Guest Column: Marketing important in bad times and in good

During 2012, the Maine lobster industry suffered its worst season ever. The catch started coming in in May. Processors were busy with the Canadian catch, and the live market was not developed enough to handle the six million pounds that Maine fishermen brought in between May and July. Predictably, the price plummeted.

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

From the ashes of 2012, the industry decided to embark on an enhanced marketing effort. Two words are critical in that sentence: enhanced and marketing. First, “enhanced.” The Maine lobster industry began marketing through the state’s Lobster Promotion Council in 1991 – that’s right, the industry has been active in marketing for more than a quarter century. Marketing is not a new concept in our industry.
Second, let’s discuss “marketing.” What is marketing, and what should we expect from a marketing effort? Marketing is a process of identifying customers’ needs and creating messages satisfying those needs so that customers are motivated to buy a product.
Marketing is not a silver bullet. It cannot correct everything that is challenging in this industry. We cannot negotiate multi-national complex trade agreements like the one between Canada and the European Union which made live Maine lobster in Europe 8% more expensive overnight and will make processed meat 20% more expensive over the next five years. We cannot change the weather or keep hurricanes from wrecking the fourth-largest city in the U.S. as well as disrupting one of our largest markets — Florida — when our catch comes on the strongest. Marketing cannot control the price of bait or fuel.
A robust marketing effort can increase and maintain demand so that the bad times aren’t so bad and the good times are even better. And over the last two years, the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC) has done just that.
In 2012, a 6-million-pound shift in timing made the price at the dock drop to $2/pound and lower. This year, we had nearly 30 million pounds of lobster displaced or threatened (Europe, Florida, Houston, South Korea) and yet, while prices are not at 2016 levels, they are way above 2012 levels.
As you read this column, the MLMC will have completed presenting its accomplishments to each Lobster Zone Council and will speak next to the Lobster Advisory Council on December 14. When lobstermen hear what we’ve done, how we decided to take the road we did, and how we measure our efforts, they have given us much support during the council meetings
At the presentations we tell the story of how the Collaborative was formed. We spend some time identifying the board of directors which by law had to include four fishermen, three dealers, two Commissioners, and two at-large members. The board and staff, with our agency partner Weber Shandwick, developed a marketing strategy that we think delivers the most value for the money we spend. It is important to remember that there are nearly unlimited options for marketing. Our guiding principle is to generate the best marketing/public relations return for the effort.
Measuring our effort is a subject on which the board, staff, and Weber Shandwick have spent significant time, discussion, and research.
Measuring Maine lobster sales is astonishingly complex. There are about 315 licensed lobster dealer/processors in Maine. Each pursues a unique sales strategy; none are sharing their data with MLMC. Within this complex dealer/processor network are literally thousands of third party distributors, from Sysco and PFG to local fish purveyors in every city in the world. Finally, there are millions of restaurants, supermarkets, food trucks and other places where consumers purchase Maine lobster to eat. Clean sales data do not exist. It never has. It is simply not possible for the MLMC to measure sales in the industry.  More importantly, the industry and Legislature recognized this when they wrote the statute mandating a marketing effort.
On the other hand, it was never an option to not measure what the MLMC did. Neither the board nor the staff nor Weber Shandwick advocated for that. Our goal was to identify a measurement protocol that would give an accurate picture of our efforts and provide some indication of our effect on our target audience.  
So we measure everything we do. While we’ve accomplished much, here are the highlights: In the last two years we personally have reached more than 3,000 chefs and given them hard- vs. new-shell taste tests and educated them about Maine lobster. The chefs we’ve worked with are influencers in the culinary world and are now telling our story to their millions of followers. On social media, we have reached more than 25 million people, informing them about Maine lobster and generating interest in our product. That is 130 times the number of people who read USA Today. We have generated more than 3.2 billion media impressions worth an advertising value of $22 million. For context, the Collaborative would have to buy 27.4 Super Bowl ads to reach a similar number of people.
The MLMC will have to be reauthorized in 2018 for the efforts to continue. It is up to the industry to decide if the results provide a value for the cost. During this evaluation, it is easy to focus on all the aspects of the lobster business that might irritate any one of us. But the real question is whether the industry will be better off if we decide not to market our product.

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