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GMO development should include marketing & communications research

April 9, 2020

As David Zhang explains it, the first thing consumers ask themselves before they buy something is “what’s in it for me?” In the case of the first generation of GMOs, the answer is “not much.” 

Seen through a marketing lens, it’s an elementary mistake. “I develop this (crop) because it is pest-resistant, so I don’t have to put more pesticides on the field. It’s good for the environment,” he said. “That is your unique value proposition, for sure. It’s just, ‘does the customer care?’ That’s a different story.”

Zhang is a marketing professor with the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan.

Backed with funding from Genome Prairie’s Societal Implications of Genomics Research program, he is examining existing research and conducting targeted consumer surveys to shed light on how communications and advertising strategies can change people’s minds and influence their purchasing decisions.

Most of the first GMO products in the food market were designed to deliver benefits to farmers. Herbicide-resistance meant crops could be sprayed once with a single product to control weeds, saving costs on both herbicides and fuel. Built-in pest resistance drastically reduced or eliminated the need to spray a crop to control insects.

As Zhang explains, consumers were being asked to take a risk on something with no perceived benefit directly for themselves. That said, their reluctance to buy GMOs was usually perceived as outright rejection, but analysis of the literature revealed a more subtle point.

“You’ve used the technology – the farmers have more yield, are using less inputs, pesticides, whatever. I just don’t think it’s fair that I (the consumer) am bearing all the risk – minimal risk, but I’m paying a premium for it. We want a discount.” Zhang said. “I think that this is a very different interpretation of the negative willingness to pay.”

Consumers are a savvy lot, he said. They realize and accept companies are in it to make money, but they want their piece of the pie.

“It’s a difficult question for the industry to think about. Are we willing to create value by adopting new technology and passing on the value to the customer?”

Newer GMO products, such as non-browning potatoes and apples, are specifically designed with the end consumer in mind. But even here, companies must take care to not only tout their products’ benefits, but address consumer concerns.

Zhang gives the example of non-browning apples. The marketing was all about better shelf life, easier processing, no bruising if they get bumped and slightly damaged, all of which make it easier for busy parents to add fresh apple slices to their children’s lunches. All good – but there was a flaw in the messaging.

“Now, my question is, I am a father of a young child and I buy apples every single week,” he said. “Do I want to buy apples that have been sitting there for a long time? And are already bruised, but I can’t tell? It’s not what I wanted! In fact, I hate it!”

A refocusing of the marketing message should reflect the perspective of busy parents that may be buying pre-sliced apples at a fast food restaurant or preparing a fruit salad at home. Non-browning apples stay pretty without preservatives; they’re all-natural and stay attractive and ready-to-eat, right off the tree.

Zhang advises that product developers using genetic engineering get away from defensive messaging, for example, insisting that GMOs are nothing to worry about; they are not unnatural. Defensive messages only invite counterarguments in the consumers’ minds. Instead, they should focus on consumer benefits – even indirect benefits that speak to values that customers hold dear.

For example, herbicide resistant and pest resistant crops help farmers, yes. But they are also gentle on the environment, allowing producers to conserve soils and work more closely with natural cycles. They target only pest insects, leaving other insects alone – including species such as bees and monarch butterflies that are highly valued in the public eye. Especially with pesticides, the absence of chemical residues is a huge benefit to all consumers.

Zhang cautions that such messages can have a limited shelf life. While “environment” may be the buzzword of the day, consumer interest is fickle and what works today may not be effective in a few years.He explains that it takes a great deal of time and millions of dollars to develop a product; a modest portion should be assigned to answer the question: will the consumer buy it? Or, how can we position this product so that it is attractive to the consumer? It’s a proposition he recently made to a prospective industry partner.

“I got into the meeting and I basically made a pitch that before you actually do this, maybe let’s see if the consumers will be open to the idea. And it’s only going to cost you a small amount to find out.”