Some of the first clues that Bayer was trying something new came from its social media channels, where there was a new sense of playfulness about the company's posts.
From wishing their Facebook followers a 'Happy Star Wars Day' on May 4 and exhorting them to 'Keep calm and do science', to company-themed coffee posts on Instagram (#coffeebreak, #goodmorning), over the last year there's been a sense that maybe there's something in the water over at Leverkusan.
And indeed there was, for the company is now one year into a digital transformation project that goes far beyond playful posts on social media – though, clearly, those do feature and are something it can do well. At its heart has been a drive across the company, encompassing Bayer's board members and CEO, to prioritise digital across the entire group, and develop its strategy and focus.
The project came at an opportune moment; change was already in the air as the 150-year old company prepared to divest its polymer materials business, Bayer MaterialScience. Last month the business - now named Covestro – became legally and economically independent of Bayer, which took the opportunity to realign itself. It's not a process that will happen overnight. But Bayer expects its reorganisation into three distinct divisions – pharmaceuticals, consumer health and crop science – to take effect from January next year. As part of the reorganisation, the Bayer HealthCare subgroup will be dissolved as each division will focus on core competencies close to its businesses – R&D, production, and sales and marketing.
Against this backdrop of change the decision was taken to prioritise the group's digital transformation.
It was the perfect time to say 'let's build digital into our DNA
Adding digital into the DNA
Someone at the forefront of Bayer's transformation is its head of digital development Jessica Federer, who took up her current role just as the changes started.“Bayer has just gone through its biggest transformation in 150 years,” she told W2O's PreCommerce Summit in London last month. “At the same time as we're going through this big growth, it was the perfect time to say 'let's build digital into our DNA'. And so that's what we've done over the last year.”
Federer joined the company from the US Department of Health and Human Services seven years ago, first as global regulatory affairs operations manager for Bayer Healthcare, before moving to global market access and comms roles.
“This has probably been the most exciting year that I've seen at Bayer, to see exactly how far we've come. We started with this vision and now we've got a digital council across the entire organisation, going into the board members, we have a digital circle for pharma, consumer care, animal health and crop science, we have digital transformation teams in the countries and we've got a digital accelerator.”
Federer said that one of the key things the company did was not to spend more – though she acknowledged money can help with this sort of change, but to focus on the company's existing human resources.
“We had a lot of people already in Bayer that knew what needed to be done. This isn't some top-down, big vision and we tell everybody exactly what to do. The big vision opens the doors, you still need the people to make the change.
“We already had the leaders in Bayer, the change was opening the doors and letting them lead.”
At this point it's worth highlighting some of the company's recent digital initiatives. The first is one of Federer's favourites.
“Grants4Apps is a really fun initiative. People don't prioritise 'fun' enough, but it's really important in a big company. 'Fun' is critical,” she told W2O's Summit. The accelerator programme started in 2014 and is one of a number of web-based crowdsourcing initiatives the company runs, joining Grants4Targets, Grants4Leads and PartnerYourAntibodies.
“We bring start-ups into Bayer and give them funding, C-suite support and space in our Berlin office,” Federer said of Grants4Apps. “We're bringing the innovators into our group.”
Applications to the programme tripled this year, with more than 200 digital health-related applications from 48 countries seeking to participate. From those Bayer chose five, who moved in August into its Grants4Apps Accelerator space within the company's Berlin headquarters.
This year's successful applicants between them focus on tracking hormone data to enable precision medicine; a home medication inventory mobile app; 3D printed smart wearable devices; online access to clinical trials; and a handheld vitamin level analysis tool.
Another, though completely different, recent initiative of Bayer's that's caught the attention of its audience in a truly impressive way has been Your Perfect Match. It's an awareness campaign for long-active contraceptives, where Bayer's products include Mirena and the Yasmin range. So far, perhaps, so obvious. Except that in seven months its centrepiece video – A Celebration of Decisions – has racked up 1.4 million views on YouTube since its launch on Valentine's Day this year.
It is, of course, a phenomenal amount of views for a pharmaceutical company video and to help it achieve this the campaign went big on social media, with a Tumblr blog, and Pinterest and Instagram accounts regularly posting highly visual content.
Social media interactions such as these have been among the beneficiaries of Bayer's digital transformation project. “All of our interactions on social media are on one integrated platform, whereas before - for every brand and every country - someone actually had to login and do it manually,” Federer explained.
If we do digital right then we should stop talking about digital
A rising tide…
Ideas of integration and inclusiveness permeate Bayer's digital plans. They can, for example, be seen in the way it hasn't differentiated between the different parts of its business.
“Whether you're looking at crop outcomes or pharmaceutical customer outcomes, cellular processes for cells are the same whether it's a human, animal or plant cell – that's where our area of expertise is, it's super nerdy and we love to talk about it,” Federer said.
“What is a benefit for us is that it's about the same when you go to advanced analytics and predictive modelling and looking at how you're using data. So we really can build a capacity that benefits the entire business.
“That's why we're looking across Bayer all at once. Because taking the fragmented, segmented approach really doesn't help bring everyone forward. So 'the rising tide lifts all ships' is how we're approaching it.”
To do this, continued engagement is clearly needed across the company. So, in May, 150 leaders from Bayer came together in Düsseldorf for its first Digital Summit. In addition playing host to senior management from across the group the event also saw Bayer's first hackathon and a close focus on what the digital agenda means for the organisation and how all of its people can be part of it.
But while the last year has clearly seen both digital talk and digital action at Bayer, looking forward Federer is hopefully that the need for such a focus will be a transient one.
“At some point, if you do it well, it just becomes so much of what you do that it goes away. If we do digital right then we should stop talking about digital, and I would really hope that, within a year, the transformation, at least within some countries and teams, has advanced to the point where we don't need a digital transformation team, it's how they all work. And we don't need the digital marketing experts, because all marketing is now digital. I'd like to see us get to the point where it just becomes the status quo.”