Guest Column: What is the best way to spend a marketing dollar?

First published in Landings, February, 2017

The Super Bowl! Pats vs. Falcons. The big game is this month and I’m sure we will all be watching. But there is a bigger game going on outside the stadium, an expensive and important attempt to get attention from viewers for brands that different companies will display to the 110 million viewers in the U.S. They will pay about $5 million for 30 seconds of air time, and millions more to produce the commercial they hope will foster awareness and drive demand for their product or service.

Matt Jacobson is the executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.
MLMC photo.

Here at the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, we don’t have $5 million to run an ad during the Super Bowl, but we still want to reach a large audience. We want to increase awareness of Maine lobster in all its forms, and we want to spark demand for our product. Our strategy and goals are similar to the large companies advertising during the game, but our tactics are very different. In 2016, we worked with editors and producers at a variety of outlets like Food & Wine, Cooking Light, and the Morning Joe show to bring the story of Maine lobster to their audiences. And we reached one billion people. One billion people had an opportunity to see our story. The MLMC reached 10 times as many people as a Super Bowl ad, and we spent less than half the money.

But our activities in 2016 did not end with our media engagements. We understand that our supply chain is complex; the MLMC’s funding is limited. We focused our efforts on end users — chefs and culinary influencers — to increase demand from that sector for Maine lobster. Through a series of chef industry events in Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and New York City during peak lobster season, the MLMC engaged 250 chefs directly. The events included lobstermen and industry ambassadors who could speak most clearly about the Maine industry, while highlighting Maine new-shell lobster and its culinary versatility, challenging them to reimagine Maine lobster as a seasonal ingredient. Beyond our events, we attended several conferences where we had direct contact with more than 1,500 chefs who heard the Maine lobster story and took part in new shell vs. hard shell taste tests themselves.

Beyond our media outreach and events, we also focused on digital channels to reach an even larger audience. In fact, more than 675,000 people went to the MLMC website. Of those, more than 21,000 clicked on a dealer’s link, presumably to buy lobster from that Maine dealer. We learned a lot from our website traffic: people most often clicked on “how to prepare” articles and recipes. We will use those data to produce more content that shows people how to prepare different dishes using Maine lobster.

Our social media outreach also worked well for us in 2016. More than 2.3 million people viewed our videos. Many media outlets used our video as background for stories on Maine lobster. In addition to the videos, we reached more than 8 million people on channels such as Facebook. More than 135,000 people clicked on content and dove deeper into the messaging. We engaged with 311 influential chefs and media on different social media channels, nearly one per day. Each of these people has tens of thousands of followers who are likely to explore what these influencers suggest.

Through these face-to-face and virtual engagements we listened and learned a lot about what people interested in food are looking for. Through our partnership with Technomic, which monitors menu trends, we found that restaurant owners can charge a substantial amount more for a lobster item on the menu when they name Maine as the origin. This speaks to the value of our story and consumers’ willingness to pay more for a quality product that they know was sustainably harvested.

We also learned that flavor pairings have become increasingly diversified when it comes to lobster. Asian flavors have risen to the top, whereas traditional items like butter have decreased. Brandy, curry, coconut, lime and mustard are the leading menu pairings with Maine lobster on menus around the country! This shows the importance of continuing to educate chefs, media, and consumers on the culinary versatility of Maine lobster, and featuring it as an ingredient vs. a center of the plate offering. As we learn more about our customers’ tastes and preferences, we will have more tools to extract more value from Maine lobster.

The MLMC had a good year. Our efforts were more effective than a Super Bowl ad. We reached more people, more often, and we learned much about their tastes and preferences. In 2017, we intend to do more. More events, more media outreach, and more chef engagement. We will continue to listen to our customers and report what we learn. We know for sure that the story of Maine — of Maine lobstermen, of a sustainable resource and way of life — will be the key to our success.