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A source of enjoyment or pleasure; amusing diversion. Well, that's one dictionary definition. Those of us living in the world of ag communications in recent years haven't seen a whole lot of "fun," have we? It's mostly been attempts by ag companies to get the most out of tight and ever-decreasing budgets. Do more with fewer people. Maybe even layoffs. Gosh, let the fun continue!

But when I spoke recently with Mike O'Brien of Cargill Dow LLC, Minnetonka, Minn., and Steve Halsey of Gibbs & Soell Public Relations, New York, about the public relations and promotion efforts involved in two events in 2002, both used the word "fun" to describe their work environment. And the more they talked about their worldwide communications tactics to convince media that NatureWorks PLA (commercial-grade plastic resins made from corn used for packaging and fiber products) was a viable alternative to petroleum-based materials, the more excited they got.

Cargill Dow LLC got the attention of consumer magazines with a breakfast in bed promotion, featuring this comforter, part of a new, superior-performing bedding collection, comprised of corn-derived NatureWorks(TM) fibers and developed by Pacific Coast Feather Company.
Who wouldn't have fun? A media breakfast in bed at a posh New York City hotel, complete with pillows, comforters and mattress pads filled with fibers made from corn, sounds like fun to me too!

I suppose it helps to have something innovative to talk about. I also suppose O'Brien and Halsey and his team at the agency can be encouraged as they were responsible for thousands of feature stories published about the technology the past couple of years. And taking the technology and products to consumer and trade media (non-ag) presents not only challenges, but "fun" opportunities to take what's been done traditionally with ag media and transfer it to other industries.


Cargill Dow LLC employees, customers and special guests celebrated the grand opening of the first global-scale manufacturing facility capable of making plastics from corn on April 2, 2002, in Blair, Neb.
"Actually, it has been a lot of fun," O'Brien says. "We all know it's been a little frustrating in ag communications in recent years. We like to think we know the ag markets really well and what it takes to influence the media. We've taken what we've learned in ag and moved it to influencing the magazines with the most impact in the fiber and packaging industries for Cargill Dow.

"It's pretty complicated and demanding, but fun these past two years. When you add consumer media, the markets are huge. We've really had to rely on our expertise as communicators to globally figure out which magazines and other consumer media to target."

Halsey, who works on the account out of the Chicago office along with team members Jill Carey-Hargrave, Jennifer Paxinos, Jennifer Gray, Stephanie Kurtz and Ron Loch, says this has really been a "fun project." He says it helps to have a client who understands and values PR.

"How rare is it these days when we not only have a great story to tell but get to deal with something that has the potential to change the world for the better," explains Halsey, client service manager for the agency. "The PR aspects of the communications tactics were front-loaded. That helped us get off to a great start in telling the media our story about using renewable resources like corn to make products."


Two specific events in 2002 highlight the communications efforts. One was the grand opening of the PLA manufacturing plant in Blair, Neb. This event had two PR objectives - celebrate the opening of the plant with employees and, secondly, let the worldwide media (representing ag, business, plastics and fibers trade books, as well as radio and TV) know that the vision back in 1999 of building this facility turned into reality.

"Cargill Dow wanted employees to know they made the difference," Halsey says. This recognition meant flying approximately 250 employees to Omaha, a walking tour of the manufacturing plant and a gala event at the Omaha Zoo. The next day, political, government (Senators, former director for the CIA and various members of Congress) and company leaders were informed about Cargill Dow's intentions for the present and the future.

One key part of the program was a satellite uplink from the plant where facility workers' children dedicated a time capsule. Breakout sessions on products being made from NatureWorks PLA were highlighted for the media. Overall, O'Brien and Halsey claim overwhelmingly "positive coverage in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia."

Trade coverage reached more than 3.8 million readers, television had an audience reach of more than 473,000, and radio coverage was broadcast on more than 300 stations. National wire coverage was achieved, and major ag trade pubs covered the event as well.

"This event gave us a chance to show the media that what we said we were going to do three years ago, we accomplished," O'Brien says.

Cargill Dow showed off its environmentally friendly bedding line by sending pillow samples to home and lifestyle editors at select newspapers.
Meanwhile, a couple months later, Cargill Dow joined with Pacific Coast Feather Company to introduce comfort products made from corn through Bed Bath & Beyond and Younkers retail stores in the company's first consumer retail launch of NatureWorks fibers.

A comprehensive PR plan was developed, which included:

News releases and pillow samples given to homestyle and lifestyle editors at select daily and weekly newspapers.

A trade media kit for ag pubs to increase awareness to growers of what Cargill Dow was doing to find new markets for corn.

NAFB was provided with a radio script of the product introduction, and actualities were done with Cargill Dow and Pacific Coast Feather spokespersons.

Consumer magazines were reached through the breakfast in bed promotion in New York City and a trip to Meredith Publishing in Des Moines, Iowa, (home of Better Homes & Gardens and Successful Farming magazines).

Needless to say, coverage was phenomenal, from network TV to major consumer magazines to trade magazines in all important segments. The Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel might have said it best: "Now you can have a comfortable pillow and be kind to the environment as well. Say good-bye to polyester products made from Mideast oil. Say hello to bedding made from Midwest corn."

"Network cameras were walking down Madison Avenue asking consumers in the streets of New York about pillows made from corn," Halsey says. "It was a PR dream."

O'Brien said the event hit a "home run." "This was a cool idea," he says. "Reporters had a ball with this. But our ultimate success (despite all the media coverage) will be sales with our business retail partners. That will show the strength of our products with the brands sold at retail outlets." O'Brien estimates these products have been selling at two to three times better than the average new product introduction.


O'Brien says in year one, 80 percent of the company's efforts were in PR. Last year that number was 60 percent, and in 2003, it will be more like 50 percent, as other marketing tools such as advertising and direct marketing begin to have a presence.

"It's not like we'll be spending less money on PR," O'Brien notes. "We're just now starting to bring our ad and direct response levels up to what our PR efforts have been. The percentage may be shrinking, but not the dollars."

The PR efforts have focused globally from the beginning and that will continue, O'Brien says. "Our biggest challenge ahead is being focused on which magazines and other media and which geographies we are going to target. We have to be disciplined. Each country has a whole slew of magazines."

Halsey says working on this business has been "an absolute thrill." "This company started with no employees a couple years ago. Now it has corporate offices in Europe and is moving into the Asian market. There are some huge market potentials out there. We need to continue working on trying to figure out how to drive customers to stores to support these corn-based products and get broader coverage and awareness in the media."

My needs are much smaller. I just want one of those corn pillows, and I want to feel like it came from corn produced at my small farm in western Minnesota. AM

Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.

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