Gene-modifying agribusinesses like Monsanto have a trust problem. Consumers don't trust them. But that's only half the story. The bigger problem is these companies don't trust consumers.
Food technology was a major theme at this week's big SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin. Numerous small upstarts showed off ways to "disrupt" Big Agriculture, as well as the grocery and restaurant industries.
The entrenched players apparently felt compelled to fight back. They didn't do it very well.
General Electric (GE), perhaps unaware that Austin folks know good BBQ better than most, built a gleaming "BBQ Research Center" compound. From what I saw, most attendees snubbed GE's free food for local BBQ trucks across the street.
McDonald's (MCD) erected an enormous tent inside where it dispensed free Big Macs and fries. The taco truck across the street couldn't beat the price, but still had longer lines.
Still, I give GE and McDonald's credit for effort. I'm sure both companies knew SXSW would not be a friendly crowd but they still showed up. They brought what they had and put their brand names on the line.
Monsanto (MON), DuPont (DD) and Syngenta (SYT) showed up, too. Few attendees knew it because, unlike GE and McDonald's, the genetically modified organism (GMO) crop companies stayed undercover. They joined forces as the "Council for Biotechnology Information" to build a fancy new website (GMOAnswers.com) and an elaborate indoor exhibit with live plants.
In fairness, the Council does disclose its sponsoring companies, deep in the "About" section of the website. They know few readers will look there. The rest of GMO Answers tries very hard to look neutral and unbiased.
In fact, the site is anything but neutral and unbiased. Its core assumptions are that 1) the GMO industry is flawless and scientifically perfect, and 2) we consumers aren't smart enough to understand this on our own. GMO Answers exists to enlighten us.
Here's how their website puts it: "The biotech industry stands 100 percent behind the health and safety of the GM crops on the market today, but we acknowledge that we haven't done the best job communicating about them."
See, it's all a misunderstanding, and the misunderstanding is all on our side of the dinner table. Since we aren't getting it, GMO Answers will get down on one knee like a kindly grandpa showing a child how to bait his fishhook. We are supposed to smile and nod gratefully.
Here's my advice to GMO Answers and its sponsors: Communication is a two-way process. Your expensive public relations campaign is going to fail because it is arrogant and self-centered.
You cannot start by presuming you are always right and any unhappy consumers must be uninformed. You have to listen to their concerns and — this is the key — be willing to CHANGE your business practices to meet those concerns.
Unless you do this, the millions you've spent will go up in smoke.
Stop hiding under a contrived identity, too. If Monsanto or the others really believe in their products, they should stand behind them proudly, under their own names.
Finally, show some humility. If, as seems clear, American consumers don't like what you are doing, then do something different. It won't kill you.
It might be your only chance to live.
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