While the battle over the final check- off verdict rages on in the courts, you’d be wise to think about what happens if the national checkoff ends.

Regardless of how you feel about the checkoff, you have to acknowledge the scope and longevity of the “Pork: The Other White Meat” advertising campaign. If that checkoff funded program goes away, who will promote your product?

Without a national organization to promote pork for the entire industry, promotion decisions fall to you. The first choice is whether you want to promote (and produce) commodity pork or whether you prefer to differentiate your product through branding.

There’s really no right answer, but each requires a different strategy. For instance, if you want to continue to promote commodity pork you must decide if you want to go it alone or become part of a cooperative or group.

“If the national checkoff as we know it ends, some individuals or groups will step up to promote pork, though it may be exclusively for their own members,” says Everett Forkner, owner of Truline Premium Pork. “That could include individual producers doing direct marketing, with groups like Iowa Premium Pork and Pork America.”

Even as an individual producer, there are things you can do to get the most from your pork. Forkner cites an example of a producer who sells pork products from a shop along a major highway. A billboard draws traveler’s attention. Or you can create arrangements to sell gourmet pork cuts to specialty meat shops or restaurants.

Brian Buhr, University of Minnesota agricultural economist, says local groups will have a hard time getting the required market saturation needed for an advertising campaign to promote a commodity product. Also, if there are many groups running promotions vs. one group speaking with a national voice, it can fragment the market.

Promoting a single brand can help reduce this problem. Buhr says branding is critical to gain value and build market awareness.

Ultimately, achieving the brand level of Kleenix or Rollerblades is the goal.

“Research on generic (commodity) advertising vs. branded advertising shows that branded advertising
always has better returns,” says Buhr.

But selling a branded product has its problems as well. First, developing a branded product is expensive. Buhr says regional branding promotion can be spread largely by word of mouth, but national branding becomes hugely expensive. Buhr cites the recent wave of dotcom companies that have faltered because of the costs involved in trying to establish brand notoriety.

Forkner has developed his own brand for producers using his line of seedstock. The biggest cost is the time and money that goes into developing a concept and having someone translate what you believe is your advantage into a message for the public.

“At this stage it’s not necessarily how much you spend, but the quality you get that makes a difference,” says Forkner. “Also, you have to identify and be able to communicate your product’s advantage.”

Once the initial steps are done, the legal costs enter the picture. You need to protect your brand with a trademark and register that trademark. To accomplish all this, you’ll need to cover attorney fees, trademarking fees and the search and application costs for the trademark. This is a fairly drawn out process, largely because after you have made all the necessary applications the appeal for a trademark must be published with the trademark office for at least six months.

After that, there are many other costs to consider – including label design and approval. Forkner says developing your own brand takes a lot of time, effort and money.

Once you’ve established a brand concept, you need to get it in front of the public. That involves more time and expense, as well as the most crucial piece of the puzzle – living up to your brand name.

“The product has to be what you say it is without exception,” says Forkner. “You can build a relationship with a consumer for a lifetime, but it can be ruined with one purchase.”

Buhr agrees saying branding is a double-edged sword that can destroy your business with one bad experience. Jack-In-the-Box and Thorn Apple Valley are examples.

Agriculture has been slow to master the challenges of branding, says Buhr. Pork companies like Smithfield and IBP can have trouble gaining brand recognition with consumers, partly because pork is still such a commodity product, says Buhr. Other agricultural entities, like Archer Daniels Midland, may have a strong brand within the agricultural community, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into consumer recognition.

“The main difference between marketing a commodity and marketing a brand is that the brand must be consistently differentiated,” says Forkner. “A brand must have something that sets it apart from the commodity product and must consistently meet that criteria.”

Buhr agrees saying that hitting your niche is the important thing. He compares Wal-Mart to Nieman Marcus, noting both are successful with dramatically different niches. Delivering on the promise of filling these niches is what gives companies brand equity, says Buhr.

“You have to find out what outstanding advantage you have that sets your product apart, and it must be consumer driven,” says Forkner.

That’s the entire idea behind marketing a branded product. If a branded product is not for you, there are various ways to promote commodity pork and add value to the product. In either case, you need to begin to look for opportunities to promote your product in the future, because “Pork: The Other White Meat” may not be there to help. Consumer attention, and consequently demand, is up for grabs. You may think pork production is a competitive business but it pales compared to drawing shoppers to your product and then keeping them coming back for more.