Guest Column: Changing strategy to adapt to pandemic impacts

At the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC) presented a plan for promoting Maine lobster to wholesalers, restaurants, retailers and consumers in 2020. Shortly after, the world changed dramatically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The MLMC quickly evaluated the new landscape and made changes to the marketing plan to drive demand in the new market conditions.
One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic is the dramatic decrease in foodservice demand that resulted when restaurants, cruise ships, casinos and events shut down across the country and around the world. These foodservice channels typically account for about two-thirds of Maine lobster consumption. Even as markets begin to re-open, the future of these establishments is uncertain.

The issues with food service present a significant challenge, however changes in consumer behavior have revealed two sales channels as growth opportunities: direct to consumer sales and grocery stores. These segments are reporting increased demand as consumers cook more at home. To meet that demand, Maine lobster dealers are working to line up new grocery customers and expand volumes and product offerings with existing customers.
Given the changes in demand, the MLMC shifted the focus of its marketing program from supply chain promotions to consumer promotions. The first step was to launch the ‘Resources for the Home Cook’ section of our website. This provides home cooks with all the basics of buying, storing, cooking and shucking lobster. The same content is available in our Content Hub for use by dealers, grocery customers and other suppliers, making it easy for everyone to promote Maine lobster.

Marianne Lacroix is the executive director of the MLMC.

In 2019, MLMC ran a robust digital advertising campaign targeted at supply chain customers. The campaign reached 83% of the U.S. wholesale seafood industry and resulted in a 43% increase in intent to purchase among those who were exposed to ads as compared to those who were not. This year, given the new reality, we are going to shift the focus of the digital advertising campaign to consumers.
We have consistently targeted consumers over the years through public relations and social media, and with this year’s increased focus on that audience, we will promote the key attributes of Maine lobster, including its sweet flavor, American origin and seasonality. An additional support message will ask consumers to choose Maine and in turn support working lobstermen and coastal communities. By using digital advertising, we’re able to target consumers with relevant content year-round as well as during key holidays.

The MLMC will also work to increase demand through grocery chains by partnering with lobster dealers to run advertising programs with retail customers. These campaigns will drive demand by promoting Maine lobster’s key product attributes rather than price discounts. We will continue to promote Maine lobster to food service channels through our webinar series put on in partnership with Seafood Source, distribution and promotion of our new comprehensive Buyers Guide, introduction of a new newsletter, and media relations efforts with trade publications.
Unfortunately, the pandemic isn’t the only issue the Maine lobster industry is facing in 2020. Additional whale protection regulations may be forced on the fishery as a result of court cases. The MLMC’s role is to protect the brand reputation of Maine lobster so that consumer and wholesale customers have continued confidence in our products.

Gauging public perception of the issue is an important part of determining our marketing response. We continually audit news coverage and social media conversations on the subject and this year also conducted a survey to determine any changes in consumer perception about Maine lobster. Both the audit and the survey show that consumers are largely unaware of any connection between Maine lobster and endangered right whales, and two-thirds of those that do follow the issue closely are still eating lobster.
If you’ve not yet visited the RightWhalesAndMaineLobster website we created last year, it’s full of content about Maine’s long-standing efforts to protect right whales and preserve our traditions and fishery. MLMC has also added a “Support Maine Lobstermen” section to our home website that highlights lobstermen’s efforts to protect right whales over the years.
The MLMC is working closely with industry groups to make sure that we have the most robust and effective marketing program possible to create demand in all available channels and to remain nimble so that we can respond as market conditions change.