that you play to keep industry and food and water and all these things moving or pivoting as a result of the pandemic. What happened to the story? How did it evolve? How did you get it out there? What were the implications for marketing?

Rob Whitney: Yeah, so we started to really bury the needle from a marketing standpoint into what we call our customer success stories. So really getting out there and telling the stories of how we’ve helped the customer be successful in the marketplace. The other thing we really started focusing on is more technical and regulatory and trend-based solutions to the market.

Now, we don’t sell finished products that you would use, but our labs are creating finished products to help our customers understand where the latest trends are going, so that they can make decisions on what to go manufacturer in the marketplace.

One of the things I’m the most proud of is one of our campaigns was actually around how are you formulating sunscreens so that you can protect the reefs and our oceans, right? So really starting to think about sustainability solutions in what is often not viewed as a sustainable industry. Really starting to bury the needle in that direction, as opposed to the more traditional, “We’ve got acetone, we can deliver acetone to you tomorrow!”

We still do all of that. That’s necessary. That’s the bread and butter, but it really allowed us to get more top-of-the-funnel solutions-based marketing to draw people in earlier in their development cycle as they were looking to build products.

Drew Neisser: Right, as opposed to… I remember I’ve interviewed lots of folks over the years who are in ingredient businesses. The only way to be a leader is to show how you can use these ingredients and even be more forward-thinking in terms of defining where those ingredients could go.

I wonder, you had mentioned that you had a tagline early on when you launched the company. Did it change as a result of the pandemic?

Rob Whitney: Yeah, so now we’ve pivoted to our tagline is: “Growing Together.” It’s interesting, the internal and external. When the brand launched, we had an external tagline: “Innovate, Grow Together.” We had an internal tagline of “Streamline, Innovate, Grow” around the optimization of pulling two businesses together.

We finally came to the conclusion, no, we need a single point of view that speaks to our customers, suppliers, employees, and our investors. That’s where we landed on Growing Together.

Drew Neisser: Amen to that. We call that “perfecting pithy.” How did you come to that decision? Why was it so important to have one line that held together employee, customer, and prospect communications?

Rob Whitney: Yeah, I think it was an interesting journey. It was really the investor relations team, corporate communications team, marketing function all coming together and saying, we felt like we had too many messages in the marketplace. We needed to slim things down, we needed to be clearer on who we are as a business.

Again, I think a lot of that was about six months after we landed on our purpose, so it was that journey of just being able to tell our story better at the enterprise level. We’ve gotten really good and we are very good at telling our story at the specific line-of-business level, but how do we pull it all together? That’s where we landed on the Growing Together concept.

Drew Neisser: That could have just slotted right into, I guess, V2 of my book. I talk a lot about that and the need to have this one idea. Even though you’re selling to a lot of different customers, and you have a lot of different prospects, what’s nice about growing together is that it’s not chest-beating in the sense that you’re putting your customers and saying, “We’re gonna help. We’re in the service business, we’re here to help you.”

[24:43] Bringing “Growing Together” to Life: Culture Workshops and Storytelling

“How do we now as a business go and build that final culture, that culture 2.0 that we want to land on that isn't just out of an M&A deck or the executive C-Suite?” —Rob Whitney @UnivarSolutions Share on X

Drew Neisser: I think that while the language is probably hard to own, it’s easy to prove because of what you have to show, right? Every case history needs to talk about how you’re growing together. Let’s talk a little bit about how you then brought Growing Together to life. For example, how did you communicate and what was the challenge—did you develop any programs for employees for Growing Together?

Rob Whitney: Yeah, so we developed a good bit of programs around that. Explaining what it meant and where we thought it was going as a business. We integrated it into all of our external campaigns. And I think now what we’re doing as part of that continued evolution of, again, a two-and-a-half-year-old company, is now really focusing on what we’re calling culture workshops.

So how are we pulling frontline leaders and employees together to really talk about we’ve got a vision and we know where we’re going, but what do they want the culture of this organization to be? How can we push down decision-making and ownership deeper into the business so it’s not sitting with a core group of executives? And how do we get them to buy into building this business?

Because as with any merger, the first 18 to 24 months of that size of a merger, you have to be very tight and very controlled. Now we’ve done it. We’re there. We’re on a platform. How do we now as a business go and build that final culture, that culture 2.0 that we want to land on, that isn’t just out of an M&A deck or the executive C-Suite? It’s really built from the frontline truck drivers and sales members and customer service reps helping define it.

Drew Neisser: It’s really interesting about the culture workshop. What I like about that is that you’ve gone—we brought these two cultures together, we brought these two companies together, we’ve been at it 18 months, and often, it’s like, “Okay, we’re done. Let’s just focus externally. Let’s keep filling the pipeline with new customers.”

