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Dow's marketing message misses its mark

<p>Dow Chemical faces an uphill battle to convince consumers that its latest agriculture project is eco-friendly. But the company&#39;s past history, the role of herbicides in farming and strong resistence from environmental groups are presenting significant hurdles.</p>

If recent reports are any indication of how green marketing initiatives may be having a hard time finding their mark, it seems Dow Chemical Co. (NYSE: DOW) has some lessons to learn in convincing consumers it is on a sustainable path.

The Midland, Mich.-based company was recently in the line of fire as its new herbicide and genetically modified corn project, Enlist, moves closer toward regulatory appeal.

If approved, the company will roll out the new corn seeds, alongside its 2,4-D herbicide next year. The new corn will be immune to the chemical compound, which contains 2,4-D and glyphosate. The combination will be able to kill the surrounding weeds that have become resistant to the glyphosate alone, without harming the corn itself.

But convincing consumers that their new agriculture product is the greener option has been an especially challenging task for Dow.

In recent months, Dow has been spending a lot of energy denying allegations on several fronts – that 2,4-D is a threat to human health and conventional farmers (just to name a few), which has further confounded its marketing message.

Dow insists its new version of 2,4-D with glyphosate will not only kill the petulant “superweeds”, but will also prevent new weeds from building resistance, reduce soil erosion and help protect water quality by reducing agricultural runoff.

In addition, the company says it has met with thousands of agricultural stakeholders and regulatory authorities and developed a stewardship program to educate the public about its new corn and herbicide.

Still, despite all of its efforts, more than 365,000 public comments were reportedly filed with the USDA opposing approval of the genetically engineered corn. So, is the company’s message really getting through?

Looking back

Dow’s past history is a major challenge for the company as it attempts to introduce its new products. Perhaps the most sensational is its link to Agent Orange, which environmental advocates are terming the new Dow corn, arguing that it’s a carcinogen.

The company has repeatedly said that while Agent Orange contained 2,4-D, it was another herbicide, 2,4,5-T that was the cause of birth defects, cancer and other health problems, and was phased off the market in the 1980s.

From a marketing standpoint, this may create some confusion as consumers try and make sense of the conflicting information that they are presented.

Dow claims that the corn of yesteryear cannot continue to grow under current conditions. Today, most corn farmers are already dousing their corn with herbicides in order to tackle the increasingly invasive problem of superweeds. Fifteen years ago, the chemical glyphosate was practically the only herbicide farmers used to kill weeds, which in turn, through repeated use over time created weed resistance to the herbicide.

Some critics say Enlist only starts the cycle over again. While in theory, less 2,4-D would be required to be effective, it’s not clear what will actually happen in practice.

Photo of industrial irrigation equipment courtesy of  Elena Elisseeva via Shutterstock

Competing needs

One major selling point for Dow is The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent rejection of a petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council to remove the product from the market saying the evidence doesn’t show that there is a health and safety threat, despite claims in recent news reports to the contrary.

The company says it has worked with Save Our Crops Coalition for years to address its concerns regarding potential damage to neighboring crops, the effects of “drift.” Yet, despite these efforts, SOCC is not convinced. It continues to oppose Dow’s petition for non-regulated status of 2,4-D until, “effective measures are in place to protect against damage to neighboring crops.”

Looking at who benefits from the new product, many corn farmers are in favor of the pest-resistant corn. They see a need for the new biotechnology and many are helping to further Dow’s message.

In meeting its customers’ needs, companies like Dow often face the question about what happens when sustainability goals don’t align.

Dustin Mulvaney, principal and founding member of Ecoshift Consulting says competing needs creates the imbalance.

“I obviously can’t speak for all farmers, but competition and the downward pressure on food prices means that farmers have to go to great lengths to satisfy customers,” Mulvaney said. “If there’s anything not in alignment with sales, it will not be balanced. Selling food is number one.”

Educating the masses

If all of Dow’s claims that 2,4-D is a sustainable option are true, then why is Dow still facing such criticism? Why is it having such difficulty getting its message across? It depends who you ask.

The corn farmers are the ones dealing with the overzealous super weeds on a daily basis. Other farmers with nonresistant crops have seen the effects of prior herbicides with “drift.”

Perhaps some of the confusion at least derives from the complexity of the issue, said Garry Hamlin, a Dow AgroSciences spokesman. Hamlin says it’s difficult for consumers to understand the needs of feeding a global population.

“My sense is that most consumers don’t have much direct experience with agriculture, other than (in some cases) relatively smaller scale production for their own use, so they don’t really identify with the realities involved with making a living entirely by farming,” he said.

Hamlin said Dow has a diverse customer base with many different needs.

“Some of our farmer customers grow both organic and conventional food, for entirely different markets, and we produce products for both. And that’s OK,” he said. “But if you want to feed a global population of seven billion people, which is what we will be looking at mid-century, we need to farm every acre we’re going to farm to its sustainable potential.”

Future steps

Dow is also testing the same 2,4-D technology on soybeans and cotton, so this is just the first round of hoops for the company. It also isn’t the only product of its kind. Whether consumers ultimately choose to support the corn and its herbicide, should it be approved, remains to be seen. Competitors are surely listening. Its entry into the market will likely have bearing on others in development.

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