Innovation Spotlight: David Harnesses the Power of Creative Storytelling

No matter who you are or where you come from; no matter your age, your background, your dreams—we are all drawn to the power of a compelling story.

It’s how we share our thoughts, shape our actions, and impart our knowledge to one another. For a diversified manufacturer like Milliken that is grounded in science, storytelling is the way we demonstrate the transformative potential of our products to impact the world around us.  

David Karstad, who joined Milliken when we welcomed Polartec into the company last year, is a master storyteller. Today, he shares his take on the power of a story and how words can amplify our impact around the world.

Tell us about your role and how you came to be in this career.
As vice president of marketing and creative director for Milliken’s Polartec business, my role encompasses all things marketing and brand. I get to share our unique story with both customers who purchase and use our fabrics and consumers who wear them. With a team that stretches from Milan to Massachusetts and out to Portland, Oregon, we get the honor of making the science of fabric cool!   

I’ve been in my current position for a year and with the Polartec brand for seven. I’ve been in the athletic/outdoor soft goods space my entire career—starting at adidas and Vans, and then as the founder of a creative agency for 18 years. Part science nerd, part athlete, part creative, I knew early on this was the role for me. Polartec was the right spot for me to land.  

The Polartec business is a new addition to Milliken & Company, can you tell us more about the Polartec brand?
The Polartec business is premium producer of innovative and sustainable performance textile solutions. That’s ‘what’ we are. ‘Who’ we are is more complex.  

We’re knitters, descendants of a 100-year-old New England mill family. We’re also inventors, engineers, and scientists who regularly advance fabric science into category-defining innovations—from developing synthetic fleece, one of the 20th century’s great material advances, to the reinvention of softshell weather protection, NeoShell; from pioneering sustainable manufacturing and the use of recycled plastic as raw resource to introducing a whole new insulation type, Polartec Alpha, that regulates temperature. We don’t just invent fabric. We create categories. In that sense, we’re innovators!  

Finally, we’re enthusiasts and evangelists. Our insights into fabric performance come from the fact that we, too, are end users, and our passion for what we do comes from a culture of collaboration. We get to work with other passionate people, other experts in their fields, to create something new or to solve problems. To me, this is one of the more exciting synergies of Polartec joining Milliken—solving intractable problems is what we do.

Polartec looks to solve problems with unique fabric technologies. Can you give us an example of that?
If we’re talking about solving problems with unique fabric solutions, we’re talking about Power Air. We set out to create a new type of mid-layer fabric—something that’s both warm and visually interesting. We wanted it to be even more three dimensional than our Power Grid fabric, the original grid fleece that’s now a part of our performance and protective fabric offerings. Kind of like a fuzzy bubble wrap.  

It was in this pursuit we envisioned encapsulating lofted fibers, the things that trap air and keep you warm, inside visible ‘pods.’ This, in a sense, turns the fuzzy bubble wrap look inside out. By doing this, we discovered this knitting technique could dramatically reduce the amount of fiber shedding seen with typical fleece—between five to 10 times less! Once we saw this potential, Power Air became the biggest development effort in our history, and we created the first textile specially designed to deliver a performance function, keeping you warm, while reducing microfiber shedding. Pretty cool.

In what way(s) is the Polartec brand upholding the vision of Milliken’s 2025 sustainability goals?
Our values-based business perspectives aligned Milliken and Polartec, which made the acquisition a perfect fit; yet, the bold commitment of Milliken’s sustainability goals encourages us to redefine our efforts. It is exciting to join an organization that is making these kinds of meaningful impacts and is committed to empowering the big, innovative thinking of our associates.  

I believe the Polartec business can contribute to these lofty goals, especially as it relates to environmental impact. It is a path we’ve been on for more than 25 years, and 1.5 billion plastic bottles later, we’ve only increased our dedication to redefining raw material to include recycled inputs. Every year, we convert more and more of our products to this goal—now 200 fabric styles and counting. Bolstered by Milliken’s science-based problem solving, I have to think our collective progress towards these 2025 goals will show we’ve only scratched the surface.  

How does marketing enhance your ability to tell the Polartec brand story of sustainable and innovative fabric construction?
I might say marketing doesn’t just enhance a brand’s ability to tell a story, it’s how a brand tells its story. Otherwise, all we have is rumor or dinner conversation!  

As a branded textile provider, Polartec occupies a unique space as part B2B supplier, part B2C brand enhancer. This means every story we have to tell, like our dedication to sustainable fabric construction, must be told from very different perspectives. Often, that’s reflected in how deep we go in describing technology, features, benefits, or principles. Or it’s reflected in where we reach the audience. In all cases, it’s this integrated mix of stories and tactics that achieve the best results.

Luckily, something the B2B and B2C worlds have in common is both markets are comprised of human beings. And people tend to respond to similar themes—themes that are strong, unique, and engaging. This is really the secret to our sauce: respect every potential customer with compelling content and they’ll reward us with a positive relationship, a lasting connection, and ultimately, purchasing our products. All which enables our ability to positively impact the world around us for generations to come.