Industry must innovate to capture new consumers, High Liner's Craig Murray says

Published on
August 19, 2020

This moment is a timely opportunity for the seafood industry as a whole, and the wild Alaskan pollock sector in particular, to increase market share and popularity, according to Senior Vice President of Marketing, Innovation, and Quality at High Liner Foods Craig Murray.

Speaking as part of the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers’ summer webinar series, Murray said the coronavirus pandemic has led a whole new crop of consumers to try new seafood products for the first time.

“I think there’s never been a better time for this industry,” he said.

Taking advantage of the moment will require greater individual and collaborative efforts on the part of the seafood industry, but with that, the sector can lock in a whole new crop of seafood buyers, Murray said.

“If we drive consumption and get consumption going, the category wins. We all win,” he said.

After decades in the retail food business at Kraft, Heinz, and Mondelez, Murray came to High Liner in 2015 as vice president foodservice sales, Canada, and was promoted in 2018 to oversee the company’s overall marketing and innovation efforts. Founded 120 years ago in Nova Scotia as a cod company, High Liner is one of the oldest and most successful seafood companies in North America, though it has struggled recently. Currently, the company is working through a reorganization to allow it to focus on value-added frozen seafood products for the North American market.

While North America has lower levels of seafood consumption compared to other parts of the world, Murray said he views that as an opportunity to grow consumption, especially in the United States, which he considers to be the world’s largest potential market.

“In my background [at Heinz and Kraft], our challenge when we woke up every day was in some categories we believed consumption was at its maximum, that we were at a saturation point where we could not grow any more in consumption,” Murray said. “What drew me into the seafood category is the fact that there’s this huge opportunity on consumption.”

The industry needs to focus more on increasing consumption, he said, noting that at most of the industry events he has attended, supply issues tend to get more attention.

“Supply has been the greater conversation around seafood that has outweighed the discussion around consumption significantly in most of the forums that I go and talk to,” he said.

Referencing COVID-19, Murray believes that “now is the point of opportunity for us to understand the trends” across the board from foodservice operators to retailers to consumers.

Murray referenced skyrocketing freezer sales as something which frozen foods like pollock products can work to capitalize on, especially since he also cited the fact that people forced to eat at home due to the pandemic cite seafood as their second-most missed food item.

Murray suggested the frozen seafood industry reframe its thinking by aspiring to compete with larger segments of the food industry, the way alternative protein companies like Impossible Burger aim to compete with the fast food market, not tofu and tempeh.

“We need to continue thinking about expanding to bigger categories and taking share from the categories of where people are consuming today,” Murray said.

He warned against thinking small and fighting for market share in the existing seafood market.

“We’ll find ourselves here 25 years down the road and we will have not grown the consumption of seafood,” he said. “The opportunity for us is to replace the [sources] where people are getting their protein from and looking at those adjacent categories that are large in size and are right for us.”

"Pollock is an exceptionally versatile product, allowing for all sorts of value-added propositions,” Murray said. “We’re starting to see products like jerky, noodles, and a version of wings made from wild Alaska pollock. All of those are on the right trend."

Murray lamented the fact that many of the innovative seafood products that do reach market are short-lived.

“Just throwing innovation into the market – here today, gone tomorrow – is just not very efficient because we’re constantly having to revamp products,” Murray said. “We’re just not giving some of the great products out there the opportunity to meet their full potential … There are some fantastic products being created and developed but staying the course [is essential].”

Murray pointed out that while other protein industries and protein alternatives have lobbying efforts, marketing boards, and coalitions behind the product, the seafood industry and Alaskan pollock, in particular, would do well to capitalize on the same concept. He said he believes that the “strength in numbers” concept – prominent in other protein industries – is “lacking” in the seafood sector, although he said he believes that GAPP is a good example of a move away from that trend.

A lack of coordination across the industry is one of the reasons consumption isn’t as high as it could be, Murray concluded.

“The stories just aren’t being told in a consistent way, in a consistent fashion, I think [now] is the opportunity. Together, everyone achieves more,” Murray said.

Photo courtesy of Craig Murray/ZoomInfo

Reporting from Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.

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