Selling more seafood: Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee floats idea of national seafood marketing effort for US
Over 30 years ago, in 1986, the U.S. Fish and Seafood Promotion Act was enacted to do exactly what its title implies: Promote the consumption of the country's domestically harvested seafood by establishing Seafood Marketing Councils.
Soon after U.S. Congress enacted it, a National Seafood Council was established in 1987. The council ran for five years, before desolving at the end of its funding cycle. While a few marketing efforts it pursued may have gained some attention – some still recall the “Sturgeon General” – a relatively low budget kept the council from ever realizing its potential.
Now, a panel discussion at a Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee meeting has brought the concept of a national seafood marketing effort, funded by the industry and assisted through partnerships with the federal government, back.
The concept of an industry-funded marketing service isn’t new, said Megan Davis, the MAFAC council member who has led the investigation into whether a national seafood board is feasible. Other similar food-related industries already have established marketing efforts.
“The agriculture marketing service is 100 percent supported by industry, and they have what they call 22 check-off programs,” Davis said. Those programs cover everything from dairy, to beef, to popcorn; are supported by industry funding; and have budgets of millions of dollars.
A similar program for the seafood industry, said Davis, seems like a welcome idea. She casually surveyed people at Seafood Expo North America in March and found a great deal of enthusiasm.
“What I found is, after talking with 18 different marketing and promotion groups there, was this resounding yes, that they want this national marketing effort,” Davis said.
Bill DiMento, vice president of sustainability and government affairs at High Liner Foods, has been part of pushing for a national promotion since the idea was first tested. DiMento along with Jana Hennig, the executive director of Posi+ively Groundfish, and Randy Rhodes, president of Harvest Select Seafood and Harvest Select Catfish, gave their perspectives on the potential of a marketing board to the committee.
“It’s long overdue,” DiMento said. “It’s become painfully apparent that as an industry working in silos, by species, it’s been very difficult to move the bar.”
There’s a number of issues with North American consumers in particular that have remained consistent throughout the past several years. Consumer trust in seafood, especially seafood derived from aquaculture, is still behind most other foods.
“We still have pockets in the business were North American consumers are still very doubtful of the safety of eating aquaculture or farmed seafood,” DiMento said.
In addition to mistrust, there’s also still the continued confusion over seafood, and in some cases lack of knowledge of how to eat it. Seafood can be seen as intimidating for consumers, and misconceptions about seafood’s sustainability still linger.
Conquering those misconceptions and showcasing the many positive aspects seafood consumption represents – carbon footprint, health, sustainability, etc. – is a task bigger than any one company’s marketing team can handle, which is why a national effort could work.
“I feel very strongly that a promotion council would be extremely beneficial,” DiMento said. “Building that trust means we are going to, for all the right reasons and selfishly, increase per-capita consumption. Increasing that per-capita consumption is huge for business.”
Implementing that idea, however, is much, much easier said than done.
“Marketing seafood generically is almost impossible,” Hennig said. She comes from a background in marketing for massive global brands, and has been bringing that experience to marketing West Coast groundfish through Posi+ively Groundfish.
There are, Hennig said, numerous issues with promoting seafood as a generic product, including the basic premise of making it a generic brand.
“The whole point of marketing is to differentiate in the minds of consumers, the point is not to be generic, to not be a commodity,” she said. “Nobody would get together and say ‘hey let’s promote American terrestrial foods.’”
The basic concept of marketing, on its face, is diametrically opposed to creating a generic seafood brand. Even separating fish into smaller categories, like with groundfish, is problematic, as it doesn’t have much relevance to the average consumer, Hennig said.
“I would never go to a consumer and talk about groundfish because first, it sounds weird to them, but also as a consumer you don’t go into a supermarket and say ‘oh I’m going to buy some groundfish today,’” she said.
The average shopper doesn’t go into the supermarket and think in generic terms – she likened it to someone seeking out “a nightshade derivative” when browsing vegetables.
“It’s hard to do it generically, because at the end of the day you will always have to show a picture of something, and you will have to make a choice of which species you’re going to study if you’re doing a consumer survey,” Hennig said.
Marketing and advocacy groups do exist, but the message isn’t getting across. Sometimes, it’s through targeting the wrong audiences.
“From my perspective the problem isn’t that nobody is saying things, it’s that they’re not saying it loud enough, and they’re all saying it to each other,” Hennig said.
The seafood industry, Hennig said, often “preaches to the choir,” and markets things in ways that appeal to each other rather than consumers.
“I go to so many shows now where there is no seafood represented, where we really ought to make ourselves part of the food system,” she said.
An example Hennig brought up was bringing Posi+ively Groundfish to the Natural Food Show. Of 3,000 exhibitors, only three were representing seafood.
“Why? I can’t think of anything more natural or real than wild-caught fish,” she said. “It almost confused people there, because it didn’t have a brand, or a barcode on it.”
Sebastian Belle, the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, agreed with Hennig’s assessment on the seafood industry’s tendency to focus on the wrong efforts.
“I’ve been involved with three different marketing boards,” he said. “I completely agree with preaching to the choir, it’s a waste of time, and we do it all the time in the sector.”
He added the caveat that any potential marketing push should also come with a push for surveys and data-driven studies on what consumers want.
A national seafood promotion isn’t necessarily starting from a blank slate, as overcoming negative stigma and marketing a product isn’t new to the seafood industry. Harlon Pearce, the owner/operator of Harlon’s LA Fish out of Louisiana, faced a truncated version of the same problems the industry faces as a whole after multiple natural and man-made disasters – including hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill – tainted the image of Gulf of Mexico seafood.
Pearce was involved with the seafood industry throughout those disasters, and saw first hand the impact it had on fisheries as many stores and restaurants started to refuse to sell Gulf shrimp out of fears that it was contaminated by oil or runoff from hurricanes.
The response was a concerted effort as a group, and constantly pushing the message that Gulf seafood was alive and well, through marketing efforts and getting in touch with both the federal government and important figures in the overall industry. That effort, Pearce said, can work again.
“It’s a matter of will and money,” Pearce said. “Farmed or wild should be talked about in one voice, they should be together.”
Of course, coordinating that is easier said than done. Paul Doremus, COO of NOAA Fisheries, identified a few main themes that came up throughout the discussion.
“First, I have heard a fairly resounding ‘the time is now’ message,” he said.
Increasing per-capita consumption of seafood, Doremus said, is a clear target that has both benefits to the industry, and makes sense from a governmental policy perspective in terms of health benefits for the U.S. which in the long run can save money.
“The cost associated with cardiovascular disease alone is astounding,” he said.
He suggested that a seafood promotion board which could operate in an industry-wide capacity to coordinate consistent messaging could be a good place to start.
While Hennig highlighted many of the difficulties that come with marketing seafood as a whole, she also pointed out that the products innate benefits – including its taste – make it easier to market than many other products. Finding out what consumers want through rigorous market analysis, and then using that to promote the product, will likely see success.
“It’s not a hard sell, there are other products that have been sold that are much harder to get people to buy into,” she said. “If Kale can supersede lettuce … surely we can sell seafood.”