Study: Consumers open to biotech

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In Europe, the biotechnology industry has generated the kind of fear and loathing often reserved for Coca-Cola Co. or McDonald's Corp. Consumers have decried genetically engineered foods and mounted widespread opposition.

Similar antipathy among activist groups recently has taken root in the U.S. But a consumer attitude study by McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, has determined the public image battle for biotech companies isn't lost yet.

In the study, the agency's McCann Pulse research division concludes that consumers around the globe are actually receptive to biotechnology and its benefits. And with perceptions still in the formative stages, marketers have an opportunity to diffuse the "good vs. evil" aspect and define the concept on their terms.

Key to giving biotech a positive spin is providing consumers with information via product packaging and Web sites, emphasizing the benefits of the products and attaching a human face to the marketing, the survey showed.

`TRUST THE CONSUMER'

"The No. 1 implication for a marketer is to trust the consumer and try to disclose as much useful information as possible," said Joseph Plummer, exec VP-director of strategy on global brands at McCann. "Always stress the benefit. If you don't, consumers are going to assume the worst."

The study, done in 33 countries among about 500 people, found consumers generally approve of technology they can hold in their hands, such as cell phones, laptops or remote controls. But biotechnology is another matter.

Consumers have considerable worry that genetic engineering is tampering with Mother Nature and is unregulated with no checks and balances, Mr. Plummer said.

Consumer fear of genetically altered food has stirred tensions in Europe to the point of hysteria. But the issue appears to be rising across the pond, with members of Greenpeace recently protesting Kellogg Co.'s use of genetically altered foods at company headquarters.

FOR THE FUTURE

A lot is riding on future consumer perception of the biotech industry. So as new foods and drugs are developed -- the next wave is expected to include food with a higher nutrition value and drugs with more disease prevention abilities -- companies will surely turn to advertising to sell more products and recoup their investments.

But marketers may have the disadvantage of trying to promote a difficult-to-comprehend concept. The McCann study found no common definitions or language on the subject.

"It doesn't make for crisp, clear education, but it's important that the credibility and goodwill of people at the controls is understood," said a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group.

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