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Carolin Hoyer and Joachim Kraege: Transforming a company in flip-flops

Unilever and Audi – an odd couple, at least at first glance. Carolin Hoyer from Unilever and Joachim Kraege, Head of Organization and Consulting at Audi, joined us for a double interview to talk about the challenge of sustainably transforming a company.

One builds premium cars, the other makes consumer goods. Yet the two companies share the goal of having a beneficial effect on society and the environment while also inspiring customers around the world. In this interview, Carolin Hoyer, Sustainable Business & Communications Manager at Unilever, and Joachim Kraege, Head of Organization and Consulting at Audi, discuss how this is reflected in the strategies of both companies and how they are progressing on the path to transformation.


What needs to change for a company to successfully carry out a sustainable transformation?

Hoyer: First and foremost, such sweeping change means transforming a company's culture – beginning with management. Each individual needs to understand what he or she can specifically contribute on the job to help achieve that goal. Managers must learn to understand their role in a much larger context – and that requires a considerable shift in awareness.  

Carolin Hoyer is in charge of Unilever’s corporate brand and sustainability strategy in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. She is responsible for integrating the company’s sustainability objectives and business objectives.

Kraege: What I would like to know is: What or who is the driver that makes it possible to successfully implement a strategy? This is exactly the point where values play an important role. One primary characteristic of traditional societies is their strong emphasis on hierarchy. If we really want to try new approaches, thinking in terms of hierarchies and rigid structures is something we have to put behind us. And that applies to Audi too.  

“Empowerment” is a buzzword we hear a lot these days – how do employees succeed in putting sustainability into practice in their departments and units?

Hoyer: Employees must have the freedom to try things out and to make mistakes. For example, our CEO Paul Polman encourages us to see that it’s better to occasionally slip up than to do nothing because you’re afraid of making a mistake.

And management has to set an example by embodying that kind of culture. Digitalization, sustainability and urbanization are changing every day. So the teams need to stay flexible and daring.

Kraege: It makes sense to initially bring this issue down to the personal level. What does sustainability mean to me? What does it mean to me as an Audi employee, and for my position in the company? The employees must be able to grasp the issue. In many places you can feel the willingness to move in new directions. You notice that our people at Audi are ready for change. Now it’s up to us to show them the opportunities such a strategy can offer.

Hoyer: You have to get closer to the problem and look at where your own surroundings and the community are affected. Because let’s face it, only when an issue concerns people personally do they want to become part of the solution. The global problem – which Audi as a company wants to address – has to be broken down into its effects on individuals, who can then see how they stand to benefit. In the final analysis, it’s really about future viability and job security.

During the Audi internal lecture series Responsibility Perspective, Carolin Hoyer and Joachim Kraege discussed sustainable strategy transformation in the Audi Group.

Unilever and Audi are two companies that take on a lot of social responsibility when it comes to sustainability. Might we see a joint undertaking by your companies in this area?

Kraege: It’s imperative for us to tackle the issue at all levels – everyone can begin with their everyday work assignments. Just take charge of your own future and get the ball rolling.

I’m a big believer in pilot projects, for example. They are a perfect example of pioneering work, which is rooted in Audi’s DNA, so to speak. Let’s say I want to come up with innovative solutions for an urban development project. So I assign a team of innovators to Beijing. And when you can actually see your office building from your apartment but you still get stuck in traffic for an hour on the way to and from work, you will be motivated to find new, creative ideas that can be developed and brought to fruition. If you want to anchor sustainability as an attitude, it helps to go and experience some of the tough problems out there in the world, like in Shanghai and Beijing, to name two examples. 

And sharing the experiences gained from that will benefit everyone. Look, here are two players like Unilever and Audi joining forces to share knowledge of how value is created.

Joachim Kraege heads the Organization and Consulting department at Audi. His specialties include digitalization of business processes and conceptualization of agile organization structures and organizational change. He is also providing support for the launch of Product Line Management.

Hoyer: For me, the primary factor is honest dialogue based on mutual trust. Some people in creative fields work with what’s called “flip-flop methodology,” which involves imagining what it’s like to work in an entirely different industry and looking at how other companies handle a problem. I think it’s a good way to learn how to solve your own problems.

Kraege: We don’t find common synergy effects through products, of course – Unilever and Audi are much too different for that – but rather through a deeper objective we have in common. And that’s also what makes the work exciting. At Audi we are committed to completely new forms of collaboration, which really pay off when addressing big issues like sustainability and urbanization.

Hoyer: Engaging in dialogue with other stakeholders is important for Unilever too. Don’t forget, we have 400 sub-brands to consider. Back in the late 1990s, Unilever and the Iglo brand sat down and talked with the WWF, for example. Together we initiated the MSC seal for sustainable fisheries, which is a market standard today. In those days, sustainability was equated with risk minimization. That mindset has changed dramatically. Today the focus is on how to create value through sustainable business practices. 

Kraege: The idea behind the MSC seal could also be superbly transferred to an Audi context. We are in a position to set an entirely new, high standard with our e-fuels, for instance. That’s what makes this kind of dialogue effective – it allows us to look at what Unilever has been able to do, and at how we can adapt those principles to our industry. You observe the methodology and concepts of other companies and study what impact they could have on your own products. We want to apply this and generate our own distinctive “Audi stamp.”


This interview was conducted as part of Audi’s internal lecture series Responsibility Perspective, which is increasingly enabling Audi employees to share knowledge and connect with experts from the worlds of business and research. The main emphasis is on helping people consider the bigger picture, consciously question familiar viewpoints and discuss opinions held by people from other fields.