Got Sugar?

Facing a sales slide, tough competition and worries about weight, the sugar industry embarks on a makeover.

March 06, 2005|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Sugar is trying to reclaim its sweet name.

The sweetener, once known as "white gold" because only the wealthy could afford it, has been fending off challenges for a half-century, but none stiffer than the ones it faces now.

Sales of sugar have declined for the past four years. Widening concern about health and obesity is pushing consumers and food manufacturers to look to alternatives.

Sugar's national trade organization has taken the battle to court, suing the maker of substitute sweetener Splenda for misrepresenting its name and prompting a countersuit by Splenda.

The Sugar Association also is spending up to $5 million to a hire a Columbia marketing firm to devise a campaign to promote the upside of sugar.

"We're tired of our competition defining who we are," said Andrew C. Briscoe III, president and chief executive officer of the Sugar Association in Washington.

Sugar is the latest staple to stage a public relations offensive as concerns about expanding waistlines and other health matters have grown. In the past two decades, milk, beef, pork, Florida oranges and bread have redefined themselves with aggressive marketing. The campaigns have won back customers, but also have become some of the most famous advertisements of their time.

Remember pork's "The Other White Meat," "Beef. It's What's For Dinner" and "Got Milk?" the slogan the milk industry created after losing sales to bottled water and diet soda? The Idaho Potato Commission recently hired fitness guru Denise Austin to promote the nutritional value of potatoes as low-carbohydrate diets threatened the spud.

"When you're under attack, I think you have to fight back. You have to present facts and try to change perceptions," said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm in Chicago.

"Minor declines in consumption have a huge impact," he said. "The sugar industry is not going to go away, but a 1 to 2 percent decline can mean a lot to the industry."

The sugar industry wants people to know that sugar in moderation, at 15 calories a teaspoon, isn't so bad for them. "We're saying that sugar should be part of a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle," Briscoe said.

Sugar replaced honey as the main mass market sweetener in the 20th century as automation and anything else helped drive down the price. Although still dominant, it competes with 22 substitute sweeteners on the market.

Saccharin became popular in 1957 as Sweet'N Low, but reports that it caused cancer in laboratory rats scared off potential users.

Aspartame hit the market in blue packs of Equal in the 1980s. It also gained at sugar's expense, but it, too, was hampered by concerns about potential health risks and obstacles to using it in baking.

Sucralose, introduced as Splenda in 1999 on a limited basis in the United States, presented a new challenge. It tastes like sugar, works well for baking and has no calories. Splenda sales increased 50 percent last year while sales of white granulated sugar dropped nearly 5 percent, according to Information Resource Inc.

The Sugar Association has become so concerned with the impact of Splenda that in December it sued McNeil Nutritionals LLC, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, which owns the Splenda trademark.

The trade group contended that McNeil misled consumers with its claim that Splenda is made from sugar. The association also asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate McNeil and had a hand in creating a Web site to promote the "truth about Splenda."

McNeil filed a lawsuit this month, accusing the Sugar Association and other groups of waging a "malicious smear campaign" to boost sugar sales.

Sugar's representatives recently hired Marriner Marketing Communications of Columbia, which two years ago fashioned a campaign to help the tuna industry overcome reports of mercury poisoning.

Marriner hasn't mapped out its sugar campaign, set to start in May. It is polling customers about why they buy sugar and looking at artificial sweeteners' role in sugar's slide.

Marketing to bolster the image of a food has had mixed results. A 1984 campaign to increase sales of California raisins, which featured hip, dancing raisins in sunglasses, might have sold more toys than fruit, experts said. But some general campaigns have been effective.

"From the research I've seen, a lot them work pretty well," said Ronald Larson, an associate professor of marketing with a focus on food marketing at Western Michigan University. "But some are not linked to an increase of sales."

Health concerns about red meat and high prices dissuaded buyers of beef in the 1980s. Congress passed the Beef Act of 1985, which helped underwrite the campaign "Beef. It's What's for Dinner." The long-running ads are credited with helping raise beef consumption 20 percent since 1998.

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