Stem cell research is often lumped in with other political controversies, like the war in Iraq or the nation's healthcare woes, and opposing groups and activists debate its existence.
Yet Invitrogen - a life sciences giant with revenues of $1.3 billion, business in 70 countries, and about 4,700 employees worldwide - has not only remained unscathed by controversy, but also has been hugely successful due to a strategic communications plan. The Carlsbad, CA-based company, which sells tools used in the various life sciences for academic and research purposes, decided to introduce a stem cell division three years ago. That move led not only to the hiring of Porter Novelli as Invitrogen's AOR in February 2005, but also to the restructuring of its corporate communications department.
Invitrogen's four-person in-house corporate communications team now reports to Amanda Clardy, VP of IR and corporate communications, instead of being housed under the sales division.
The company itself comes with challenges unrelated to stem cell research, including the fact that it markets 35,000 different products related to the life sciences field.
Defining the focus
When Farnaz Khadem, the then-new director of corporate communications, began to strategize an overall communications plan for Invitrogen, five questions came to mind: How can we differentiate? Is it a significant growth area? Is there external buzz? Is it a big opportunity? Will people be able to understand it?
While only 1,200 of those products are used in stem cell research, making up 5% of Invitrogen's revenue, the team realized the topic was a fit and there was an answer to every one of the five questions to represent the highest growth areas in the company.
"It's one of our biggest drivers," says Khadem. "We need to be consistent and repetitive so we can hit multiplier channels in every forum... every avenue, every vehicle."
The message that gets reinforced is that Invitrogen is the number one provider of tools being used in stem cell research. The consistency of the message is what has strengthened the name Invitrogen with investors, media, researchers, and academics, says Khadem.
"Our strategy worked incredibly well," she adds. "The area is only continuing to grow and get bigger... If this [year] pans out, we'll be seen as the company at the forefront of this work."
Bradley Fikes, a staff writer at the North County Times, has covered Invitrogen for the last 10 years. He says he has given the company's stem cell research prominent coverage, based both on its activity in the field and the public's interest. Yet he, too, agrees that Invitrogen has avoided controversy.
Because stem cell research is such a new face in the field, the companies that are involved are watching and waiting to see how federal and state regulations, and funding, play out.
Khadem says that pushing the message - Invitrogen is the leading provider of life sciences tools, and of stem cell research tools - continues to be the main focus. At this year's BIO convention, held in San Diego in June for 20,000 life sciences professionals, the company sponsored the regenerative medicine panel for the third year.
"We put ourselves forward as thought leaders," she says. "It's a blanket strategy."
The leadership role
Pam Lord, VP of Porter Novelli's life sciences practice in San Diego, says that the agency's work with Invitrogen centers on the same messaging, with the goal to promote a specific position for the company as a thought leader in stem cell research. The firm provides support for product PR, corporate communications, and occasionally assists the IR team.
For media outreach, the communications team has looked internally, at its array of executives who are experts in the field. As reporters call about trend pieces and news items, the team matches them up with an executive who speaks knowledgeably on the topic. Now, Lord says, Invitrogen executives are among the first sources contacted by media for roundups on diagnostics companies.
"They're reporters, not PhDs," says Lord. "They can talk to experts, but not do a deep dive into the technology."
She notes that Invitrogen has not faced the controversy that affects many companies in the stem cell research field, but says that - if there is ever a problem - an internal process is in place.
For the most part, the company's key audience is made up of investors, academics, and researchers, who "understand the potential for the research," Lord says. "It's still such an early stage, and we want to establish brand credibility to the products themselves."
Recent stem cell products from Invitrogen
May 2008 STEMPRO MSC SFM This serum-free media is designed to culture
stem cells derived from bone marrow
May 2008 CELLSTART Completely animal origin-free substrate for the
attachment and expansion of embryonic,
mesenchymal, and neural stem cells
October 2007 STEMPRO EZCHEK Allows scientists to monitor human embryonic
stem cells with one reaction, using fewer sample cells