What’s so interesting to me is, now you’re going back and saying, “Okay, we’ve made some progress, but there’s probably more progress to be made in terms of helping this organization.”

This also happens to be a time where recruiting and retaining is very challenging for just about every company in America, so going back and having employees asking their opinion, as I call it in the book, Welcoming We, and saying, “Alright, we’re interested in what you have to say. This isn’t just,” as you said, “top-down. We want you to be part of this.” I think it’s so interesting.

Was there any element of the workshop or something that came out of the workshop that you’re doing that surprised you?

Rob Whitney: I think to this point, none of it’s surprising to us, right? I think the nuance and the feedback is great, and maybe pivoted some decisions we would have made. I think it allows you to better prioritize what you are assuming the challenges are in the business as a leader. I think overall, it’s been great.

And look, I would say what’s interesting for us is, I think any business over the last 18 months has to go through that. Even if we were a stable company that had been around for 100 years, nothing changed, everything was great…

The last 18 months were a pivot point for everybody. We had the extra challenge of, we’re just coming off of an integration and merger as part of that and had to finish that integration in the middle of a pandemic remotely, which was an interesting experience and really have that conversation of who we are moving forward.

With people that are—even if it’s the same employee, I think all of us have changed dramatically on what we want out of our personal and professional life over the last 18 months, so engaging the workforce to understand what is important to them and what will keep them here and want them to grow with the company, I think is now more pivotal than it’s ever been for a business.

Drew Neisser: Love that. It’s just so enlightened. Before we take another break—we’ve got Growing Together. I’m curious how you took that to your customers and made that real to them.

That’s always so important because you could go to market with this thing and if you had a bunch of customers that say, “We’re not growing together!” the whole thing falls apart pretty quickly. So how did you either introduce the idea or make them sort of part of this story? Because they are the story.

Rob Whitney: Yeah, I think with the customers it was actually much easier to land because, again, I go back to I think we had done a very good job of telling our niche story at the line-of-business level. It really just became a nice tagline that pulled together a lot of the work that was already being done at that industry level.

What it really then did was allow us to tie all of that together. How can I tell a similar story, similar tagline to my lubricants business that I can do in my food business—two completely different businesses—but still also continue to be relevant within those businesses? So, we truly do look like an enterprise going to market that is his understanding of those different industries and delivering for them.

Drew Neisser: Yeah. So, there’s a lot of positive in Growing Together and I get how it can hold all these businesses together. What’s interesting is there’s room in that because growth is individual growth. Growth is company growth. Growth is other things that are good.

Show Break

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[31:45] Strategic, Solutions-Based Ingredient Marketing at Univar

“We're coming up and showing you a finished product to have a conversation around where the market is going.” —Rob Whitney @UnivarSolutions Share on X

Drew Neisser: We’re going to talk a little bit about execution and then get into metrics. One of the things I’m very interested in—I use the phrase “Thoughtful Execution” in the book. I’m curious, as you brought this message, this story of Growing Together to the market, what are some of the executional elements that you had that you think really moved the needle?

Rob Whitney: I would say the ones we’re probably the most proud of that we’ve really been able to land over the last 12 months—it’s things we’ve done for a while, but the Growing Together concept and our evolution has really landed on is—one of the areas we focus on is what we call strategic ingredient marketing. Those are actually our trends campaigns.

We’re coming up and showing you a finished product to have a conversation around where the market is going. We also integrate our suppliers into that, so it becomes a really great Venn diagram of what we do, what our suppliers do, and what the industry needs to deliver to have a conversation about specific solutions. Maybe you’re having foaming challenges in your shampoo, you need a more natural bio-based product into your cleaner, or a lot of work into the plant-based proteins with our food industry team right now. How do you actually bind that stuff together so it becomes something that people can take to market?

I’ve been proud of that ability that we’ve landed, and also the agility in which we’ve been able to adjust rapidly over the last 18 months, in what are just constant changing market and consumer dynamics and trying to stay ahead of where the consumers are so that we can help our customers and our suppliers really develop the products that are needed to meet those demands.

Drew Neisser: I’m reminded as you’re saying this, I’m thinking of a Huddle where a CMO did a program like this and said that the less we tried to sell and the more helpful we were, the more we ended up selling.

It sounds like, if you’re going to the market and you’re saying, “Here’s where the trends are, here’s where the products that you’re going to be wanting to think about” and you’re bringing in those customers as part of that, you’re helping them see the future in a way that they might not be able to in-house.

