Bayer mulls dropping Monsanto name as cure for brand headache

Bayer, the German drug and chemical conglomerate, is considering the move to avoid sullying its reputation


Bayer will need to integrate a firm known for making the herbicide Agent Orange for use in the Vietnam War and tangling with environmental groups over genetically-modified crops. Photo: Reuters
Bayer will need to integrate a firm known for making the herbicide Agent Orange for use in the Vietnam War and tangling with environmental groups over genetically-modified crops. Photo: Reuters

Berlin/Frankfurt/London: With Bayer AG’s proposed $66 billion purchase of Monsanto Co., the company that invented Aspirin is poised to take on one of the world’s biggest corporate headaches. One potential cure: dropping the Monsanto name.

The German drug and chemical conglomerate is considering that move to avoid sullying its reputation, according to people familiar with internal discussions at Bayer who asked not to be named because the talks are private. No decision has been made, and Bayer’s managers will have some time to think: thanks to antitrust reviews in some 30 jurisdictions worldwide, the purchase isn’t likely to be completed before late 2017.

Even if the deal goes through as proposed, merging the two companies into the world’s top maker of seeds and crop chemicals will be a challenge. Bayer will need to integrate a company known for making the herbicide Agent Orange for use in the Vietnam War and tangling with environmental groups over genetically-modified crops.

One possibility would be to market Monsanto products such as seed corn and Roundup herbicide under the Bayer CropScience name, said Joachim Kregel, who represents independent investors at the German shareholder association SdK. Bayer, after all, brought Aspirin to market in 1899, and in May it topped a ranking of the world’s most reputable pharmaceutical brands from the Reputation Institute, a marketing consultancy.

“If anyone can do it, it’s Bayer,” Kregel said.

In an interview with Bloomberg TV last week, Monsanto chief executive officer Hugh Grant signalled he’s open to a change.

Reputation thing

“I’ve been very flexible,” Grant said after the deal was announced on 14 September. “The key is less about the name and more about the products developed.”

At a question-and-answer session with Grant, Bayer chief executive officer Werner Baumann said there’s an opportunity for the companies to jointly “get beyond this image and reputation thing” by building on the trust Bayer enjoys in Europe.

Environmentalists have campaigned against the deal since talks were first disclosed in May, with celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo and Bianca Jagger tweeting in opposition. Opponents have argued that combining the companies will drive up prices for farmers and increase the spread of genetically-modified seeds. Bayer and Monsanto counter that combining will leave them better able to research new products to help farmers produce more food.

The US Senate Judiciary Committee will take a first look at the Bayer-Monsanto deal on Tuesday in a hearing on mergers in the agriculture industry. The proposed purchase comes after a pending deal between Dow Chemical Co. and DuPont Co. and China National Chemical Corp.’s planned takeover of Syngenta AG. Also on Tuesday, Bayer will host analysts and investors at a meeting scheduled before the deal was closed. On Wednesday, Germany’s Green Party plans to raise antitrust and reputation concerns over the Bayer-Monsanto deal at a session of parliament in Berlin.

Roof climbing

Bayer is no stranger to public-relations challenges. In 2011, the company paid $750 million to settle lawsuits that claimed a strain of its genetically-modified rice had tainted other crops; Bayer said that it had acted responsibly in handling the biotech rice, but wanted to resolve the litigation so it could move forward. Environmentalists have called on it to stop selling any GM seeds. Further back in its corporate history, the company was a Nazi contractor and used forced labour.

The Monsanto deal will give Bayer the opportunity to redeem a tarnished brand and highlight the benefits of the company’s products, said Marc Tuengler, chief of DSW, a German association that advises small investors on proxy votes.

“With the right signals, the right decisions, Bayer can show what will be changed,” Tuengler said. “Monsanto has a better chance of improving its reputation under Bayer’s roof.” Bloomberg

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