Just because it's sweet doesn't mean it's good for you!

Just ask the shareholders of Imperial Sugar (Nasdaq: IPSU) and they'll probably tell you that the outlook on this company went stale years ago. Since peaking at $25.68 in early August, shares have since nosedived by 87%. In comparison, the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 4% since early August. It might hard to believe that things could possibly get worse for the refined sugar producer, but last week they did.

On Friday, Imperial Sugar wrapped up another year of steep declines, perpetuating a streak of operating losses dating back to 2008 (a one-time insurance gain of $278.5 million was recognized in 2010, otherwise the company was operational, not profitable). At the heart of Imperial's problems is the rising cost of sugar, which currently sits at prices that are double what they were three years ago when Imperial's losses began. Competitors aren't making it easy, either. Price undercutting from predominantly private competitors is eating into already constricted gross margins.

But it's not just the rising price of raw materials that has me concerned about Imperial's future -- it's the company's rapidly deteriorating balance sheet. At this time last year Imperial Sugar could claim $22.8 million in cash. Due to rising expenses and weak sales, that cash balance ended the current quarter at just $134,000. CEO John Sheptor even noted, "Our operating results and the impact of high sugar prices on working capital have strained our financial resources and we are exploring opportunities to improve liquidity, including potential further asset sales." Those aren't words of optimism, but of a desperate CEO looking frantically for solutions to a three-year-long problem.

Even though there aren't any publicly traded direct competitors, I decided to take a closer look at confectionary giant Hershey (NYSE: HSY) to see if rising raw material costs were affecting it much. The answer was simple: no. Hershey has been able to adapt to rising input costs by passing along price increases to consumers and adjusting their production to match demand. Imperial Sugar simply doesn't have the pricing power or the ability to ramp up production even if it wanted to.

And pricing power is really what it comes down to with regard to who can and who can't survive rising commodity costs. Unfortunately, a company like Imperial Sugar generates little brand equity and switching costs are low. Compare that to strongly branded companies like Kraft (NYSE: KFT) and General Mills (NYSE: GIS), both of which have been able to successfully pass on higher commodity costs to consumers through a variety of price hikes and creative packaging solutions.

Despite a recent slip in profits by General Mills, their position is far from Imperial sugar's cash-strapped nightmare. The big news out of Kraft for 2012 is their upcoming split into two companies. Investors should be sure to watch this development carefully. Either way, these companies illustrate the value of brand strength. A company like Imperial Sugar has very little. In this case, it's the difference between surviving and dying in 2012.

Looking ahead to 2012, I can't say that things are looking too good for Imperial. The cash crunch is getting awfully close in the rearview mirror and sugar prices aren't indicating things are going to get any easier anytime soon. I, for one, am not convinced that Imperial Sugar has enough cash to survive the year, and I am going to back up that assertion by making an underperform CAPScall on the stock.

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This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.