DUPONT-BUNGE SOLD ON SOY PROTEIN
by Mark Ingebretsen, Contributing Editor
When Bunge Ltd. and DuPont announced the completion of their joint venture Solae in early April, the news caused barely a ripple, even in much of the agricultural press. Which is surprising considering the $800-million (revenues) deal linked one of the world's largest chemical companies with the largest soybean processor in this hemisphere.
Indeed, a look past the headlines shows that The Solae Company will easily dominate one of the fastest-growing niches in the agriculture industry.
According to the official announcement, the agreement involves two steps. Under step one, DuPont will contribute its Protein Technologies business. In exchange, White Plains, N.Y.-based Bunge will throw in its North American and European ingredients operations. Bunge will also contribute its Brazilian ingredients operations. The South American operations will bring diversification to soy supply and production, which is otherwise concentrated in North America and Europe, explains Hunter Smith, Bunge's director of global communications.
The Quest for Healthy Foods
But, as with any corporate matchup of this scale, there's likely a good deal more to the story than what the headlines tell. For starters, some see the linkup as further evidence that soy additives have come of age. New Farm magazine, for example, recently noted that soy was destined to play a major role in the increasingly important market for nutraceuticals, that is, foods that provide health benefits in addition to sustenance. A visit to just about any supermarket will reveal soy proteins in nearly every aisle - from substitute meats to health and diet drinks and energy snacks.
Sales of these so-called functional foods already top $18 billion per year and, by some estimates, could reach $33 billion annually by 2005, the Nutrition Business Journal notes.
Those numbers haven't been lost on Solae's competitors. In International Food Ingredients magazine, Michelle Jones, technical manager for Europe for ADM Natural Health and Nutrition, spoke of a growing awareness about the benefits of eating healthy.
Moreover, the market right now is still in its nascent stages. Announcing the deal, Bunge chief financial officer Bill Wells told analysts at a recent Goldman Sachs agricultural forum in New York that the soy ingredient market is still relatively small, about $1.3 billion a year, according to Reuters. But, Wells said growth approaches "about 10 percent per annum."
In fact, it may be far higher than that. Chris Magnuson, domestic marketing manager for the United Soybean Board, says one study shows an estimated 20 percent annual growth for soyfoods.
Some predict the real catalyst for growth will come once bioengineered soy additives hit the market. "The Solae deal could speed development of other soyfoods that can fight cancer and strengthen bones," John Becherer, chief executive of the United Soybean Board, told the Post-Dispatch.
Chemical and Engineering News noted that the Solae joint venture would likely draw on DuPont's extensive research into the soy genome. The goal, according to the article, is for the new company to create improved conventional bean varieties and genetically modified beans.
No coincidence, using biotechnology to engineer "soybeans with improved quality traits" was one of three benefits of the Solae joint venture highlighted at an annual agricultural forum held by Goldman Sachs earlier this year.
What's in a Name
Smith at Bunge claims that Solae sees bioengineered soy additives entering the product mix in perhaps five to 10 years. But in the meantime, Solae already enjoys a formidable market advantage. Specifically, the Solae name itself represents the industry's most ambitious attempt so far to create a consumer brand around a protein additive, in the same way artificial sweetener producers have used Equal and Nutrasweet.
The Solae logo appears prominently on product labels that contain the additive, and brand managers have worked hard to build awareness among influential consumers, among them, fitness buffs. In a case study on its Web sites, David Eng Communications describes efforts to market the brand with milk and soy-based cookies at runners events in New York and elsewhere, with the idea that these buzz generators would viral-market the brand to others.
Also, before the merger even took place, DuPont Protein Technologies reached out to mainstream consumers, positioning Solae as a "good tasting" as well as nutritious additive. To reinforce that message, the Solae Web site (www.solae.com) features recipes, homey columns and guest appearances by notable chefs. The goal is to overcome soy stereotypes by impressing on consumers that protein additives, in addition to being healthy, can be tasty and possess a pleasant consistency and mouth feel.
The efforts have evidently paid off. As far back as 2001, DuPont conducted independent research, which found that, "Given the choice between similar products (with and without the Solae 'good health seal'), 90 percent would rather buy the Solae-branded product."
To build on these consumer efforts, Solae officials continue to work with the food producers who add Solae to their products, devising co-branding strategies, while helping nutritionists maximize the additive's taste and health benefits. With these efforts comes the result that the brand appears in a growing list of foods including V8 Splash Smoothies and Snapple-A-Day brand products.
Branding Protein Like a Microprocessor
The DuPont-Bunge joint venture likely will bring a new stable of products to the Solae banner. To speed consumer acceptance, Smith says the marketing approach using the Solae logo is similar to the way Intel builds awareness for its microchips. A computer manufacturer, for example, might display the "Intel Inside" logo. And consumers get the message that any number of different-generation Intel processors might be affixed to the PC's motherboard. By the same token, Solae will be an umbrella label that could include a variety of additives. Take Alphaprotein, for example, the liquid-soluble protein concentrate produced by a Bunge-affiliate company that is being targeted at sports drinks. And those drinks would display the Solae label. "Ultimately, Solae is not soy-specific," says Smith. "As other vegetable protein and food ingredients are developed that may not come from soy, Solae can be an umbrella for all of them."
It hasn't hurt Solae that the Food and Drug Administration now permits food makers to tout the heart-health benefits of soy additives on their labels. Ever since the FDA ruling, a number of companies have reportedly rushed to introduce soy additives - for the simple reason that additives placed invisibly within fruit drinks or snack bars and other foods allow consumers to get the soy content to improve their health, without resorting to fringe foods.
But Solae easily reigns over its competitors. Archer Daniels Midland Co. has pursued a similar strategy with its own $150-million-per-year brand Nutrisoy additive, putting it in a distant second place.
Smith says ADM and Cargill's protein additives will remain Solae's leading competitors in the foreseeable future. For one thing, it takes money and the ability to invest it sans return for long periods in order to develop additives with viable consumer appeal, he says. For that reason, too, merging an R&D giant like DuPont with an agrimarketing firm makes perfect sense, he says. "We bring the chain, they bring the science," he says.
Mark Ingebretsen writes on technology, business and finance from his home in Iowa. His most recent book on the history of the Nasdaq stock market was published in March 2002. He also writes "The Daily Scan: for the Wall Street Journal online.