NAMA'S TOP MARKETER MARSHALLS BIOTECH ADOPTION
Candace Krebs, Contributing Editor
Amid a seemingly endless series of meetings on the Monsanto "campus," Wendell Knehans pauses for a moment to appraise his role in an industry hot seat but also a throne of opportunity - expanding the life science kingdom’s biotechnology and genetics businesses.
"If we can continue to focus on impeccable science that gives us the freedom to pursue our technologies, we will continue to prosper and participate in more of the total value in the food chain," he says during a phone interview, glancing occasionally at pictures of his wife Elizabeth and two children, Sam and Mari. "Once we have more consumer- oriented products, we’ll look back on this five-year segment of history and say, ‘I’m sure glad we worked through those issues, because we’ve created a better place.’"
Genetically modified crops come with "issues." Knehans - director of marketing for Monsanto’s wholly owned subsidiary Corn States Hybrid Services LLC and a NAMA member since his days at the University of Missouri - juggles the "challenging and difficult" role of expanding biotech use while allaying public fears. As a result, his peers recognized him as this year’s NAMA Marketer of the Year.
Identifying the various audiences and stakeholders involved in biotechnology products has been the cornerstone of his team’s strategy. The marketers asked themselves which information sources their stakeholders preferred (doctors, nutritionists, consumer groups, etc.) and then focused on distributing data and information to these sources. They also worked to show end users and retailers the economic and long-term benefits associated with biotech in order to enlist their help in supporting it to the public.
These activities add up to more long-term knowledge and acceptance. "It makes the future possibilities more real," Knehans says.
As a company, Monsanto has re-envisioned itself along similar lines, putting renewed emphasis on being consciously and deliberately open. "This new attitude is best characterized through our company’s ‘New Monsanto Pledge,’" Knehans notes.
But Knehans suggests that Monsanto’s early efforts to explain biotech went largely rebuffed and unnoticed. "Early on in technology development, we went to the food companies, and there wasn’t really that great of interest," he says. "Once you start the conversation and say, ‘Scientifically we’ve looked at these things and they are substantially equivalent,’ the next question is, ‘If so, why are you here talking to me?’ The real issue is because there wasn’t a need for that, it didn’t really get legs and gain momentum."
At Corn States Hybrid Services, which manages all of Monsanto’s biotech trait licensing through more than 200 different seed brands, Knehans oversees marketing. Because of this broad licensing of technology, growers can pick their preferred seed brand and combine it with their preferred biotech traits and also get recommendations on agronomic systems.
"It’s win-win," he says. "We win with broader adoption, and other seed companies win by participating in another segment of the market that is a growing segment.
"Philosophically, we can all grow more value in agriculture by growing the whole pie rather than competing aggressively over the same pie that was here yesterday," he continues. "If we can teach the grower to make an extra $1.50 and then ask him to share a quarter of that back with us, he’ll be happier than if we ask him to invest the same dollar to get the same return. It’s more challenging in this economic environment, but the philosophy applies in good times and bad."
Further evidence of a more grower-friendly approach is the company’s technology value package, he adds. "We give them risk-sharing benefits, so if they have a crop loss where they have used Roundup Ready technology, we give them a refund," Knehans explains. "On one hand, it’s insurance. On the other hand, it’s insurance you can’t buy on the normal market."
Farmers and retailers also are benefiting from a more comprehensively trained sales force. "Big changes have occurred as we’ve brought the seed companies together with the herbicide-focused organization," Knehans says. "The service levels have gone up for growers and retailers, and they will now experience one person building the skills to meet both their seed and herbicide needs. It has been a changing and blending of skills as we integrate our portfolio, so we become one point of contact for them. Some people are still more comfortable with certain areas based on their background, but over time we will balance out that skill set and have people better positioned to fully answer questions regarding the whole agronomic system."
The integrated approach is a strength unique to Monsanto, Knehans contends. Most large agro-chemical companies have chosen to keep their seed company acquisitions separate organizationally.
When Knehans joined Monsanto in January 1985, adoption of conservation tillage was the big trend. Today, he looks forward to marketing new biotech corn rootworm solutions in the very near future.
"In the longer term, I look forward to some traits with more consumer value," he says. "We all wish we would have invented 10 of those first, but once we do, it will be an opportunity for consumers to really see the value." In fact, to his mind, the benefits already are being undersold.
"Consumers place a lot of emphasis on herbicide reduction," he concludes. "I think we need to consider talking about that more. We have a consumer benefit today we aren’t marketing as actively as we could as an industry." AM
Candace Krebs is a freelance journalist based in Enid, Okla.