guest column: Music, lobster and …….. disruption!

First published in, Landings, August 2017

The first album I ever bought was Led Zeppelin IV. I remember bringing it home and playing “Black Dog,” “Rock & Roll,” and “Stairway to Heaven” until I wore out the grooves.

Since then I have lived through a revolution in music delivery. From eighttracks and cassettes to CDs, many of us have bought the same music, over and over, to listen to on different delivery systems.

Matt Jacobson is the executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.
MLMC photo.

We did it for the convenience and the improved fidelity of the newest system. But no matter what the system, you still got stuck with several songs on an album that you never listened to or didn’t like but suffered through anyway.

In 2001, Apple introduced iTunes and everything changed. Not only did you get the songs you wanted, but you could get only the songs you wanted. And you could get them on multiple devices, from your computer to your phone. You could play them easily and the music sounded great.

Today my kids have an Amazon Echo. All they have to do is just say the song they want to hear. It is the ultimate consumer-focused music delivery system… until the next disruptive music technology emerges.

These technology disruptions have happened in nearly every part of our lives. Who remembers three channels and an antenna, going to the library to read the encyclopedia for a term paper, or calling a hotel for a room reservation?

In Maine, we like to think of ourselves as “the lobster industry.” We take pride in what we do and the product we harvest. In reality, we are part of a much bigger industry – the food industry. What Google, Uber, and AirBnB have done to their respective industries will be duplicated in the food industry. Disruptive technology is about to radically change how we get our food.

There are several converging factors that will hasten this disruption. Huge portions of the world’s population are transitioning to middle-class status. This affluence will influence demand for food while demand for food is growing globally.

At the same time, consumer preferences are changing. Food has become an experience, not just something you put in your mouth. We want to know the story of our food: Who harvested it? How did they do it? Where does the item come from?

It is easy to get lost in the technology, but it is useful to remember that tech is just a tool that enables consumers to more easily get exactly what they want (all I really wanted from my Led Zeppelin album was “Stairway to Heaven,” “Black Dog,” and “Rock & Roll” but I had to pay for seven or eight other songs I didn’t like as much).

Disruptive technology is ushering in the era of the consumer. Seafood businesses need to remember that everything they do must start at the plate and not at the dock. We will need to be much more familiar with what consumers want and how they want it. Data collection on consumer preferences and habits is critical for our success.

One startling fact that the MLMC has uncovered is that nearly every one of the more than 3,000 chefs who have taken part in our new-shell vs. hardshell taste tests prefers new-shell. Yet our industry seems to value the hardshell product more. Why? Because the supply chain prefers to ship hard-shell, and because some overseas customers have yield as their primary sales driver. But these preferences are changing quickly, and the food industry must be responsive as the market, especially the U.S. market, changes. 

Food suppliers who do not value data about their customers risk becoming increasingly disconnected from them and their needs and risk being eliminated as a choice. In the era of the consumer, we will not be able to ignore consumer preferences so readily. If we do, we will diminish our place, literally, at the table.

Earlier this year, Amazon announced the purchase of Whole Foods. Since then, the stocks of grocery chains and other food distributors have gone down more than 10% just on the news of Amazon’s entry into the food industry. As a company, Amazon is largely responsible for creating the era of the consumer. It has allowed people to conveniently buy exactly what they want, no matter where they live or what they want. That model applied to food will be a significant disruption.

But Amazon isn’t the only company in this market space. In the last two years, more than $650 million has been invested in food tech by venture capital companies. Kimbal Musk, brother of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, has several ventures fueling what he calls the “real food revolution.” Nestle Foods invested $77 million in a company called Freshly that delivers food directly to consumers. The former CEO of McDonalds has started a venture capital firm to fund food-tech companies. These people are all fighting to control the food delivery systems and the ultimate relationship with customers.

So here we are at the beginning of a significant disruption in the food industry, and you can be sure that Maine lobster will not be immune to the effects. Volume, delivery to a location, and price will diminish as drivers in our industry. Where it all ends up is anyone’s guess. From my perspective, the companies and industries that make access to their products convenient, create an experience, demonstrate value and culinary versatility, and offer a story about sustainability and the people who harvest the food will win.

Now is the time to tell our story to consumers and to the people who influence their food decisions. The story of Maine lobster is exactly what consumers want to hear. But we have to tell it, now more than ever.