And you also have credibility because you’re seeing this across a number of categories, you’re seeing it across specific categories, so it feels like a very thoughtful way of helping your customers grow their business.

Rob Whitney: And it changes the conversation. The traditional conversation for a chemical distributor is, “I can give it to you for two cents a pound cheaper and delivered on Tuesday when the other company said they can deliver on Wednesday.”

Now it’s, “How do I get earlier in the conversation and help you actually build your product and find your solution?” Then the sales process—is not easy, right? You still have to go through it, but it becomes a much different sales process because you have credibility in a relationship built that isn’t just about the transaction.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, I mean, the keyword that I heard, get involved earlier in the conversation. You’re not waiting for an RFP or some spec on, “Hey, what’s the cheapest you can deliver this chemical?” You’re going in earlier and you’re saying, “We can help you design and build and create something that will help you” and then you’re already embedded.

[35:15] Univar’s Key B2B Marketing Metrics

“The one thing I did early on when I came into the business was put a bottom-line dollar figure measurement on marketing activity.” —Rob Whitney @UnivarSolutions Share on X

Drew Neisser: I’m guessing here that the result of that—and I think we could talk about some results—how do you approach measurement overall in terms of when you look at your marketing activities? What are the key metrics that matter to you?

Rob Whitney: The one thing I did early on when I came into the business was put a bottom-line dollar figure measurement on marketing activity. That is often the hardest thing for us as marketers to do, and to do it with credibility in a manner that the business actually believes the number you’re presenting.

But I realized very quickly, at the time, it was at Nexeo, we were a 4.5% percent even up business. I’m not going to walk in and say, “Give me 10% of sales to drive marketing.” That’s a non-starter of a conversation.

So I had to build measurements in place that directly tied value back. Each of our industry marketing managers actually has a gross profit number they have to deliver to every year. That was number one, to get credibility.

Now, we’re doing it in reverse of what most marketers do. Now, we’re starting to go earlier in the funnel and judge earlier in the funnel behavior more to inform us on how we can get to that gross profit number, but also to educate the company so they understand why getting earlier in the funnel, earlier in the sales cycle matters to help our account managers out there in the marketplace. Most of your typical stuff around engagement scores, conversion rates, those types of things are starting to come into harder measurements for us.

Drew Neisser: I’m going to work backward from gross profit, because gross profit is interesting. It’s, what kind of customer did you sell into? And there are customers that will squeeze every last inch of profit out of you. How long did it take to get that customer? What’s the lifetime value of that customer?

All of these things factor in and marketing is one aspect of it. So how did you zoom in on how does marketing help deliver that? It could take 20… customers just getting in the door.

You had so many proof of concepts and you could have a pilot that went on nine months and by the time you finally got it, everybody’s forgotten about, “Oh, this was a marketing-generated lead. Where do you see marketing play a role in this?” And then I also imagine, correct me if I’m wrong, customer success and customer growth is a huge part of this, too.

Rob Whitney: Yes, very much so. We got there by being very purposeful and taking small bites at a time, right? So really focused in the beginning on what are subsets of customers we think we can convert fast.

And the beauty of our business from a marketing standpoint is I have a big multibillion-dollar commodity business that’s very transactional, got a multibillion-dollar specialty business where some of our sales cycles, especially in food and pharmaceutical are a year and a half, two years long.

The easiest thing to do was go focus on the transactional, build the engine for the transactional. We spent about the first two years doing that and really homing in on a methodology that the sales team believed in and could say, “Yes, marketing helped us deliver that.”

And then I used the sales team to go out there and be the advocates for marketing as a function and organization as we started to build the capability to focus on the more long-term, specialty-driven business cycles for the organization.

Now what we’ve done on the back end, we tag every opportunity that comes in. Existing customer, new customer, so that we can track it. We have some agreed-upon methodology that the business has signed up for. And then when we now present what marketing is going to deliver from a gross profit standpoint, it’s both myself and that business leader, going together to the executive team and saying, “Yes, marketing needs X amount of money for our industry and it’s going to help us deliver Y amount of growth.”

I found by being able to do that, lock arm-and-arm with the sales leaders, I have significantly more success than I ever did walking in on my own going, “This is what marketing can do for you.” Turn them into advocates for you and it becomes much easier.

Drew Neisser: Well, and here’s the thing, every salesperson knows what it means to have air cover. They may not know what marketing necessarily does, but they understand air cover as in, I walk in the door and they know who I am and what I’m doing here and what the promise is versus when they don’t know who I am.

Every salesperson knows that and I wanna just put a big punctuation point on this one. If you the CMO are walking in and presenting your budget without sales or somebody on a line of business, you’re making a big mistake. You really are. Flat out, because your numbers, what you’re basically saying is, marketing is independent. And it’s not. Marketing is only successful as sales is successful. Period.

