Move over, energy costs … Here come higher food prices.

Higher food prices like higher energy pricesIf it seems as if food prices have been increasing at a faster clip in recent months, you’re not dreaming.

Despite an overall inflation rate that seems low (although the federal government’s controversial exclusion of certain key components like gasoline makes its stats suspicious at best), we now have solid evidence that worldwide food cost increases are happening across the board.

Here’s a list of some of the most dramatic cost increases for key foodstuffs recorded since May 2010:

 Coconut oil: +134%
 Corn/maize: +111%
 Wheat: +75%
 Coffee: +70%
 Sugar: +55%
 Soybeans: +45%
 Palm oil: +42%
 Orange juice: +35%
 Beef and pork: +20%

Considering that this represents a time period of just a little over a year, these increases are some the largest recorded in decades.

What caused it to happen? Poor weather and bad harvests are two of the reasons. But high demand from developing countries – particularly China – is another important factor.

“This is a pretty sustainable increase … A number of factors have been building over time in terms of the commodity increase: world economic growth, rising crude oil prices, increased Chinese import demand have all conspired,” is how Bill Lapp, president of commodity analytical company Advanced Economic Solutions, puts it.

Unfortunately, the problem promises to persist, since many of the items above are ingredients that go into other prepared food items. Initially, packaged food makers that had locked in purchases for some items over certain time periods were able to delay delay passing on cost increases because of those hedges. But the bulk of those contracts have run their course by now.

So, even if commodity prices don’t go any higher, we’re likely to see the ripple effects in pass-along price increases all throughout the “food chain” in the months to come.

This isn’t news anyone wants to hear, considering how fragile (non-existent?) the economic recovery is here in the U.S. and in many other countries as well.

The sober truth is, high food costs coupled with increased energy prices have a chokehold on the world economy that is more consequential than many would care to admit.

Fasten your seatbelts, folks. We may be in for yet another wild ride on the economic roller-coaster …

Marketing slogans: “New” isn’t necessarily “improved.”

Pork.  Be inspired.
Hardly inspiring: The National Pork Board's new marketing slogan has little chance of matching the effectiveness of the one it's replacing: "Pork: The Other White Meat."
When you decide to ditch a successful marketing slogan after nearly 25 years, you’d better have a very good reason. Because that’s what’s happening with the National Pork Board, which announced last week that it is retiring its promotional tagline Pork: The Other White Meat.

According to statistics reported by the industry organization, annual per capita pork consumption in the United States has remained essentially flat at ~50 pounds in recent years, while annual beef consumption has declined to ~61 pounds and chicken has risen to ~80 pounds.

The Pork Board determined that the best to way achieve new growth would be to convince people who already eat pork to consume more of it, rather than to continue trying to encourage other consumers to shift to pork.

Ceci Snyder, vice president of marketing for the National Pork Board, said this: “We want to increase pork sales by 10% by 2014. To do that, we needed to make a stronger connection – a more emotional connection to our product.”

This kind of strategy may make sense in that ~28% of American households represent nearly 70% of the total at-home consumption of fresh pork products. And it’s probably true that these people don’t need to be continually reminded of the “healthy” characteristics of pork via the “Other White Meat” slogan.

But retiring a marketing theme is one thing … and coming up with a compelling slogan to replace it is quite another.

And the one that is being debuted strikes me as a poor substitute. Are you ready to hear what it is? Drum-roll please …

“Pork. Be inspired.”

Excuse, me, but this is about as inspiring as reading the pages of the Des Moines telephone directory.

I have no doubt that the Pork Board focus group-tested this new message, and it probably came out with no posted negatives. After all, who could object to this innocuous little slogan?

But here’s a problem: It says almost nothing to anyone. If I’m a pork lover, how is this slogan supposed to make me any more inspired than I was before about preparing pork recipes? And it I’m someone who doesn’t eat pork – or eats it only infrequently – what does this tagline do to encourage me to take fresh look at this meat?

In my view, “The Other White Meat” positioning communicated so much more, not least in that there was a “health” component to the slogan. The message of healthy eating has become more important in recent years rather than less, and the beauty of that tagline is that it speaks strongly to pork consumers and non-consumers alike.

Any time your marketing slogan can speak powerfully to multiple audiences, you’ve got a winner.

And here’s another thing: All of the Pork Board’s energy and resources that have gone into publicizing “The Other White Meat” over the past two decades have resulted in a recognition of “health parity” between pork and chicken in the minds of consumers.

Consumer field research has shown that, thanks to the marketing efforts of the pork industry, ~80% of American consumers today associate “the other white meat” with pork. Retiring the slogan now will only mean a slow degradation of that association over time.

This seems like tossing a whole lot of goodwill into the trash can.

The National Pork Board reports that it will be plowing more than $11 million into an advertising campaign to roll out its new marketing slogan, beginning this month. I’m sure they have every intention of scoring the same success now as they achieved with “The Other White Meat” before.

Unfortunately, it may not matter how much money there is available to throw at the campaign. The best measure of how successful it’ll be is in the inherent compelling power of the theme.

“Pork. Be inspired.” doesn’t do it … on any level I can think of.

Memo to the marketing folks at the Pork Board: Forget the beaucoup bucks you’ve already expended developing this bowser of a slogan. Instead, troll around online and see some of the alternative taglines “Joe and Jane Consumer” have come up with. The Los Angeles Times, for one, invited their readers to submit alternative ideas. I particularly like one that came from Jacqueline Ochsner, a reader from Santa Monica, California: “Pork: The better white meat.”

Not only is that slogan a better one, it was offered up free of charge!

No froth in the beer industry …

Can it be possible? The Beer Institute trade association is reporting that U.S. beer sales are actually declining.

Chalk up one more piece of evidence showing that this economic downturn is a vastly different animal. In previous periods of recession, beer sales did not really suffer. Perhaps that’s because it’s been a relatively inexpensive discretionary item. If you’re feeling down about the economy or your personal finances, why not drown your sorrows in a nice cold one?

Not so this time around. The Beer Institute reports that domestic brew sales have declined 4% in the first two months of 2009 compared to the same period last year, while import beer sales are off a whopping 19%. Not only that, foreign beer sales registered a decline for the entire year of 2008 as well.

Shipments from Mexico have fallen nearly 14% so far this year compared to last, led by Corona. But Corona is still America’s top-selling foreign brew, beating Heineken by a long shot. Speaking of which … beer sales from Holland have declined by an even bigger percentage (more than 25%).

What should we make of these statistics? Are Americans now tightening their belts on absolutely everything?

Or maybe we’re doing for our health what we’re also doing for our personal savings rate. Perhaps switching to something better than brewskies – like heart-healthy red wine? We’ll have to wait for the latest statistics from the National Association of American Wineries to find out.