Monday, June 3, 2013

Monsanto's GMO's: Viral Marketing Done Wrong.

Sell seed. Let it spread. Sue. 

(When Crossing the Chasm also means burning bridges.)

You’re probably hearing a lot about Monsanto these days. Not just the nice words Bill Gates has had to say about them boosting food production. It is all the negative imagery of marching farmers and nasty blowback about GMO’s - genetically modified foods.

The really interesting story – the one you almost certainly haven’t heard – is that Monsanto created a dominant position in onetime commodity seed marketplace by tapping virality - but at the eventual cost of turning the public against them.

They were able to use a kind viral marketing with a decidedly robber baron mentality. Their enemies were able to use real viral marketing with PR and Social Media to turn Monsanto into the evil empire of agriculture.

Is this a warning lesson for an old world company stepping into a marketplace that can fight back through Social Media?

Monsanto is one of the first companies to patent a genetically modified soybean with an additional gene that made it resistant to their best-selling weedkiller, Roundup. That meant a farmer using their genetically modified soybeans could safely cropdust his field with the very effective Roundup that killed all the weeds and none of their crop, which it would do with heirloom soybeans.

Having worked on a farm I know that farmers are not generally opposed to GMO’s or weedkillers. They know that nature mutates all the time and is constantly sending organisms intent on destroying their crops. But now many of them are – thanks to Monsanto taking viral marketing the wrong way.

Anyone who has read Crossing the Chasm, the classic on introducing a new product to the marketplace, knows that it is based on the model of seed distribution in the 19th Century. It is really hard to get farmers to adopt new seed because of the risk and commitment it takes. So initially, only farmers with real problems or nothing to lose would adopt a new seed. Once the crop succeeded, other slightly larger farmers would catch on while the established middle ground of farmers would be the hardest to enlist.

Monsanto already had the best-selling weedkiller, Roundup to leverage and so they were able jump several chasms and get to very well established farmers who were already their users.

But in order to dominate the market they did a kind of reverse viral marketing. Since the one thing plants do is spread their seed, it wasn’t long before neighboring farmers were sprouting Monsanto GMO seeds. Instead of acting like Tony Hsieh at Zappos or Gary V of the “Thank You Economy” and using the experience as a kind of sampling mechanism, they sued the farmers that were cultivating their seed claiming patent infringement and in several instances won ownership of their crops.

They went after so-called seed cleaners, people who had helped farmers for generation recover seeds from their own crops. Since Monsanto’s customers signed a single use agreement when buying the seed – thereby turning them in to subscription customers – they treated the seed cleaners as pirates.

There are many complications here and subsidiary arguments such as whether patent law was ever intended to apply to living organisms. More importantly, there is debate over and whether patent law which is all about creating innovation and novelty could applied so coercively to an act of nature – the biologically necessity to spread seed. From Monsanto’s point of view they were all pirates and so far despite all the outcry and the hundreds of thousands of farmers who use their product, there have less that 200 lawsuits.

Then reap what you sow...

While there may well have been pirating and numerous attempts by farmers to test Monsanto, the reality is that most cases were settled because of the sheer weight of their legal department. Most importantly, there is no sign of Monsanto acting to remediate the stray spreading of seed. In other words if you believe GMO’s were bad and didn’t want them on your property Monsanto would make no effort to remove them, so the dice was clearly loaded.

From a Social PR perspective however, it is clear that Monsanto has blundered and is reaping a whirlwind. Yes, they have profited in the billions but only at the expensive of a rising tide opposition, demonization at its most effective - as the Frankenstein of Agriculture, the maker of GMO’s.

The fact that GMO’s are probably necessary to feed a growing world has been overshadowed and in the log run, while Monsanto will probably be OK, they will spend years battling what has become an epithet. In many ways, they resemble Microsoft – essentially owning the operating system of the dominant herbicide resistant gene and then buying up distributors and forcing smaller players and biotech start-ups to pay licensing fees for the use of their gene. (See Monsanto & Competition in USA Today.)

So, how does a Midwestern giant fight the crowd? Mostly, they don’t have to because the crowd needs to be fed. But that could change. Just as the Microsoft was being sued by a for anti-trust violations by a Justice department that ran on Microsoft Windows, they are facing anti-trust investigations by people who eat the product of their seed. If enough of the public is riled up about GMO’s, as they are in Europe, they could see that litigation mushroom.

Perhaps their biggest competition may be the public itself and the ability of the Internet to spread knowledge faster than their seeds. Could a renegade seed movement develop? One example is the guerilla Fruit grafting movement in California which defied local government to bring fruit trees into city sites. Will that spread? Will there be an open seed movement? Seed hackers? A farm underground? Will the lessons of the music industry and its ultimately failed attempt to sue to MP3’s out of existence be repeated here. Will this generation breed agrohackers who will go after genetic engineering the same way - using the Internet, advanced computing, labs on a chip, 3D printing and the tools that only the big companies once had?


© 2013 Alan Brody

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