How Norway set the standard for marketing seafood in China

Published on
September 24, 2015

The millions of commuters who use Hong Kong’s subway system will have become familiar recently with ubiquitous poster adverts for salmon decorating the walls of subway stations. The ads, which are also plastered on the sides of public buses, are part of a shift in strategy by the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC) in China.

After persistent politically-motivated harassment of shipments by customs and veterinary authorities in the mainland (which still expects an apology for the 2011 peace prize awarded to a dissident by the Norway-based Nobel Committee), the Norwegians are now spending more of their marketing money in Hong Kong, hoping they can promote salmon consumption among the six million locals and the millions of mainland Chinese tourists who come here every month.

Chinese demand for salmon certainly isn’t the issue: mainland China’s consumption of salmon is growing by 30 percent a year – Indeed at that rate the country may well be the world’s No. 1 salmon market within the decade, believes Sigmund Bjorgo, who heads up the NSC’s office in China.

Even as it supports its salmon exporters by opening a new marketing campaign in Hong Kong, Norway has also opened up a new front in China. It’s effectively creating a market there for a new premium product – cod. It’s an unlikely one, but this is “Norwegian Arctic Cod”: a high-end cod being sold in steak-style portions, packaged skin-on in single or double pieces with cooking instructions for busy middle-class Chinese consumers.

A well-marketed cod product can be successful in China because it’s a product which can be cooked at home – whereas salmon is a product largely served raw in food service outlets. Currently the most active buyers are Chinese processors who instead of shipping it overseas are seeking well-heeled buyers at home: they’re selling it in online stores such as Taobao and Yihaodian as “Norwegian Arctic Cod.” The NSC is meanwhile backing up sales with online and point-of-sale marketing.

It’s that marketing support that is making cod attractive to Chinese distributors who have been keen to take on the cod product because of past Norwegian commitment to long-term marketing of seafood in China. “They say ‘we want it because you made such a success of salmon in China’" said Bjorgo. Some 15 years of marketing campaigns and spending in China made the country a top-five global market for salmon on almost 70,000 metric tons (MT) in 2014. Chinese end-users are also proving receptive to cod because of a positive image and awareness of “Arctic” Norway as a source of seafood which was also built up patiently over almost two decades of marketing.

There’s a valuable lesson in Norway’s long-term willingness to spend on marketing, which is unmatched in China’s seafood market. The funds and vision to invest consistently over decades has delivered success for Norway. The same method could be employed by any number of countries and industries – the crab sector springs to mind – given the shortages of land and clean water faced by Chinese aquaculture and fisheries. Yellow croaker is another possibility, something in short supply in China due to environmental degradation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Canadian regional and national trade authorities do a good job in China for their fisheries sectors but it tends to be intermittent effort rather than consistent, long-term marketing of a particular product.

There is space for new market entrants given the continued pressure on Norway from Chinese authorities. Yet no one has emulated the Norwegian success. Indeed it is the Norwegians doing all the running again, creating and marketing a new product from scratch for China in “Arctic cod.” Norway expects to sell between 2,000 and 3,000 MT of cod this year but want to hit 20,000 MT within five years. And with the long-term commitment confidence they’ve engendered among local buyers, that’s a target that’ll likely be met.

If Norway repeats the feat with cod it will have set the bar for success, in very difficult conditions. It should be emulated.

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