ROCKPORT — Increasing demand for Maine lobster during the time of year when the supply is highest – and price is lowest – is the business goal of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC), strategists from the marketing firm Weber Shandwick told the Maine Fisherman’s Forum earlier this month. Their strategy relies on getting the food industry excited about “new shell,” or soft shell lobsters.
“We used to measure quality based on hardness of the shell,” said Matt Jacobsen, MLMC executive director. “The soft shell lobsters we’re marketing are what we used to call bad product.”
The message to fishermen was that there will still be a market for both hard shell and soft shell lobsters, but increasing demand for soft shells specifically may be the key to stabilizing price during the summer months when it traditionally dips.
“I’ve never heard of soft shell or new shell lobster,” said one New York chef during a meeting, according to presenters. “Soft shell crabs – yes. But not lobster. Can you eat the shell?”
That unfamiliarity, strategist Joe Frydl told the group at the forum, can work to the industry’s advantage. “People from away don’t think about lobster season,” he said, “and that means we have new news to share.” Top chefs in competitive markets like New York love to get an edge, to have a new secret to share with their customers.
The marketing strategy focuses on top restaurants in the U.S. Northeast, beginning with a New York launch planned for later this year. Much like fashion, where designers at the top influence what people buy and wear across the price spectrum, a small group of chefs can have a large impact on the market. If a few fine dining restaurants begins adding Maine new shell lobster to their menus, “upscale casual” eateries are likely to follow suit. And if a consumer is going to try cooking a new dish at home, Frydl said, it’s likely because they enjoyed it at a restaurant first.
“From about June to November, the lobsters in the cold, clear waters of Maine shed their shells and grow new ones,” marketing materials say. “That’s when their meat is at its sweetest, most tender, most ‘lobstery.’ Their delicate, cooked shells are easily broken, and the rewards of this seasonal delicacy await those in the know.”
The Food industry buzzwords “seasonality” and “provenance” figure heavily in the strategy. “Seasonal food is exciting,” Frydl said. If a product is available for a limited time, it’s more valuable. “Provenance” means the consumer knows specifically where the food comes from. Especially for meat and seafood products, more and more restaurant menus include local brand names like Copper River salmon or New Zealand lamb.
Maine has a particularly strong local brand, as consumers have associations with vacationing here. “A lobster meal can be like a vacation on a plate,” he said. “The story of the communities behind the lobster is very strong. Maine lobster has been fished by generations of families from a fishery that has been sustainable for the last 125 years.”
Seasonality and provenance are only useful if “they translate into real benefits for diners,” Frydl said. He pointed to taste tests conducted by high-profile food blogs in which new shell lobster beat out hard shell in tenderness and sweetness.
Next steps in the MLMC strategy include bringing chefs, bloggers and national media to Maine and getting them out on lobster boats. “Be ready for those calls!” Jacobsen told fishermen.
“Our goal is to be standing here next year and the year after with a vastly more valuable product than we have today,” said Patty Stone of Weber Shandwick.
The MLMC is set to be funded through 2018 through surcharges on lobster fishing and wholesale license fees.
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