The interlocking of those two things are so critical. So, I love that. And I love the fact that you now do it on a line of business standpoint with each of those groups, so you’re committing and so forth.

I do wonder how that works on a brand level on a corporate level, just because I can see it on a line of business level. And each of those individual lines of business, depending on their profit margin, depending on their growth prospects and other things will sort of help you budget, right? Because there could be some older industries that just aren’t growing and why invest in those?

Rob Whitney: Yeah, and to your point, I’m going to get a different gross profit margin off my commodity business than I will off my specialty business. But we as an enterprise have to accept that the true value we provide to someone in our space is the ability to deliver the whole can.

If you think about a can of paint and the 15 chemicals that go in it, we’re one of the few companies that can deliver all of it. Being able to walk out there with a whole catalog and a whole approach and the security of supply we bring as a global entity in today’s supply chain just helps and empowers our specialty business that’s much more technical and much more long-term moving forward.

There’s a very good balance that the executive committee I think drives home to make sure we’re not burying the needle in one direction just because we think that’s where the dollars are in the short term.

[42:02] How Supply Chain Shortages are Affecting Business

“We've had an ability to really grow in a lot of areas and go back to that foundational product-based marketing in some areas in some specific places where supply chain is tight.” —Rob Whitney @UnivarSolutions Share on X

Drew Neisser: Love it. Okay, I just want to ask one—because the supply chain is such a topical issue right now. I was hearing a story about, literally, somebody was talking about paint and the color blue and they couldn’t get this one color… Talk a little bit about how, if at all, supply chain is impacting your business?

Rob Whitney: Oh, it’s gigantic. I would say what people are feeling in the supply chain today for finished goods, we have been feeling for months. And we’re a leading indicator on where the market is going to go.

Our head of global product management sits just a few desks away from me and I remember him walking in in February and telling me what to go buy. And sure enough, everything is 30%-40% higher than it was.

For us, it’s really about—I think about that from both an enterprise and a marketing standpoint, right? At an enterprise standpoint, it’s really brought home a value we provide because we have a global supply chain and can get product from around the world.

Our customers have been in a lot better position than many manufacturers have been along the way. There have absolutely been times just because of the supply chain, the truck showing up an hour before the brewery is going to have to shut down if they don’t get that order of citric acid, but we have been busting our rear to make sure everybody gets what they need.

I would say from a marketing standpoint, it’s really been an interesting moment where we have to consistently pivot what we’re marketing out there based off of what we know we have and based off what we assume our competitors have in their tanks and they’re available to sell.

We’ve had an ability to really grow in a lot of areas and go back to that foundational product-based marketing in some areas in some specific places where supply chain is tight. But it’s been an interesting eight months or so and it’s going to continue to get interesting over the next several.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, well, I’m going to attempt to wrap up this conversation. Rob, thank you, first of all so much for this amazing input. Here’s the way I would wrap this up. If we think about courageous strategy for a moment, it was a big pivot for this organization to think about themselves as a solution seller versus an ingredient, as a commodity seller.

The result of the implications were, as these two companies merge, they needed to present themselves in a new way. So they went with colors that said we’re not the same company you think we are. That moment of using brand design to say, “Hey, we’re different!” is important.

From an artful ideation standpoint, we already mentioned the design part of it. What I love about the thoughtful execution story is the research on trends and where it’s going and how helpful that is to your customers to see a future beyond the current supply chain challenges into a future where they can have new products, all of which is summarized by this idea of growing together as in perfecting pithy.

From a science matters standpoint. I mean, you went right to revenue. I think that’s a really hard place to start, but it’s bold and important. And speaking of courage, if you can do that, you’re always gonna have a seat at the table. If you can connect marketing to revenue, you will always have a seat at the table. All right. Rob, thank you so much for joining the show.

Rob Whitney: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. It was a great conversation.

Drew Neisser: If you’ve enjoyed this episode, do me a favor, go to iTunes or wherever your favorite podcast channel is and just write a review and give us that five-star rating. We really appreciate that. Also, hey, ping Rob on LinkedIn and just say, hey, you enjoyed hearing him on the show.

Show Credits

Renegade Marketers Unite is written and directed by Drew Neisser. Hey, that’s me. Audio production is by Sam Beck. Show notes are written by Melissa Caffrey. The music is by the amazing Burns Twins and intro voiceover is Linda Cornelius.

To find the transcripts of all episodes, suggest future guests, and learn more about the B2B market research projects we have going on at, please visit I’m your host Drew Neisser and until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.