Guest Column: Changed definition of luxury will affect demand for lobster

First published in Landings, December, 2015.

Christina Lemieux is grew up in a Cutler lobstering family. She is now an advertising executive based in London.  Photo courtesy of C. Lemieux.

Christina Lemieux is grew up in a Cutler lobstering family. She is now an advertising executive based in London.
Photo courtesy of C. Lemieux.

If you know a little bit about the history of lobster, you likely know that lobster has not always been considered a luxury item. Back in the 1600s, lobsters were so abundant they would wash up on beaches. Considered to be “poor man’s food,” lobster was often fed to prisoners and indentured servants by European colonists. As summed up by visiting historian William Wood in 1654, “their plenty [made] them little esteemed…” It was not until the late 1800s, when Maine became linked to the rest of America by railroad tracks, that well-heeled urbanites developed a true taste for lobster and elevated its status to a luxury item.

Though lobster has done well to hold its position as a coveted cuisine over the last two centuries, the recent boom in the Atlantic lobster supply coupled with economic instability has caused some to question lobster’s luxury status. When lobster is removed from a white-tablecloth environment, is it still a status symbol? Did the eight-dollar McLobster roll signal the end of lobster as a coveted cuisine? If the laws of scarcity and affordability no longer apply, can lobster still be considered a luxury item?

I currently work as a strategist at the luxury and lifestyle division of a global advertising agency, Leo Burnett. Part of my job is to understand consumers’ attitudes towards luxury items and how cultural shifts and perceptions of value are continually changing the definition of luxury. As we ready ourselves to step into the second half of this decade, I wanted to share some insights from a “Future of Luxury” seminar I attended this fall, run by the British consulting firm The Future Laboratory. It has left me feeling confident that Maine lobster is well positioned to remain a valuable luxury item for the foreseeable future.

Number One: As the average age of luxury shoppers decreases, the desire for “accessible luxury” increases. In a previous article I touched on the Millennial generation—a segment of the population born roughly between the years 1980 and 2000. Millennials now make up 45% of luxury shoppers, according to the Shullman Research Center. They have come of age in a challenging economic environment and this is shaping how they experience luxury. For example, many Millennials enjoy accessing luxury products without owning them. Audi’s Unite car share program, which allows a group of friends to share the costs and care of a single Audi through an app which keeps tabs on the car’s usage, is a great example of an “access rather than ownership” approach to luxury. When Millennials do buy luxury products, those products are more likely to be “accessible” or entry-level luxury products – e.g., Chanel sunglasses vs. a designer dress. Overall, Millennials are less obsessed with exclusive status symbols than previous generations. Implications: The upsurge in landings means Maine lobster is perfectly positioned to be a go-to food for Millennials in search of “accessible luxury.” Serving lobster in accessible forms, from lobster rolls to innovative appetizers, is an excellent way to reinforce lobster’s accessible luxury status.

Number Two: To resonate with tomorrow’s luxury consumers, luxury brands should demonstrate “cathedral thinking.” Not only are Millennials changing the luxury value equation about price and exclusivity, they also are seeking luxury brands with clear values. Luxury consumers are increasingly interested in brands that look beyond short-term profits and have a long-term vision for leaving the world a better place. This approach is sometimes called “cathedral thinking” as it requires the type of planning commonplace in previous centuries when the construction of iconic buildings, such as cathedrals, took centuries. The architects and artisans of these buildings had a far-reaching vision and the project was handed down from generation and generation, with each leaving a legacy for the next. Implications: The Maine lobster industry is a wonderful example of cathedral thinking. Because many fishermen pass on their livelihood to their children and grandchildren, they have a vision for the lobster industry that extends beyond their own career and a vested interest in managing the resource so it will reap rewards for future generations. Thus it’s important we not only promote our product’s sustainability but also highlight the legacy today’s fishermen are determined to ensure for their descendants.

Number Three: As luxury consumers focus on their well-being, chefs will present luxury foods in fresher, healthier ways. The desire to feel healthier and good about oneself is a growing trend among luxury consumers, especially Baby Boomers, and it is driving some of the latest developments in the food industry. Restaurants are focusing on sourcing cleaner, healthier foods and serving foods in purer forms. As part of the “Future of Luxury” seminar, I had the privilege of being served a premier London chef’s interpretation of “the future of lobster” as a luxury food. The lobster dish that chef Martyn Nail presented me was freshly steamed lobster served in a salad of raw vegetables including turnips, beetroot and samphire. His vision for the future of lobster, as he explained in a follow-up e-mail, is that it “has to be healthy, fresh, honest, delicate [and] easy to eat.” The dish was all of those things plus delicious. It reinforced the healthy living trend covered in that afternoon’s luxury seminar. Implications: Not only should lobster’s fantastic health credentials be part of the Maine lobster story, the chefs and entrepreneurs we partner with should be encouraged to explore healthy forms for serving this super food.

As culture evolves and new trends emerge, how consumers perceive and consume lobster will continue to change. But as summed up by chef Martyn Nail, “…lobster will always be a luxury ingredient.” Be it lobster thermidor at a Michelin Star restaurant or lobster rolls at a roadside shack, “It rains decadence in any form.”

Read more from Christina on her blog, Maine-ly Lobster.