GM foods’ downfall is all in the brand name

It does not get much more sensitive or more important than the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food. Thanks to EU legislation, most GMOs have been banned from production in Europe and when they are present in our food their presence has to be explicitly and clearly declared on the label.

Contrast that with the US where more than 80 per cent of FMCG products contain GMOs and none of it requires labelling. Proponents of GMOs, notably agricultural producers like Monsanto and the big food companies like Unilever, have steadfastly argued that GMOs are completely harmless and will prove essential as the demand for food grows during the 21st century.

Until recently the major issue surrounding GMOs was the barrier it placed on US companies that wanted to import their GMO products into Europe but were barred by EU legislation. Last year, however, the fight became more intense in the US as domestic lobbying groups pushed for legislation requiring all GMO ingredients to be declared on food labels. The fight was particularly fierce in California where the proposed amendment did not pass but did create headlines about the role and prevalence of GMO foods.

A recent survey of American consumers showed that 55 per cent of them are now concerned about GMOs in their food. A significant market segment has emerged who are strongly opposed to GMO foods and it’s a market that is proving very attractive to many major brands.

Last year American retailer Trader Joe’s and ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s announced that all their products would be completely GMO free. More recently, Whole Foods announced it would clearly identify and label all GMO products on its shelves within the next few years and encourage suppliers to move to GMO-free. That was bad news for big brands like Chobani yoghurt which must now replicate its European product and eschew all GMO ingredients for its Whole Foods distribution or lose one of its major customers.

But the GMO story took a major turn last week with the shock announcement that food producer General Mills will stop using genetically modified ingredients to make its original Cheerios cereal. According to a company spokesperson, the decision illustrates that “we do value our Cheerios fans and listen to their thoughts and suggestions”.

The move is something of a surprise. Analysts widely credit activist groups like Green America and its campaign to highlight Cheerios’ GMO content as the reason behind the U-turn. “This is a big deal,” Green America’s director of corporate responsibility Todd Larsen told USA Today. “We don’t know of any other example of such a major brand of packaged food, eaten by so many Americans, going from being GMO to non-GMO.”

In some ways the Cheerios turnaround is just a simple example of market orientation winning out over corporate agendas. But the real story here is a branding tale of the most elemental kind. The very first genetically modified food was produced in 1983 and while we must congratulate the scientists responsible, whoever was in charge of marketing deserves a serious talking to. Calling this innovation genetically modified organisms is the real reason why Cheerios, and soon many other American brands, will be forced back to more traditional ingredients.

Think about it. Who on earth prefers food that is made up of organisms (not a nice word) that have been genetically (and nothing good is ever genetic) modified (again, an unpleasant word). A good marketer would have called them “bioengineered” or “naturally enhanced” or any one of a myriad of more palatable concepts. Food experts might sneer but the naming really is that important.

Think of Pfizer’s success with Viagra. The marketing maestros there correctly anticipated that getting men to admit they suffered from impotence and then seek treatment would be pretty much impossible, such was the stigma associated with the term. So they renamed it “erectile disfunction” – a condition millions could accept, acknowledge and seek treatment for. Viagra’s success is as much a result of its naming strategy as its medical efficacy. Naming is that crucial. It might be too late for the food industry to do much about it but it’s a classic lesson for marketers everywhere.