CEO of Dow Chemical on re-branding chemistry

Australian Dow Chemical Company chairman Andrew Liveris talks during the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos on Jan. 28, 2010.

Kai Ryssdal: So if I say "chemistry," what do you think? People in white lab coats, right? Vials full of liquids, maybe?

How 'bout this -- big business. Big industrial business. Today on Conversations from the Corner Office, a company that wants to be the link between chemistry and consumers.

Andrew Liveris is the CEO of Dow Chemical. I caught up with a few weeks back, when he was at a Fortune Magazine conference here in Southern California. The first question was about those consumers.

Andrew Liveris: The last decade has seen us transform our portfolio where 70 percent of it now is either in material science or biological science, and of course, we still do chemical science. But these days, you may have seen our ads on TV. We are really branding Dow. The word "chemical," of course, from a heritage point of view is still in our name. But in terms of the brand, Dow and "bringing solutions" to consumers and to customers, that's the three-second version.

Ryssdal: What do you do when the first thing that most people think of when Dow Chemical comes to mind is "oh man, whatever they make is probably toxic. It's chemicals, it's hydrocarbons -- holy geez, I don't want any of that stuff."

Liveris: Yeah, it's a branding topic. So we've got to go out there and really re-educate humanity, because at the end of the day, 95 percent of all products out there have chemistry in them. Whether we like it or not, modern humanity, but even emerging humanity needs chemistry to get clean water and affordable housing and medicines. Chemistry's ubiquitous. We at Dow already have 80 percent of all the products we make on the web, in terms of product safety analyses. You can actually just access them. So you know what it is and what it does and what it doesn't do. And full transparency from this industry, full transparency to the ultimate consumer is an absolute requirement. It's the right to operate. We are for smart regulations.

Ryssdal: You are not, as they say, from around here. You are an Australian, obviously.

Liveris: I'm closer to you than most parts of the country. I'm from Australia, so you're on the right side of the nation at least.

Ryssdal: That's right. So I've got this theory that you can learn things about the United States, when you travel overseas, that you can't learn here. And I'd be curious as to your perspective -- as a foreigner but one who has spent a lot of time in this country -- what your take is on the wailing and gnashing of teeth of the loss of American industry and manufacturing.

Liveris: The word manufacturing, you know, even the word industry just doesn't sit well. People think about it as a smokestack, environmental, yesterday's era; that everything should be services. Well last time I checked, you've gotta invent stuff, make stuff and sell stuff -- and then you'll service stuff. But if you don't do those first three things, who are you servicing? We really have to get our heads out of the notion that we can just be a service economy.

The whole point I made from a Dow Chemical perspective is not only are we re-branding our company, but we're re-branding our industry. We're re-branding what science, technology, engineering, maths mean to this economy and how we can transfer that into American jobs for the next generation.

Ryssdal: Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical. Thanks very much for your time.

Liveris: All the best.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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Dan in DC and Veggieblonde:
I want to address the confusion that is evident over the meaning of the term 'chemical' and the various connotations and associations that have charged it with a negative affect. To that point, your comments don't have so much to do with chemicals or chemistry, but rather corporate governance, and on that topic I can agree with you that there is mismanagement and negligence.

Let's get back to the argument at hand, which is the social interpretation of the word 'chemical'. This too has been mismanaged and neglected in so many ways by the very people whose life-work depends on it: chemists! The fact of the matter is, EVERYTHING is a chemical; Liveris misspoke. Definitively, chemicals are discrete molecular or poly-atomic entities. Period, full-stop. Water: chemical. Table salt: chemical. Milk: made up of a bunch of chemicals, mostly water, but including various bio-chemicals such as proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, etc. WE are made up chemicals, down to our corruptible DNA. And let's not forget some other favorite chemicals like caffeine, ethanol (the 'alcohol' in grain alcohols), sildenafil, menthol...

The real point is that chemicals, per se, need an advocate. They have gotten a bad reputation for the ill-behavior of a select few of their kind. This is similar to the way that fats (yet again, another family of chemicals) have a flux of being vilified and exalted. Some of it is due, some not, but the world is not so black and white. The real key to assessing the value and dangers of a chemical is summed up in the adage "the dose makes the poison".

Very good,, chemicals make our life so much better,, so all the pollution and cancer are worth it,, right?. How about a more thorough examination of the destruction the chemical industry has caused? Please dig a little deeper into reality. Like the way Dow Chemical is failing to help the thousands of victims from the Bhopal chemical contamination in india. Tens of thousands of injured people getting next to nothing for their claims, no medical assistance, , , water contamination,, and Dow Chemical is being atrocious. Your show , like most of the media just doesn't bother to educate the public, like the horror story of the Alberta Tar Sands,,. thanks for nothing.

Andrew Liveris has an easy laugh and a charming accent. And the "re-branding" of Dow sounds like a benign enough corporate mission. However, simply google "Lawsuits against Dow Chemical" and you'll see pages and pages of litigation reports - from Dow's toxic crop chemicals to GMO corn to Dow's allegedly illegal "Agrosciences."

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