German company proud of chemical ties

While American companies make an effort to rebuff their chemical industry ties, BASF embraces them.

By Mark Rosenzweig

Three years ago, DuPont celebrated its 200th anniversary. The Wilmington, Del.-based firm, which got its start making black powder, has been an icon of the chemical industry for much of its history and is justifiably famous for its pioneering work in many areas of chemistry. Yet, at gala press events celebrating the milestone, publications representing the chemical industry were largely absent. The editor of one major magazine, after learning about the planned festivities, contacted the company for an invitation but was politely rebuffed. DuPont clearly wasn’t interested in coverage by the chemical press. This, unfortunately, typifies how lots of companies in our industry are trying to distance themselves from their chemical roots.

Of course, many firms, including DuPont, can argue that the classic chemical industry represents a decreasing part of their business and, therefore, it doesn’t make sense to play up that portion of the product portfolio.

So, it is not surprising how the tagline that the company uses has evolved. Perhaps you remember DuPont’s “Better things for better living through chemistry” campaign. Years ago, “through chemistry” disappeared. Today, the company’s slogan is “The Miracles of Science.”

DuPont is hardly alone. Dow retains the word “chemical” in its name but its slogan is “Living. Improved daily.” Bayer’s motto is “Science for a better life.”

Thus, it was surprising — and refreshing — when BASF in March 2004 began labeling itself “The chemical company.” The Ludwigshafen, a Germany-based firm, certainly has a strong claim for that tagline, as it has the largest sales of any chemical company.

In Europe, chemical production doesn’t have the same stigma with the public that it does in North America. So, perhaps it was easier for BASF to adopt that slogan. The company is using it worldwide, however, including at its substantial U.S. operations. BASF Corp., based in Florham Park, N.J., employs about 11,000 people and racked up $9 billion in sales in 2003.

Michael Watras, president and CEO of Straightline International, New York, a company that specializes in creating brand strategies, is not surprised that it was a German company that adopted that tagline. “An American company wouldn’t have the guts,” he says bluntly.

A worldwide team of BASF executives took about two years to develop the program, says Don McGrath, vice president of corporate communications for BASF Corp., who was part of that team. With other firms playing down chemicals, it was a good opportunity to differentiate BASF and to define what the company does, he adds. The tagline has been well received by employees.

“At the end of the day, if you are a chemical company, you should say that you are a chemical company,” Watras contends, “because it shows that you are proud of what you do.”

Now, the American Chemistry Council, Arlington, Va., is working to roll out its first major campaign to promote the chemical industry. The association’s board approved spending $15 million to develop and begin the program in 2005, says Tom Metzger, its communications director, and has committed to support the initiative for at least three years. The campaign initially will focus on employees of member companies and then will extend to communities in which plants are located. Later efforts likely will target government and private opinion-makers, Metzger adds.

Such efforts should help end our critics’ schadenfreude.

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