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Your next Thermos might be connected to the Internet

For customers nowadays, it's pretty important to keep that $5 latte hot.

It may be even more important than it was to keep coffee warm back when it only cost a quarter a cup, said Rick Dias, president and chief operating officer of Thermos.

Dias, 51, has spent 15 years at Thermos working to keep the privately held, 113-year-old company relevant as times change and people expect more out of their products than just warm soup come lunchtime.

Thermos, which Japanese company Taiyo Nippon Sanso Corp. acquired in 1989, relies on inventive designers, partnerships and other companies to help with that, Dias said last month at the company's international headquarters in Schaumburg, where it employs about 70 people.

In July, it closed a deal to buy Lifefactory, a California company that makes glass products more durable by wrapping them in silicon. In 2014, it acquired Alfi, a German company that produces carafes.

With "Paw Patrol" and R2-D2 branded products lined up in front of him, Dias explained how Thermos has stayed on trend through the years and is adapting to an increasingly online retail market.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What has changed most about customers' wants and needs recently?

A: Issues related to food safety and keeping foods at safe temperatures is more important to parents today maybe than when I was a kid.

Q: What's an example of a product that meets those demands?

A: We've launched products known as Funtainers that are essentially steel vacuum-insulated food jars and hydration bottles, targeted for kids. Moms and dads have a lot of confidence that the food and drink they're sending to school with their kids is not going to spill and is not going to spoil.

You've got "Paw Patrol," princesses from Disney and R2-D2. We probably have about 50 different license relationships, so we've got all sorts of characters. We deal with everyone: Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm, etc.

Q: Is that something Thermos has done for a while?

A: We've been doing licensed products (since) the Roy Rogers lunch kit in the '50s. But we've been building Funtainer products probably for about 12 or 13 years. Really, the way kids eat and drink is very different today. This is the modern-day version of the the licensed lunch box that I went to school with.

Q: What did you carry your lunch in?

A: Batman. I was a huge Batman fan, and Batman's still a license of ours. It was a metal lunchbox and inside of it, it had what people refer to today as a thermos because our name is so synonymous with the product we sell.

Q: How do you keep that brand definition and stop your product from becoming the Kleenex of containers? Is that important?

A: It's a blessing and a curse. It does have some advantages in (online) search. They know our brand, and they're thinking about our brand when they're searching for products. Ultimately, it's about being relevant. We have to continue to execute on products that are outside of what people would traditionally assume is our core DNA.

Q: How is Thermos adapting to the changing retail world?

A: Obviously, we don't have our own retail stores, so we can say, "Well, it's not our problem to figure out; we'll be sold somewhere." However, it is very challenging and concerning to us because our traditional model was all about store traffic and foot traffic. Technology has cannibalized that distribution model, no question, but what's going to come from that (is) a more vivid experience in person than you can have online. Our job will be to fit into whatever distribution model survives. We're also thinking about how we can be better at what inevitably is going to survive.

Q: How will you do that?

A: You need to listen to consumers, and social media and other ways make it easier today. But there is still a distribution model to figure out. Everything isn't necessarily as clear and as linear as we would like it to be. Distributing products online is still a little different. You have to be a company that's very familiar and adept at search, for example.

Q: Has the company been investing there?

A: We've invested a lot in understanding (information technology), understanding to a greater degree search, both in traditional ways like Google but also on platforms like Amazon and in terms of advertising and public relations and marketing. How do you spend those dollars? Because that's changed considerably as well. It's not as simple.

Q: Thermos put out a smart water bottle recently. Is the company branching into connected devices?

A: It's called our Smart Lid, launched (in 2015). Much of our development team here (is) millennials, and they are into the different sports bracelets, Fitbit, etc. The amount of activity that they have every day — it's seamless — it just goes right into the app. But with water intake, you couldn't really measure that data unless you actually put in how much you drink. This is a way you can measure your intake and measure the performance seamlessly. We found a company (called iDevices to help develop the lid). We have a partnership with Fitbit on that product.

We see lots of opportunity for that product down the road, even for kids. Parents want to make sure the kids are hydrated. I think the next generation of that product for us can be products like the Funtainers with that technology integrated.

Q: So that came about because the employees personally wanted it? Is that a common route to new products?

A: Having a team of design folks who use the product is very important, and not being stuck and fixated on your old product line. The technology, the brand and some of the core items we build and make are part of the core DNA of the company. But all of the products have evolved, whether it's a technological change or a functional change. It's super important that you continue to evolve and be thought leaders as a brand. If you don't, there will be somebody out there to replace you. I don't care if you're 100 years old or not. Nobody's going to buy your products because you're just the oldest brand out there.

amarotti@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @AllyMarotti

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