Product, Service & Design Innovation
#SB14sd Preview:
Arrow Electronics on CSR and 'Five Years Out'

With 2013 sales of $21.4 billion, Colorado-based Arrow Electronics is one of the largest suppliers of electronics components in the world with 460 locations in 58 countries. Three years ago, the company underwent a complete corporate rebranding around the concept of innovation for “five years out.”

Next month at Sustainable Brands 2014 San Diego, Rich Kylberg, Arrow’s VP of Global Marketing and Communications, will discuss how the company’s revamped brand message is best reflected through a new focus on innovative corporate social responsibility (CSR). I caught up with Rich for a short preview conversation.

The theme of SB ’14 San Diego is “Reimagine. Redesign. Regenerate.” Is that an apt description of what’s underway with Arrow’s CSR program?

Yes. We want to be seen as a smart and innovative company — as a real partner. When our brand message emerged that we exist to guide today’s innovators to a better tomorrow, we realized that everything we do is about our partners. We aim to make the world a better place, but we don’t do that directly ourselves. We do it indirectlly by supporting our customers and partners. And that flows perfectly into our CSR initiative.

Our brand message isn’t about what we do or sell. Instead, we talk about what we believe and who we are. So when we say we believe in making the world a better place, that would be empty, unless we’re actually working to make that happen. That message is most clearly expressed through our CSR initiatives.

Can you give an example of the kind of CSR partnerships you’re trying to create?

Our company’s brand identity and ideals aren’t necessarily unique to Arrow Electronics. They are universal ideals. So the question came up: Could they be expressed in ways that are less expected?

Music can be used to express love, fear, despair, joy — or even the seasons, as Vivaldi did. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps Arrow’s values could be expressed in music as well.

Scott O’Neil, the Resident Conductor at the CSO, composed a theme for our “Five Years Out” slogan that uses the pentatonic scale and spells out “Arrow” in musical notes. He also used Morse code for Arrow to create the rhythmic patterns in the composition.

What’s been the response to the composition?

When we play the theme for Arrow employees, it’s very moving. They’re not sure exactly why, but it’s because the composition is designed to express the values they share as a part of this corporation. Plus, there’s this underlying science behind how it’s produced. We’re a company of engineers, and engineers love that there’s almost this mathematical structure behind the work of art. That partnership with the arts, which is ostensibly a part of our CSR activity, provides a profound lever for moving our brand message forward.

We did the same thing in the visual arts: We put out a challenge to ask if visual artists could express our values through painting, sculpture or whatever their medium is. We received over a hundred submissions. In two years we’ve commissioned a total of 14 pieces that will be displayed in Arrow offices around the world to demonstrate what our company is all about.

This approach has truth, sincerity and integrity to it. It’s not just, ‘let’s go buy a painting.’ Our values resonate for artists, because it’s not a corporate thing — it’s a human thing that we can all share.

In your recent CSR report, you set a 2014 goal of identifying and establishing innovative national or global programs with environmental partners. Do you know what you’re looking for? Or is it a matter of picking and choosing from proposals that come your way?

It’s both. We have an obligation to the corporation to do the best, most noble work we can pursue.

We’d be kidding you if we said we know what that is. We’ve got some initiatives underway and things we’re looking at, but there are ideas out there we don’t know anything about yet. It would be professional malpractice for us to turn anything like that away. We are a totally open door for ideas and initiatives.

We do have to go through a process of figuring out where we have the highest likelihood of success, because we don’t have an unlimited budget for pursuing initiatives. The opportunities outnumber our capabilities substantially, but we are desperately looking for the best ideas out there and welcome them.

We also have to focus on ourselves — making our company more environmentally responsible. And we need to do a better job telling our own story. We are the world’s largest e-waste processor — we keep all the electronics we process out of the landfill. We do this more than any other company. We do our best to give electronics a longer life, helping to mitigate the enormous demands from new manufacturing.

I don’t think that’s well-known, but I don’t think we’re even scratching the surface of that enormous challenge either.

You also have a 2014 goal to develop a North American initiative similar to Close the Gap, which is based in Brussels. How engaged are you with that program, and what’s needed for success in North America?

We’ve been working with Close the Gap for a decade, and to date we’ve donated more than 300,000 refurbished computers to schools, clinics and educational training facilities in Africa.

That’s a mature and successful relationship. So when we started the CSR initiative, we wanted to do something similar in North America. We have lots of employees and offices here, and we want to make an impact here. We get requests from schools and nonprofits for refurbished computers all the time, but we don’t have a centralized mechanism to adequately respond to those requests in North America.

What we’ve learned so far is that the challenge isn’t just the refurbishing of the computers; it’s all the other stuff that’s involved. The biggest hurdle is the cost of distributing the refurbished computers around the country. It’s not just a cost for us, but for the nonprofits as well. So how do you create a model where you can send those computers around in a way that is sustainable for everyone involved? That’s where we are at this point. Hopefully by the end of the year, we’re going to have a way to get that started.

Is there a particular message that you aim to share at SB’14?

We have a unique and compelling story about how we examined branding and CSR impact. Everybody in the room is going to be a lot smarter than me on the issues. But I hope to share the personal journey and the company’s adventure in trying to reimagine, redesign and regenerate. It’s not easy to do. We’ve made plenty of mistakes. But when we tell our story, people get excited and inspired by it.


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