Guest Column: Key to growing demand is telling the story

First published in Landings, December, 2015.

Frank Gotwals is a Stonington  lobsterman and chair of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. Photo courtesy of MLMC.

Frank Gotwals is a Stonington
lobsterman and chair of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. Photo courtesy of MLMC.

“What’s the difference between a new-shell lobster and an old-shell lobster?” I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked that question over the years. “These are the sweetest lobsters I’ve ever tasted and I didn’t even need to use those crackers to get them open.” I’d heard that statement from more than one visitor when serving them new-shell lobster for dinner after a sunny summer day lobstering with me on Jericho Bay.

I was promoting Maine lobster to one person at a time, explaining our fishery and its strong history of conservation. Every answer I gave brought another question. While I like answering questions, more than once I thought there would be an advantage to our industry in telling our story to a broader audience. Here on the Maine coast we all know about lobster but once you leave the coast that’s not the case.

When I had the opportunity to become a board member of the newly formed Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC) in 2013 I felt we finally had the chance to reach that broader audience, chefs and consumers all over the country. Who better to introduce them to the tasty and easy-to-eat new-shells than lobstermen themselves? We’ve been landing the majority of our lobsters here in Maine as new-shell for as long as I can remember.  It seemed to make sense that at least initially our marketing effort would focus on the positive qualities of our summer-caught lobsters.

Lots of time and effort went into the creation of the MLMC. All lobstermen work hard for their dollars and spending them well is important. Learning all I could about creating a brand and how to develop a national marketing program was critical. I spent a good many hours reading and talking to people who knew about marketing on this scale in the hope that I’d make good decisions about how we used our budget. I discovered that turning a lobsterman into a marketer is no easy task! It was clear that the key to the success of the MLMC effort was to find the right executive director and the right agency to help us develop and execute a successful marketing strategy.

Fast forward to the Napa Valley and the California Culinary Institute of America (CIA). I went there to represent the MLMC at the CIA Flavor Summit in 2014 and to introduce Maine new-shell lobster to a select group of chefs and buyers for large restaurant and hotel chains. I participated in a cooking presentation with a chef from New York where I introduced myself to the audience as a lobsterman from Maine. Then the flood of questions began. I spent the rest of my time there answering questions about lobsters and the lobstering industry.

Although I was used to general curiosity about lobster, I was really surprised by the level of interest from this group of people, also by how limited their specific knowledge about lobster was and how eager they were to learn more. It was very clear that we had a product that fit in perfectly with current trends in the food world: freshness, sustainability, local sourcing. And there was a certain romance attached to the idea of the independent lobsterman pulling a living from the cold waters of Maine.

I came back from that trip certain that a well-designed marketing effort had great potential to benefit everyone involved with the lobstering industry. The lobstermen have a great story to tell and people wanted to hear it. We have a good record as a sustainable fishery and a highly desirable product. All we needed to do was to find the right marketing agency to help us tell our story to a broader audience.  But we have a relatively small budget compared to other national marketing programs. So it was critical that those limited dollars be well spent. Everyone in the industry was contributing to that budget and it was important that everyone’s interests be represented. Would we be able to attract a top agency for our small account?

That question was quickly answered when we started our agency search. We attracted serious interest from a large number of top names in the marketing world. Turns out they were also truly attracted to our story and the opportunity it represented for a successful marketing effort. After much hard work by board members and our team at MLMC we finally selected Weber Shandwick as the best agency to help us get the word out about Maine lobster. They went to work immediately and it’s been gratifying to see our marketing efforts produce positive results so quickly. We’ve moved from answering questions about lobsters and lobstering person by person on the boat to telling our story at a national level to an audience of people already very curious about our industry. We at the MLMC are looking forward to 2016 when even more people will discover all the good things about Maine’s new-shell lobsters.