The world’s anti-GMO activists won’t have Monsanto to kick around much longer.
Bayer, which bought the agricultural company last week, will retire the Monsanto name as soon as it’s allowed to integrate the two businesses, which will happen after it completes some divestitures.
Branding experts say the decision was a no-brainer, given the baggage that accompanied the Monsanto name. “Bayer sees that the Monsanto brand is rat poison in the public eye,” says Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants in Irvine, Calif. “It’s a threat to their brand to allow the name to continue.”
Even though Bayer, DuPont and other companies make competing lines of agricultural chemicals and genetically modified seeds, Monsanto always seemed to be activists’ No. 1 enemy. The Creve Coeur firm even showed up on a list of America’s most hated companies.
Such hatred dates to the early days of genetically modified crops, when Monsanto refused to take its critics seriously. Former Chief Executive Robert Shapiro, who was hit in the face with a tofu cream pie after one speech, acknowledged that the company “irritated and antagonized” people in its zeal to promote the technology.
Hugh Grant, who departed as CEO with the sale to Bayer, took a less confrontational approach, but the baggage remained. Critics even persisted in tying Monsanto’s brand to its distant chemical-company past, when it made deadly products such as PCBs and Agent Orange.
“It’s telling, isn’t it, that a 117-year-old brand name has gotten so poisonous they’ve had to walk away from it,” says Eric Thoelke, president of St. Louis branding firm TOKY.
The question now is whether the Bayer brand, which goes on prescription and over-the-counter drugs in addition to farm products, will be tainted by the controversy that has always surrounded Monsanto.
Raphael Thomadsen, associate professor of marketing at Washington University’s Olin Business School, thinks that’s a risk. “Unless the company is going to change some of its practices, it’s hard to see that the Bayer name is not going to get some of the same associations that Monsanto had,” he said.
Jason Davidson, a food and technology campaigner at Friends of the Earth, expects the environmental group to be as critical of Bayer as it has always been of Monsanto and its products, such as Roundup herbicide.
“In our mind, they’re not going to be acquiring these products to stop selling them,” he said. “Because a lot of our work is product focused, we don’t expect our approach to change.”
Liam Condon, president of Bayer’s crop science division, said last week that the name-change decision was backed by research. “We simply had a strong belief that the Bayer brand has a very strong, positive recognition, simply based on brand audits that we’ve done worldwide,” he explained. “This is something that we couldn’t say about the Monsanto corporate brand.”
Condon also said Monsanto itself had considered a name change but “didn’t do it because of cost reasons.” A Monsanto spokeswoman said he could have been referring to discussions in 2000, when Monsanto was owned by drug company Pharmacia and was preparing for an initial stock offering, or in 2015, when Monsanto tried to buy Swiss rival Syngenta.
Both times, Monsanto opted to stay connected with its rich heritage. The company, founded in 1901, was named after Olga Monsanto Queeny, wife of its founder.
Bayer’s German executives felt no such nostalgia. They paid $63 billion for Monsanto’s products and what they see as its rich future, but needed to make a clean break with its past.