Big seafood processors push lobster quality, supply, not ‘Maine’ name

First published in the MLA Newsletter, May, 2012

Ensuring the quality and consistancy of his seafood products is an expensive process, according to Cozy Harbor president John Norton. "The cost is huge," he said. Photo by Nancy Griffin.

In April seafood businesses from around the world gather in Brussels, Belgium, for the annual European Seafood Exposition. There amid a bevy of languages and products,Maine lobster brokers cement relationships and close the deals that will make their businesses thrive. They are the prime marketers of Maine’s most abundant commercial species. How do they do it? What does it cost? And what impact does the name “Maine” convey in this global marketplace?

“Marketing is not advertising,” emphasized John Norton, president of Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland. “It’s everything you do between the purchase of the product and delivery to the customer.”

In Norton’s view, the most important elements of marketing his company’s products are ensuring food safety and quality as well as consistent supply. “We have annual BRC certification of our food safety and quality management systems,” he said. By meeting the standards of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) each year, Cozy Harbor complies with the Global Food Safety Initiative, a global effort to harmonize international food safety standards. “It’s a guarantee to the customer that we have systems in place to avoid food safety problems and ensure the good quality of our products,” Norton continued. “The cost is huge. We’re talking about a half a million a year.”

When marketing his products, Norton focuses not on the Maine name, but sustainability and consistency of supply. “Everyone is playing the geographic name game,” he noted. “Think of Alaska or Norway or Chile. We promote the Maine origins of our products only to help identify the product in the marketplace.” When Norton heads to Brussels, he is ready to talk about things such as sustainable harvesting practices, price, flavor, packaging, and freezing techniques, not merely the fact that his products hail from Maine.

John Hathaway, president of Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond, also finds that the Maine name is not integral to marketing his products. Shucks provides raw, frozen lobster to seafood businesses around the world. “The people we sell to then sell our product to retailers and chefs. They are interested in the product, not the name,” Hathaway explained.

In Segovia, Spain, Caitlin Hathaway and Spanish chef Oscar Hernando Torrego. Photo courtesy of Shucks Maine Lobster.

Shucks Maine Lobster decided to build demand for its product by emphasizing its use as a gourmet culinary ingredient. Thus the company is conducting a World Series Lobster Chef competition, which kicked off at the Hong Kong seafood show last fall. A U.S. competition was held in March at the Boston Seafood Show and a European competition took place at the the European Seafood Exposition in Brussels. The fourth and final round of the competition will be held in Maine this fall. When the international contestants come to Maine, they will go lobstering with local lobstermen, process the lobster at Shucks’ facility in Richmond, and select locally-grown vegetables for their dishes.

At the International Boston Seafood Show in March, Hathaway continued this marketing approach. “We have a limited amount of high-end product,” he explained. “There are only a few businesses we want to market to. So our goal there was to meet these people.” The company booth was set up with a cooking station and people were invited in by appointment. There several chefs prepared lobster dishes using the company’s products. Participants were encouraged to taste and talk to the chefs about the dishes’ preparation and cooking techniques. “The point was to take time to talk with key people and tell the story of our product. That develops interest. They know what it is all about. It’s a precise approach, not a buckshot approach,” Hathaway said. He estimates that the company spends approximately $100,000 year to take part in the major seafood shows around the world.

Norton also takes a precise approach to marketing his company’s products. “There are just a few people I want to meet with in Brussels,” he said. “The point is to solidify existing relationships and develop new ones. Some customers it takes more than three years to land.”

When asked what impact the name “Maine” has in marketing his lobster, Greenhead Lobster Company president Hugh Reynolds paused for long moments “That’s a loaded question,” he answered finally. “We are world-wide exporters to wholesalers. We do not sell to the end user. But we do identify ourselves as being from Stonington.”

Greenhead ships to Asia as well as European countries. In the course of a year Reynolds estimates that he spends between $60,000 and $70,000 marketing his product through attendance at the major seafood shows and providing information about those products to his buyers. The name “Maine” doesn’t have much traction for most of his customers. Reynolds found that in the Asian markets, lobster is termed Canadian lobster regardless of its origin. “Couple of years ago in Hong Kong they referred to it as ‘Boston lobster’,” he said dryly.

Reynold’s aim is to make his customers know that Greenhead can provide reliable, consistent and high quality lobster year-round. “They know the product they will get and its price. When we go to Brussels we go to meet those people and keep their business. We don’t spend money to get to the people who eat lobster,” he said.

In Norton’s view, marketing lobster is similar to lobster fishing. “Processing and marketing seafood is an exceptionally expensive and high-risk business,” he said. “Not all lobstermen are equally successful in catching lobster. Certain things separate those who are successful from those who are not. The same is true in marketing. Nuances separate those who are very successful from those who are less so. People think lobstering is easy. They think selling seafood is easy too!”