Thought For Food Summit a greenwashing activity?

Thought for Food Summit Logo„Thought for Food Summit“ was the title of a summit just recently held in Berlin, powered by Syngenta, one of the global actors in the crop science, herbicides and seed business. Along with Monsanto and DuPont, Syngenta is one of the mayor players in this field.

TFF is a platform for students teams from all over the world, to come up with new ideas about world food security. The 2013 Thought For Food Challenge called on students from universities around the world to form teams and produce project proposals – consisting of a business plan and creative pitch – that present an unexpected and out-of-the-box solution. Out of 120 participating teams, 5 finalists (from Kenya, India, the Netherlands and the US) presented their projects at the 3rd „Thought for Food Summit“ in Berlin last weekend.

What was intended as a well meant approach to one of the world’s main challenges, somehow left a slight pale aftertaste.

But first, let’s get to the positive points. It was definitely a good idea to start thinking about how we will be able to feed 9 billion people by 2050. We have to tackle this problem and every approach in doing so is worth supporting. Further, involving young undergrad students from all over the world surely contributed to the creativity of the new solutions (of which Syngenta now has 120 on their desks). Execution in terms of pre-event PR, webpresence and social media also was state of the art and a lot of young and motivated people were working hard to get the message out there. Selecting Berlin over San Francisco as location for the final summit also was a good choice. The venue – an old coin mint in the center of Berlin – was well chosen and on top of that, nicely transformed into a fresh and trendy spot. Most importantly, all the people involved in the summit, organisers and attendants were very nice, friendly, open and welcoming.

Espresso from plastic capsules and an annual company report.

However, it somehow daunted to me after signing in to the event, when I got handed out the goodie bag, that something’s not quite right. First thing I found in my bag was Syngenta’s annual report. For an event, that was supposed to not be seen as being connected with a big corporation, this was quite a blunt message, kind of saying: „Welcome to Syngenta“. Next thing that struck me, was the coffee. I didn’t expect fair trade specialty coffee to be served, to be honest. But espresso from plastic capsules? How sustainable is that? And whats the issue with getting a catering service that uses a decent espresso machine? Well, this might sound fussy, typically german, but hey, if you look at it from a broader perspective, the whole event was about sustainability, and so should have been the details. Talking about the program, it was a well intentioned mixture of „TED-style“ talks and workshops. Some of the talks were actually quite good, like Ido Leffler the co-founder of „Yes to“, who passionately spoke about his brand and the importance of having an „amazing cause“ when starting a venture. (I just wondered how he could reconcile this with the wider context of the event.)

But besides these trifles, the real issues the public might have with this initiative are more deeply-rooted. Lets look at this from a strategic marketing and communications point of view. As a company, you do events and sponsoring as part of your communications strategy.  You want the public to recognise your efforts in a certain field. In most cases, you want to create or maintain an image or you would like to be connected with a certain topic. If a company wants to act philantrophic and altruistic at the same time, there is no need to stick your company logo (annual reports, speakers, etc.) onto an event. As it was clearly visible, that this event had been sponsored by a specific company, we might assume, that the underlying strategic intentions were not purely of altruistic nature.

So far so good. Eventsponsoring is an everyday thing in corporate communications and widely accepted. But only if you are first: clear about your intentions and second: if there are no other negative voices or negative PR about your company out there. If the previous doesn’t fit to the latter, you might have an issue. The public might perceive your intentions as greenwashing or whitewashing. Now, in the case of the Thought For Food summit and Syngenta, the public might have the above mentioned perception of a communications misfit. I’m not going into detail about what Syngenta is doing and what is or what is not causing the PR the company receives. And I’m not judging if these cases are true or not. But if you type the respective search words into google you will see, that there actually is quite a lot of talk out there. And thats a fact.

To sum it up. It’s all fine to do events. It’s great to aim to tackle one of the biggest challenges mankind faces. It’s fine if that coincides with the core of your business. But it might not be perceived as good, if your company is possibly not well perceived by the public. From a communication point of view, it doesn’t matter what the reality is, but it does matter what people think of you. (And of course, from a non-communications point of view, reality matters).

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