Brands Behaving Badly

From the sublimely irresponsible to the ridiculously silly, here is a subjective assessment of three companies involved in particularly bad behaviour.

1. Monsanto

Monsanto is an agricultural biotechnology company that has been instrumental in developing some of the world’s most favourite things: Agent Orange, polystyrene, ‘Round Up’ and the world’s first nuclear bomb. Hoorah! Now, Monsanto is stripped back to become what looks like a laser focused enterprise on a mission to control the world’s food supply.

This has raised the dire of campaigners worldwide, such as Vandanya Shiva and her Navdanya organisation. Estimates are that its genetically modified (GM) food (namely corn, soybeans, sorghum, and other staples), are now in 70% of American food.

One of the most stellar recent accomplishments of Monsanto is its development of ‘sterile seeds,’ affectionately known as ‘Terminators’. You plant them once, and that’s it. Presto! They’ll never germinate again.

For its efforts it has been accused of biopiracy and a threat to biodiversity. As a result, poor Monsanto has had to make a public statement that it doesn’t intend to release Terminators into the food supply because then it would have God-like omnipotence and that is something very very bad that it would never, ever want.

Forgive my profound ignorance, but if “feeding the world’s growing population” is your mission, wouldn’t you want your new products in development to be kind of like the opposite of a Terminator? Anyhoo.

Instead of spreading Terminators, Monsanto currently enters into contracts with its customer farmers, particularly in countries such as India, Mexico and Spain, to purchase its GM versions of its seed each and every year.

The farmers must promise not to save the seed or try to replant them. As they are under contract, if they want to grow anything the year following each harvest, they need to buy more seeds from the company.

Nothing like the threat of starvation and death to motivate a repeat purchase! Bravo for a very compelling call-to-action (CTA). Seed saving is a very basic practice in subsistence agriculture. So in order to break this intransigent buyer behaviour, if you try to replant them and succeed (despite the modifications), you pay royalties to Monsanto or it will sue you for a staggeringly disproportionate amount.

So instead of spreading Terminators, Monsanto issues Contracts, which in my mind is pretty much the same thing. Monsanto’s company website has an ironic ditty about being, “all about farmers.”

Also note the brand identity. It’s simple, hand-drawn and uses rustic, colours of the earth. Conveys a lot, don’t you think. I like it. The more complex and contradictory your business, the more cutesy and unthreatening your brand identity should be. It helps convey the message that “we’re wholesome folk. What we do is as nourishing as a good bedtime story.”

Monsanto currently has projects in conjunction with Australia’s CSIRO. If you’re interested, check out MonsantoWatch

2. Santos

Santos is a publicly listed Australian company in the energy business of gas and mining. Recently it decided to launch an integrated marketing campaign with the communication objective of changing perceptions about the practice of extracting coal seam gas (CSG) from farmholdings.

The campaign positioned CSG as “win-win”; a win for farmers and communities as well the company and the environment. In an act of supreme duplicity, the owner of the property where the ad was filmed is not the man depicted taking ownership credit and asserting the beneficial partnership of his co-operation.

The real owners, in fact, Bill and Phoebe Clift, are stalwarly AGAINST Santos doing coal-seam gas mining on their property, as is the rest of the community by-and-large.

Further, the ad was shot without their knowledge or permission. In their defence, Santos said it was never overtly stated that the ‘actor’ was the property owner and permission to extensively use the private landholding was not required as much of it was shot from a public road.

Sorry? Whatever. It’s a clear breach of privacy and copyright as no Property Release was sought.

It also reminds us of…what is it… that’s right, Section 6.1 of the Trade Practices Act which forbids businesses from engaging in conduct that it misleading or deceptive.

As much as I’d love to show you, Santos wisely has pulled the campaign from YouTube where it would be subject to ridicule like this.

3. KFC

It’s a shame the story of Colonel Sanders got lost because it makes a really compelling brand narrative.

Man retires at 65 after a life of service, gets his first pension cheque, and is so angry and upset by the meagre allocation of funds granted him that he determines to go into business with his country-style fried chicken recipe.

Shame that the target buyer these days is not those who would be impassioned by his plight – seniors – but young people too naive and distracted to care about what they are actually eating.

Poor Colonel Sanders has been ditched, reinstated and now sits atop retail outlets around the world as a lonely, detached and lampoonable figurehead somewhere between the comical and the creepy.

Who knows whether ‘the secret recipe’ has changed since the Colonel, but one thing is for sure, the other ingredients have.

Now we have amazing farm fed chicks on steroids and hormones that can grow from hatchling to kill-size within weeks. And just because chicken is savoury doesn’t mean it’s not dripping with liver-destroying high fructose corn syrup.

And let’s not forget, chicken nuggets. Here’s a description of how chicken nuggets are made: from “…mechanically recovered meat (MRM) which is obtained by pushing the carcass through a giant teabag-like screen to produce a slurry which is then bound back together with polyphosphates and gums. [Felicity Lawrence, Not on the Label, Penguin Books, 2004.]

Yum! Added to this delicious-sounding broth is skin. Lots of it! It keeps the nuggets succulent before they go through the tube and are plopped out ready for their dust bath of flour and seasoning.” Mm-mmm. Getting hungry?

Kentucky Fried, oops, KFC – pardon me, is now owned by Yum! Brands, which also owns Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and others. It has a partnership with PepsiCo which is why you can get a pepsi when you get a pizza or KFC but not a Coke.

The name change came about obviously because the company wanted to lose the association with ‘fried’ because people were becoming health-conscious. But if you’ve got it, flaunt it I say.

Not everyone cares about what they eat and if they do, well, they’re not your target market. So, KFC makes the list for another reason, trying to be all things to all people.

Taking the word ‘fried’ out might change perceptions a little bit, but why not go all the way and promote yourself as the authentic brand your are: a Frankensteinian concoction of seriously deleterious chemicals, hormones and animal cruelty, exactly formulated for those who are likely to care the least – 15-year-olds. Got any other you want to add to the list? [related]