Widely fluctuating hog prices over the past 10 years have been the driving force behind some pork producers trying to find a niche for their pork.

As more producers look at ways to set themselves above the rest, the role of brand and brand management is becoming increasingly important in successfully marketing specialty items.

The Iowa Pork Producers Association and the National Pork Board joined forces last fall in sponsoring the NichePork Marketing Conference in Ames, IA. They coined the term, NichePork, and defined it as “identifying and supplying pork in a way that a certain group of consumers/customers prefer or see superior value in, and that does not use the traditional commodity market channel.”

However, as more and more groups make specific claims about their product line, producers need to capitalize on a point of difference, possibly through government certification.

According to Chef's Magazine editor Bret Frei of Chicago, restaurants are interested in a number of specific characteristics in the pork they buy, including moisture-enhanced, free-range, organic, natural, antibiotic-free, company-branded and breed-certified.

“If you can emphasize attributes other than price, consumers' needs will be met,” explains Brad Zumwalt, food industry consultant with the University of Nebraska's Food Processing Center.

“Half of all new products fail after a year. The products that are truly superior have a 98% success rate. Those that have no advantage have only an 18% success rate.”

Branding

Establishing a brand or a defined product is the basis of your niche endeavor. Ken Benkstein of KGB Consulting has assisted the American Berkshire Association (ABA) in establishing its brand as a supplier of black hogs or “kurobuta” meat for Japan.

Defining a brand is more than a name or logo, emphasizes Benkstein. “Your brand is the perception, strongly influenced by emotion, maintained by the buyer or prospect, based on his or her total experience with your organization. Your brand is also a promise of future satisfaction based on prior experience,” he says.

Benkstein says a great brand has three attributes:

  1. It is unique and distinctive.

  2. The product meets a relevant customer need.

  3. It must be consistent to ensure it delivers the value of your message and brand perception.



USDA's Role

Because there are growing numbers of pork niche markets, a handful of pork producers have gone through the USDA to certify their brand under the USDA's Process Verification Program (PVP). PVP provides guidelines and criteria for objective evaluation of agricultural products' quality systems programs, submitted for approval and monitored by the Agricultural Marketing Service.

Mike Telford, another KGB consultant, says the company, association or group seeking the brand develops the PVP criteria. “The Process Verification Program is a high-level stamp of approval from the USDA that carries great weight, for instance, in Japan as well as in high-end American culinary circles,” he says. “The key is to make the program doable and to be able to assure the customer is getting what's on the label.”

Berkshire Initiative

ABA is currently seeking a claim stating their product is 100% pure Berkshire genetics that have been tested to eliminate the stress and Napole genes, and that producers have met the Pork Quality Assurance Level III requirements.

Japanese consumer outcries, caused by a series of mislabeling scandals in Japan, have prompted the Japanese government to intervene in marketing and labeling of pork identified as kurobuta. Negotiations with Japanese government officials may clear the way for the USDA's certification program to replace the unreliable DNA tests now required by Japanese officials.

Success Takes Time

Only four companies are officially certified, have branded name and process verified pork programs. Prairie Grove Farms, based in DeKalb, IL, is a 5-year-old company that is certified as 100% Natural Pork. Their natural claim in the PVP states they never use antibiotics, tenderizers or preservatives. Their protocols for raising pigs include utilizing a single line of genetics, feeding the animals environmentally safe foods and housing the hogs in temperature-controlled environments to limit climate changes and prevent illnesses, thus enhancing animal welfare and health. USDA meat graders also inspect the pork to ensure that color, pH balance and meat trimming standards are met to provide less fat and higher meat quality.

Carol Mueller, National Marketing director for Prairie Grove Farms, says the USDA certification system provides an incentive for restaurants to use Prairie Grove Farms' product. However, even with the strong certification program and extensive marketing efforts, including the 2002 Official Supplier of the U.S. Olympic Ski and Snowboard Teams, plus supplying pork to restaurants in three Disney properties and participating in a number of chef shows, the company still struggles to entice more restaurants to buy their product.

It is not unusual for a new niche market, similar to any start-up business, to struggle during their first years of operation. “The key to success is to know your niche and guard it zealously,” indicates Zumwalt. There are many opportunities for unique markets, including marketing to minority groups or children, who control 80% of the food decisions. But if you don't have something that is different, don't waste your time, Benkstein states.

Agricultural Marketing Service Web Sites

The first step to starting any new business is to research the market you are trying to reach as well as educate yourself about business opportunities as a whole. The U.S. Department of Agriculture encourages livestock producers to consider participation in certified or process-verified pork programs.

The following Web sites provide a better understanding of how to start up an agricultural business. Also, the USDA sites provide an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the policies and procedures for application and participation in certification programs, which can provide the basis for differentiating marketing claims.

Agricultural Marketing Resource Center
http://www.agmrc.org

To Market, To Market, To Sell a Fat Hen: How to grow your business from an idea to a successful company
http://www.wallacefdn.org/chickenandtheegg1.pdf

Quality Systems Verification Program General Policies and Procedures
http://www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/arc/1000ARC.pdf

Process-Verified Programs
http://www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/arc/1001ARC.pdf

Application for Service
http://www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/mgc/ls-313.pdf

Comparison of Certified Pork Programs
http://www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/certprog/pork/porkspec.pdf

Information About Currently Certified Pork and Beef Programs
http://www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/certprog/industry.htm