When you ask people what they think of Monsanto, it doesn’t take long for the four-letter word to come out.
"I hate Monsanto," Jackie King said emphatically, while shopping at the farmer’s market in Tower Grove Park.
King said she doesn’t like GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, that Monsanto helped pioneer in the 1980s. The subject of GMOs came up a lot, but shoppers at the market looking over locally-grown vegetables voiced a lot of concerns about the company, from patented seeds to its impacts on small farmers.
Suzanne Carron said she worries about organic farmers and whether Monstanto's GMO products are affecting their crops.
"Are they really being honest about the work that they’re doing? Are they really concerned about the farmers?" she asked.
Joining the conversation
Monsanto’s headquarters is just a few miles away from the Tower Grove Farmers Market in Creve Coeur on a campus that looks more like a small college than a corporation. CEO and chairman Hugh Grant could easily be a professor. He’s approachable but unflappable when asked about all the vitriol the company generates.
Instead he tells a kind of joke to explain why Monsanto is a target.
"I always say, I used to go to parties and people would say, 'What do you do?' and I’d say, 'I’m in agriculture,' and they’d say, 'How unfortunate,'" Grant said, "But today, there’s a lot of interest. And I think it begins with where food comes from."
Grant readily admits Monsanto was slow to respond to that growing interest. He said the company was so focused on farmers, that they failed to communicate with those eating the food the farmers produce.
"The slow realization for us is that we’re part of a much bigger community," he said. "It goes beyond the field and beyond the grower and eventually reaches the consumer. And we have a part to play in that. It's going to be difficult, but we have a part to play in that conversation."
Now Monsanto is trying to reach out, especially to moms and millennials.
The company is encouraging its employees to talk about their work on social media; there’s a new director of millennial engagement (recently highlighted on NPR’s the salt blog); and Monsanto had a presence at last month’s SXSW Eco conference in Austin.
Yet, the biggest move to date is the launch this week of a national advertising campaign.
The TV ad shows people gathered around tables and sharing food, something marketing professor Carol Johanek said anyone can relate to.
"Step one is to make that brand approachable to the end consumer," said Johanek, who teaches at Washington University’s Olin Business School.
She said Monsanto is working to soften the company’s image which is necessary before it can tackle more technical topics, such as GMOs.
"Once people are receptive to a brand emotionally, they can hear a message," Johanek said. "l think a lot of the issue with biotechnology and GMOs is that people really don’t understand what that means."
Monsanto is trying to get to the education piece, too.
The company is encouraging consumers to ask them questions directly through a new website highlighted in the advertisements.
Monsanto’s corporate brand lead, Jessica Simmons, said the company's goal is to be transparent about everything from questions on GMOs, to sustainable farming, to the company’s history.
"We don’t have anything to hide," she said. "That’s part of what we’re doing here, we’re making sure that people understand that we’re open, that we want to connect and that we’re excited to engage with consumers."
It's not entirely clear if Monsanto's efforts will bear any fruit. At the Tower Grove farmer’s market some shoppers said they’re open to hearing what Monsanto has to say. Others, like mom Sarah Drake, said it’s not likely she’ll take the time to listen.
"I’ve made up my mind," she said. "I know what they stand for."
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