Canada aims to lose the “Boston” lobster name

First published on Sept. 2, 2015, The Chronicle Herald; reprinted in Landings, October, 2015 with permission.

With Canadian lobster sales in China at record levels, a major Nova Scotia exporter is trying to rebrand the tasty crustacean to overcome its generic name in China: “Boston lobster.”

“We all know Canadian lobster is better quality than lobster from the U.S. side,” says Jack Liu, of Zoneco, a large Chinese seafood company that has bought into the Nova Scotia lobster industry. “It’s stronger, the meat is fuller. The yield is high, there is more meat inside.”

Executives from Zoneco handle a lobster at the plant in Nova Scotia earlier this year. Photo courtesy of The Chronicle Herald.
Executives from Zoneco handle a lobster at the plant in Nova Scotia earlier this year. Photo courtesy of The Chronicle Herald.

Sales of live Canadian lobster to China — mostly from Nova Scotia — have more than tripled in the last few years. By the end of June, sales in 2015 totalled $55 million, and are on pace to top a record from 2014 when sales totalled $67 million. But Chinese consumers may not know where they come from.

The first company in the Chinese market was American. “Boston lobster” has, as a result, become the generic name for all two-clawed lobsters from North America. “We feel we need to do some work to educate the market and consumer to better understand the origin of the lobster to tell them the story, the environment and the community,” says Liu.

Since its arrival in Nova Scotia last year, Zoneco has been air shipping about 35,000 pounds a week to China from of its plant in Eastern Passage outside Halifax. The company has applied for permits for a five-fold expansion of the operation and says it will open another facility on the province’s south shore.

The company’s promotional campaign includes a feel-good video featuring crews who catch and process the lobster caught off Nova Scotia. A portion of the video with Nova Scotia Fisheries Minister Keith Colwell features Chinese subtitles. “It’s the right thing to do to tell the true story and let consumers know,” says Liu. He also agrees successful rebranding could yield a higher price and a better bottom line. “We believe that would be the result.”

Replacing a widely-accepted generic name is going to be very difficult, according to Mount Saint Vincent University marketing expert Dr. Peter Mombourquette. “Most companies that try to brand a commodity generally stop after a certain point. There’s very few companies that have been been successful doing so,” he said.

Mombourquette also questions whether consumers in China who may eat lobster two or three times a year will really be able to distinguish a difference between lobster from Atlantic Canada and the United States.

Liu points to Norwegian-farmed salmon and branding by the Alaskan Seafood Institute as successes. He admits the effort will take time but the company is in for the long haul, saying for instance that its expansion plans are going ahead despite a weakening Chinese economy. “A short-term phenomenon will not change our strategic decision.”

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