What’s in a name? For Maine seafood companies, quite a bit

First published in the MLA Newsletter, June, 2012

Last month we published an article outlining how some of Maine’s larger seafood processors market their products to companies abroad and at home. In this story, we look at how the name ‘Maine’ influences customers, both large distributors and retail consumers, and the growing need to protect that name.

Shucks Maine president John Hathaway. Photo courtesy of Shucks Maine.

John Hathaway, president of Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond, is on a crusade to ensure that the name ‘Maine’ means something, at least to those who purchase his frozen lobsters. “Customers around the world are confused …. Speaking only for Shucks, we’re trying to change that perception,” he said. “The industry has allowed the brand ‘Maine’ to lose its importance to the point that people don’t know what it stands for, so they don’t know that there’s any difference. Consequently, they’re just happy to ask for ‘lobster’.”

That, according to Hathaway, won’t do. The name ‘Maine’ evokes not just the typical romantic notions of a rugged coastline, clean seas and hardy fishermen, but also stands for a quality product that should be recognized as such.

Others see the name ‘Maine’ as one factor among many that lead to successful sales. “The Maine name is not enough to sell the product,” John Norton, president of Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland, said. He noted that his company sells lobster and other seafood products to the large supermarket chains, food service distributors, cruise lines and other companies that in turn sell the lobster to consumers. “Names don’t carry a lot of weight for those customers. Other elements, such as quality control, play into that decision,” Norton explained.

On the other hand, when Cozy Harbor products are purchased directly by retail consumers, Norton recognizes that the name ‘Maine’ does create a strong feeling. “All our products say ‘Maine’ on them. It conjures up a generally positive impression,” he said. “But that depends on the last experience [the consumer had] of something that has the name Maine attached to it.”

To promote lobster from Maine as a distinct product in the larger marketplace means paying attention to what Maine lobster actually is. “The Alaskan Seafood Promotion Council looked at what they were trying to sell,” Norton recounted. “They put in place a quality assurance program at the processor and buyer level that moved more salmon into the appropriate market. As a result the Alaskan Wild Caught Salmon campaign has been a huge success.”

Matching the right product to the appropriate customer is the core of good marketing, according to Norton. That’s certainly part of Hathaway’s marketing technique. “We want to carve out a niche by developing value-added products with the world’s best food: Maine lobster. And we want people to know our products are the best because we are offering them Maine lobster,” he explained. “The ‘Maine’ brand means it’s the best lobster in the world.”

The name “Maine” has a definite pull in the marketplace. The question is: how to protect it? Nancy Griffin photo.

John Jordan, president of Calendar Islands Maine Lobster in Portland, agrees. “The reputation of Maine comes before the brand,” he said. “Think of Wyman’s Maine Blueberries or Stonewall Kitchen. They all use the Maine name. Maine lobster is unique because it is identified with the state of Maine.” But, Jordan continued, that name is not of equal value in all sectors of the marketplace. Retail consumers will respond to the name. Large corporations draw on other factors to make their buying decisions.

Calendar Island Maine Lobster turns the commodity, lobster, into value-added products such as lobster pizza, bisque, macaroni and cheese and other items that are easy for the home cook to prepare. To get those food items to the consumer, Jordan must get a large grocery chain, such as Hannaford’s, to place an order for them. The key to that transaction is being aware of what that chain wants. “Our company connects more with [the buyer] who puts food items on the shelf and how we can add something exciting to those shelves,” Jordan said. “Our goal is to sell food that people want to eat.”

There are some companies in the state whose entire marketing strategy hinges on the appeal of Maine. Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine® is just such a company. Bean has constructed a business that draws on the twin attributes of her family name and the ‘Maine’ name. As she states in her company’s Web site, “Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine® is a brand name I have chosen to reflect my personal love of my native state. When we think about Maine, certain images form around the delights of being here.”

Since creating her company in 2007, Bean has opened lobster roll franchises along the East coast, begun selling frozen, scored lobster claws to 750 WalMart stores around the country, created a Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster Café in the Portland Jetport with plans to open another café in Boston’s Logan Airport, and launched a 240-seat seafood restaurant and tavern in Freeport. The company’s Web site lists a multitude of lobster-based products for sale. She has stated in print, “I’ve learned that my name, Bean, combined with Maine lobsters opens doors. It’s a real blossoming.”

Chad Dorr  also understands the value of the Maine name. Dorr and his family run Dorr Lobster Co. Inc. in Milbridge. The company has a wholesale component but most of its sales come from its Web store where the name ‘Maine’ is prominently displayed.

“When most people think lobster they think Maine lobster,” Dorr said. “I get frustrated when other Web sites say they sell Maine lobster and that they are catching it from their own boats. But they are in Massachusetts or Rhode Island. How’s that work?” He believes that Maine lobster connotes quality lobster, with a distinct taste and freshness that out-of-state retail sellers can’t match. His customers often tell him that the lobster they have purchased tastes better than any other lobster they have eaten.

“Not every lobster is a Maine lobster,” Dorr said firmly. “The name is worth something because everyone wants to use it.”

No matter whether the company is a small family-run business or a large corporation with a global reach, if they are in Maine and they sell lobster, they draw on the name ‘Maine.’ The problem is, so do many other companies not located in the state or who sell Canadian lobster. Hathaway grows incensed by the continued erosion of the name. “In Asia and the European Union, the brand has little value now. The industry has allowed the Canadians to bury our brand in the European Union,” he argued. “We think promoting the Maine lobster brand makes great business sense both for our company and for the Maine lobstermen. They work hard to build the brand. They deserve to be rewarded with premium pricing for keeping the resource sustainable. That will happen once the world market is educated about what Maine lobster is…and what it isn’t.”