Customer needs are changing, creating some unseen and untapped niches for pork products.

“America’s strength is its diversity.” You may recall that recent political campaign slogan. That concept may also apply to marketing pork in the 21st century.

The makeup and needs of the U.S. consumer are changing radically. Unlike the ideal pig represented by Symbol, there is no target image of the typical American consumer to help you determine how to market your product. Instead, there are many groups of consumers, some large and some small but all with different wants and needs.

The goal is to create pockets of value, says Kelly Zering, North Carolina State University extension economist. Zering spoke at a Networking III Symposium, sponsored by the National Pork Producers Council, the National Pork Board and PORK’98.

Adding value, says Zering, boils down to increasing margins for or volume of pork products sold. You do that by improving availability, quality, perception, variety and cost of the products.

As producers, your job has been to deliver a hog that fits the packer’s buying program at a cost that provides you a profit. In the future, buyers may demand more. Specifications may change. The hogs you will sell profitably may be different from those you’re selling today.

But that’s getting the cart ahead of the horse. First look at what the changing mass of consumer groups wants, then tailor products to fit those needs.

To do that, Zering says, information must move from one end of the pork chain to the other. While this is improving, there’s still more to do.

Zering sees no scorecard yet to gauge accurately how pork is doing in various markets. The industry needs better ways to track successes and failures. For instance, pork has yet to break the ice in frozen foods. Meanwhile, beef and chicken fill those shelves.

Pork has a firm foothold in the eat-at-home market. People who cook tend to use pork, especially for breakfast.

Pork is gaining in fast-food restaurants. That’s critical because more than half America’s food dollars are spent on meals prepared outside the home. McDonald’s serves McRibs on seasonal or regional bases. Boston Chicken added ham (and other main dishes) and changed its name to Boston Market. That was a key step in getting pork into the home-meal replacement market.

But there are areas to work on. How much of the hog is sold for scrap at basement prices? The chicken industry, for example, has found a profitable market for chicken feet in China. And pet foods make up 12 percent of broiler usage, according to Zering. Can pork sell pig feet profitably? Would your dog or cat enjoy pork as much as chicken?

Bottom line: You must add value to your product. Robert Mandigo, professor of meat science at the University of Nebraska, says adding value is no new concept. It started when people learned to preserve meat with salt and smoke.

Ways of adding value will change as Americans change. Mandigo shares some key trends that will affect food demand in the future:

- 48 percent of Americans surveyed say cooking is a hassle.

- 72 percent spend 16 to 45 minutes cooking dinner during the week.

- 86 percent buy food products based on convenience.

- Americans own 11 million grills.

He notes other factors that affect how people are shopping for food:

- More families continue to count on multiple wage earners, meaning no adult is home at 3 p.m. thinking about what to fix for dinner.

- Families are becoming smaller.

- Latchkey kids are cooking more – not just their own dinner but often the family meal.

- The gap between rich and poor in America is growing.

- Americans love to experiment. That means new flavors and recipes and new combinations, such as curry onion rings or spicy shrimp-and-pineapple pasta.

Mandigo suggests that the pork industry should look at smaller niches, even niches within niches. For example, it’s easy to think of Hispanics as one group of people. Not true. Mexican fare is different from Caribbean or Central American cuisine. The U.S. Hispanic population is expected to outpace the growth of white or black populations.

America is graying too. The median age in 1988 was 28 years. By 2000 it will be 36 years, and by 2050 it may be as high as 50 years old.

As Americans grow older, their needs change, points out Cynthia Caples-Mull, managing supervisor of Bozell Worldwide, an NPPC marketing consultant.

When people get older, their doctors suggest “more healthful” diets. Caples-Mull notes that one of every six people is now on some kind of diet. That will grow as the U.S. population ages.

That presents a dichotomy: While people may want to eat healthier, they are still drawn to “comfort foods,” meat loaf and other traditional family-style meals.

Americans are trying more ethnic foods and are more willing to try new things. Most cities today have European, Mediterranean, Oriental and other exotic restaurants.

Does this offer room for pork on tomorrow’s menus? With foresight, yes. But you can’t ignore the trends.

Pork will have to be part of a more healthful diet yet remain a comfort food. It will have to please people who view eating out as entertainment. It will have to fit into the increasingly busy schedules of active Americans who don’t want to slave over a hot oven.

In 1960, Caples-Mull notes, dinner preparation averaged three hours. Now it takes less than 45 minutes. In fact, by 4:30 p.m. most people haven’t yet decided what to have for dinner.

Only by supplying wholesalers and retailers with pork products that attract today’s customers will the industry be poised to serve tomorrow’s vast array of changing customers.

Where Have You Gone, Colonel Sanders?
Pork has never been the focus of a major fast-food chain. Did we miss that boat? Or is there still an opportunity in corporate America and a sea of strip malls for a pork-dominated, fast-food restaurant?

When somebody says McDonald’s, you think of hamburgers. That’s the legacy of Ray Kroc, whose chain of tiny hamburger shops mushroomed in the 1960s. Successful imitators soon followed.

Poultry got a foot in the door when Colonel Sanders offered his “finger lickin’ good” fried chicken. Again, imitators followed suit.

But what about pork? Who do you associate with pork and fast food? There’s no one, notes Kelly Zering, North Carolina State University livestock economist.

It may be time to consider ways to make pork the center of attention. Is some innovative entrepreneur ready to bring pork to the masses? If so, are you ready to provide the products to make that concept a successful reality?

It’s worth investigating.