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A Stony Brook, NY company called Applied DNA Sciences is now aggressively marketing a technology called SigNature® DNA that provides an important new tool in the war against counterfeiting. The total impact of that global criminal economy, including job and tax revenue losses as well as loss of profits, will reach $1.7 trillion dollars by 2015, according to the International Chamber of Commerce.
If the technology is highly advanced, the concept is exquisitely simple: products are marked with unique plant DNA that absolutely guarantees their authenticity. Sophisticated counterfeiters have so far negated other identification methodologies such as high-resolution video or holograms with relative ease. But DNA, as anyone who watches the CSI TV programs knows, cannot be controverted nor surgically removed by thieves in the night.
Not just at the shop level, the application of the technology extends throughout the supply chain. For example, Applied DNA Sciences marked 50 million kilograms of Pima cotton with an authenticating code, according to Dr. James A. Hayward, the company’s CEO and President, thus providing full-proof safeguards from the spinners all the way to the boutiques.
But a lot more than Hermes bags and Rolex watches are at play. Crucially, the technique is also applied to protect microchips used by the Department of Defense. According to a 2011 Senate Arms Services Report, counterfeit chips represent up to 30% of the DOD’s inventory.
Unsettling as that sounds, it gets worse. Counterfeit goods can be used to introduce viruses that disable or even ignite weapon systems, or wrest control away from the person who launched them. We already use such sabotage techniques in the war on terrorists when we let infected missiles fall into the bad guys’ hands. Unfortunately, it can work both ways.
The implications of plant DNA technology for our society are thus earth-shattering, literally. But what is particularly fascinating from our standpoint are the communications and marketing elements that maximize its impact, both at the retail and national security levels. In this context, there are multiple audiences.
First, the deterrent value of plant DNA depends on getting the message out to counterfeiters that a lot more than a “Beware of Dog” sign is in force, and that the technology in place is fully operational and impermeable. As with all such deterrents, we are essentially marketing to criminals. We’re persuading them that this dog really does bite.
Results in London, where plant DNA is used to protect ATMs and cash carriers, impressively confirm the need for such a communications strategy to support the technology. There, DNA marking has yielded a 55% decrease in attack incidents and a 77% decrease in cash lost, a total return on investment that Hayward says exceeds 100%. Importantly, the company just didn’t implement the technology but made sure to tell the world that it had, including an extended segment on the BBC’s Catch Me If You Can.
Beyond deterrence, both retailers and their customers are naturally key audiences, for obvious business reasons. Retailers sell more as customers – all of whom know the power of DNA, that courts of law hold it as a standard – buy more confidently. For high-end businesses like guitar-maker Martin & Co., the use of plant DNA has been a conspicuous part of its marketing since 2011.
No wonder the RFPs in this sector almost always require communications plans, of which social media strategies are invariably vital aspects. It’s a ripe market, and Applied DNA Sciences is well-positioned with 23 granted patents and another 36 pending as well as 28 registered trademarks and two pending. Potential competitors face high barriers to entry in any event, even as further enhancements to this technology loom on the horizon.
Among those enhancements, Hayward cites in-field reading devices, which are screening tools that enable users to determine the presence of the DNA mark without lab testing, an obviously important convenience for personnel in sensitive situations.
Hayward acknowledges that this technology does raise privacy issues, if the technology were ever sold for political purposes. “But that will not happen as long as a scrupulous management team is in place,” says Hayward. His firm, for one, declined to mark paint balls, as those can be shot from a gun to also mark people.
Frankly, the prospects for such abuses do not seem quite as stark as, say, the sort to which Mr. Snowden has alerted us. That said, it would seem a good time, at this relatively early stage, to define best practices and establish guidelines for how the technology is to be used, along with specific means by which misuses will be prevented. Hayward says his team has, in fact, been actively establishing such standards for DNA marking, both in Europe and the United States.
Such proactive communications are also indices of innovative leadership.
Richard Levick, Esq., is Chairman and CEO of LEVICK, which provides strategic communications counsel on the highest-profile public affairs and business matters globally. Mr. Levick has been named four times as one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom.” He is the co-author of four books and a regular commentator on television and LEVICKDaily.com.