Can we talk-about nano?


Nanotechnology offers fantastic benefits-but it’s controversial. How should companies producing or integrating it approach marketing?


Carolyn Veroni spends every business day educating people about nanotechnology. She’s not a scientist or teacher; Veroni is the director of business development for Dermazone Solutions, a pharmaceutical skin care company that actively promotes the revolutionary nanosphere ingredients in its line of skin care products that are sold primarily to physicians. Dermazone holds patents on a proprietary nanosphere delivery system, called Lyphazome, which uses encapsulate ingredients in plant-based nanospheres to enable the timed-release of the products. The company has used the technology in its products for 15 years.

Despite their longevity in the market, Veroni says there is still a lot of confusion about nanotechnology-but there is also a lot of interest. “When I go out into the field no one knows a thing about nano, but a lot of doctors only want nano,” she says. “They believe it’s a good thing, even if they aren’t sure how it works.”

Veroni acknowledges that the lack of understanding about nanotechnology can cause concerns from consumers. However, that doesn’t prevent Dermazone from actively advertising the nanotech ingredients in its products. “We definitely want to talk about nano and get the word out,” she says. “We would never disguise the fact that we use nano. I think it’s fantastic.”

In response to consumer concerns, however, the company goes to great lengths to use only plant-based materials instead of synthetics, and to operate only in an FDA-certified lab for over-the-counter drugs. It also conducts rigorous testing on the impact of the Lyphazome nanospheres on consumers and the environment and publicly shares the results with its customers.

“We knew early on that nano would take some hits so we took the extra steps necessary to stay above that fray,” she says. “We have a lot of evidence that we show doctors regarding the testing of our products.”

Positives outweigh negatives

Dermazone’s approach to marketing nano is a benchmark for other companies using and marketing nano-based ingredients.

Although the scientific community may be in awe of the amazing things that can be accomplished with nanotechnology, consumers can be more cautious and in some cases even fearful of products “that incorporate nanotechnology, especially those that they consume or come in direct physical contact with.

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“Consumers’ attitudes about nanotechnology comes from their affective or emotional responses to it,” says Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law at Yale Law School. He is also the co-author of the recently released study, Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions: The Influence of Affect and Values, from the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale as part of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. “Once they are exposed to information about nanotechnology they experience a visceral reaction that is strongly influenced by their attitudes toward more-familiar environmental risks, such as those associated with global warming and nuclear power.”

The study suggests that the future of nanotechnology will depend largely on the public’s ability and willingness to balance the potential benefits of nanotechnology with its possible or perceived risks.

This shouldn’t prevent companies from promoting their nanotech ingredients; rather, it should reinforce their need to communicate effectively about their products and address their core market’s opinions well in advance of a product’s launch, says Dave Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology at the Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. That includes everything from the naming and labeling of products, to devising educational marketing strategies and sharing information about health and safety testing.

“It’s important for anyone using nano to do risk perception and investigation into the opinions of their target market,” says Rejeski.

Joe Hanafin, president of Advanced Nano Coatings, a producer of compliant epoxy coatings for wood, steel, and concrete (Marlborough, Mass.), believes the positive reaction from his core client base to his company’s name and products is well worth any negative response he gets from anti-nano groups.

While he does occasionally encounter skeptics who think nano is “a marketing scam” and has received pamphlets about the dangers of nano in the workplace, he does a lot of business based purely on clients responding to his company’s name. “I get calls all the time from people who want nano-coatings even though they don’t know what nano does,” he says. “Having nano in our name makes us easy to find.”

Rick Hough, manufacturer of Pureology Nanoworks, a high-end hair-care product line in Carson, Calif., agrees that the connection between the word “nano” and the notion of scientific high performance far outweighs any negative connection consumers may have with nanotechnology-at least so far. He admits to being surprised by negative publicity over products using nanotechnology a few years ago, but says his company has never been challenged. “I think the benefits far outweigh the negatives,” he says. “There’s been a lot more awareness over the last year about what nano is, and we haven’t heard any negative comments during that time.”

Be honest and proactive

If a company is challenged by consumers with concerns relating to nanotechnology, the manufacturer should openly address them right away, says Mike Treder, executive director and co-founder of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology in New York. “Most of the public realizes that nanotechnology does hold revolutionary potential, but they are also concerned about the health implications.”

He also urges companies to proactively investigate the health and safety issues of their products before problems arise through pre-market testing, lifecycle evaluation, and the use of third-party researchers to conduct tests. “Companies ought to be seen as promoting and actively supporting investigation into the implications of nanotechnology,” says Treder.

Companies must also communicate clearly and consistently with the public about their efforts and findings and take an open approach to discussing consumer concerns, says Peter Binks, Ph.D., CEO of Nanotechnology Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia. To foster ongoing dialog about nano, his company recently sponsored a podcast called the Implications for Health, Safety and the Environment of the Nanotech Revolution that included speakers from both sides of the nanotechnology debate, including Georgia Miller from Friends of the Earth, a consumer group calling for a moratorium on all products using nanotechnology.

The podcast gives ample opportunity for Miller in particular to discuss her group’s fears, even citing specific examples such as the concerns that the use of silver nano-particles in products pose the risk of damage to brain cells.

“Our sense is that the only way to proceed with this industry is to get everyone involved early on and face the issues that exist,” Binks says of the decision to open the podcast dialog to all sides. “It’s very easy to demonize groups like Friends of the Earth, but many of their concerns are valid. This was an opportunity to have an open neutral dialog in which we listened to everyone’s concerns.”

Rejeski agrees that companies can benefit significantly from openly discussing these issues and taking every chance to educate and communicate with the public. “There is still a low level of awareness about nano, and that’s good. But how we handle this learning moment is critical,” he says. “If companies communicate clear information about their products and testing strategies in simple, consistent language to consumers, then it will increase their confidence in these products.”