THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
EDEN BIOSCIENCES SENDS MESSAGE TO MEDIA AS MESSENGER DELIVERS
Den Gardner, Contributing Editor
Back in early April, while conducting my duties as editorial director of Ag Retailer magazine, I spent three days in Tampa, Fla., learning about a new product from a relatively unknown company - EDEN Bioscience out of Bothell, WA.
The product was called Messenger. At the time of the three-day meeting, the company was expecting labeling of the product any day. It was being called a new class of crop protection technology for control of plant diseases and suppression of certain insects, mites and nematodes, with a growth enhancer to boot. The product's active ingredient is a naturally occurring protein produced by bacteria called harpin. The product is labeled for use on cotton, citrus, tomato, wheat, tobacco, pepper and other "minor use" crops.
Those of us over the years who have watched the federal government agency responsible for labeling products - our friends at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - know this process takes years to accomplish. We also know that potential users sometimes look at biopesticides somewhat skeptically.
But the EPA was pretty fired up about this product. In fact, its Office of Pesticide programs, in a Web site update, used this paragraph to describe Messenger:
"Reduced risk and broad spectrum" - contradictory claims for a pesticide, you say. Add - plant growth enhancement, yield increases, reduced pest infestations, non-toxic to non-targets, enhanced drought tolerance - and you're incredulous? Data from an experimental program conducted by EDEN Bioscience Corp. demonstrated these qualities for a new biopesticide called Messenger.
What got me interested in this story was the fact that I knew very little about Messenger prior to the media event in Tampa. And neither did the 20 or so media folks who joined me for the media event. And the product technology introduction, as it turned out, was only a few weeks before EPA label approval was granted.
While all of this activity at EPA was going on behind the scenes, the folks at EDEN Biosciences belatedly decided that if labeling was imminent, it better find a quick way to get some significant media coverage. And Jerry Butler, president and CEO of EDEN, wanted more than just a news release written for the media. Truth be told, Butler wasn't exactly sure what he wanted.
"We did know we wanted to get the word out quickly and work with an agency that had a fundamental understanding of agriculture," Butler recalls. "Because we were so late coming to the table, we needed an agency with instant credibility. I immediately liked Lyle Orwigís laid back style. I don't work well with someone who uses a lot of adjectives."
So, Charleston|Orwig, Inc., Hartland, Wis., got the assignment. With less than 60 calendar days to put together a three-day media event for a product and technology no one really knew much about, the agency went to work. "We made the decision, because word was beginning to leak out about this technology, that it was time to come out of the box and explain what we were doing and why," Butler says. "And we wanted to solicit the help of the ag industry media to take the product to the next level."
Lynn Balinas, who led the agency publicity effort with Orwig, Tina McDonald, Mark Moore and others at Charlston|Orwig, Inc., says when the assignment came in January, the two of them looked at either and rhetorically asked: "Can we get this done internally in such a short time and can we get ag editors to come on such short notice?" Balinas says the answer was a resounding yes!
"Once we became convinced of the efficacy of the product and the data, it was clear that what EDEN Bioscience wanted from us was credibility," Balinas says.
It's no secret that some of these products in the past have been labeled, whether fair or not, as snake oil. It helped when the Charleston|Orwig folks learned that the original harpin protein was discovered at Cornell University in the early 1990s and that EDEN Biosciences formed a business partnership with Cornell. In fact, the university is a major shareholder in EDEN Biosciences and will receive a small royalty on sales. The companyís vice president and director of research, Dr. Zhongmin Wei, was one of the discoverers of the harpin protein at Cornell.
"It was quite a logistical process when you think about it - our agency is sitting in the heart of the Midwest, EDEN is based near Seattle, and most of what we learned about the product in field trials was in Florida," Balinas says. "But we went with the four basic building blocks in putting this all together - preparation, preparation, preparation and preparation."
MEETING MEDIA EXPECTATIONS
The three-day meeting was a combination of user testimonials, a field trip to citrus groves in central Florida, seminars from company officials and university researchers, as well as one-on-one interview opportunities. "We had to create a true coming out party," Butler says. "Introducing the product when we did was the right thing to do, the right strategy, and our timing was good." (The media event ended April 6 and the product was labeled April 26.)
Butler says it took a combination of intrigue with the product and the credibility of an agency like Charlston|Orwig to get media there. "The fundamental technology was somewhat unbelievable," he says. "We were very concerned that the product be presented in a professional manner and that people would understand it. That's why we took the media to the field - so they could see it, touch it, kick it. We all felt it would be much easier to write about it. That's all we wanted."
Balinas says the agency worked a lot of nights and weekends to pull the event off with just a couple months of preparation. "EDEN told us not to do this if we couldn't do it first class," he says. "We were somewhat surprised how little was known about the technology, despite all that Cornell had done and how some of the science magazines had reported on it over the years. But I don't think I'd like to start every new account with this massive an assignment. It was fortunate that everyone who worked on this at our agency had at least eight years of experience. I'm not sure we could have done it without that knowledge."
GRADING IT OUT
Major pieces about Messenger appeared in both ag and consumer media. Overall, information about Messenger found its way into 211 publications, with 15.5 million gross impressions, the agency says. There were many additional broadcast hits as well.
Butler gave the media effort an A. "I can't say we're ahead of our sales projections at this time exactly because of the media event, but I do know if we hadn't done it, we wouldn't have gotten the worldwide response to the product."
Response in the U.S. has been tremendous. "We can't even respond to all the requests in the states," Butler says. "The product is on the ground in Florida vegetables and we expect to follow up in the spring on citrus and cotton.
"From the standpoint of publicity, we'll be very targeted in the future. We don't need anymore inquiries right now," he says. "Our first blast last spring got the technology on people's radar screen very nicely. And we owe that to Lyle and his group. Now we're going to focus on getting product on the ground and establishing the technology." AM
Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.