By consistently lobbing clumsy responses to public criticism, such genetic-engineering pioneers as Monsanto have been the nascent technology’s own worst enemies. These companies have placed themselves in the awkward position of arguing that their new processes don’t fundamentally change the products-as if manipulating the molecules of a tomato to extend its “freshness” doesn’t really change the fruit. A large part of the industrialized world-literally and figuratively-isn’t buying it.Indeed, the purveyors of genetically modified foods have been so thoroughly demonized that they now seek regulatory protection worldwide, and they are fighting all efforts that would force their customers to disclose whether they use any genetic engineering in their products. In other words, what might have been seen as a “feature” in an altered tomato is being regarded as a “bug.” Opponents of modified foods dismiss the notion that genetic engineering might allow for foods that are less expensive, more robust and every bit as safe and nourishing as so-called natural products.
No simple or obvious market solution exists for the innovators of genetically modified food or for any company looking to tread new ground in any industry. Much like companies that are obligated to comply with international process standards to signal their investment in quality, innovators are also being challenged to more fully disclose their compliance. A software company might produce better, faster, and cheaper products by outsourcing its development to Russia, and that’s information many key customers may want to know. The Pentagon, for example, might look askance at certain security subsystems’ being coded and tested in St. Petersburg. Perhaps public school systems will be precluded from acquiring PCs whose motherboards were produced by underage laborers in Malaysia. Soccer moms may want to avoid purchasing cosmetics that were tested on animals.
To the extent that human rights, economic development, and public safety issues might become purchasing criteria of early adopters, innovators will have to focus both time and care on assuring critical consumers that the integrity of the processes match the value propositions of the technical developments. Innovators now need “process” marketers to complement their “product” marketers. The dark underbelly of the processes that generate a brilliant innovation may ultimately subvert its success in the future marketplace.
For companies that aspire to global reach, branding their processes will matter as much as branding their products. Treating supply chains as separate and distinct from the products they create will be impossible. Innovators beware.