Friday, January 10, 2014

What's In A Name?

Remember when tanner crab was called 'spider crab'? There was no way that luscious delicacy of the deep was going to sell. The shrimp trawlers would get into a bunch of them and fill the trawls and the fishermen would just dump them over. There was no market for them. Then someone came up with the name 'snow crab' and they also figured out a way to run the legs through a roller to get out the meat. Thus a market was born. Not to forget the 'red bags' the bottomfish trawlers would get when they would plough through the old red king crab sanctuary that the Japanese trawlers would avoid before the 200 mile limit law. But that's a different story.

I've been seeing lately that chum salmon are being sold down here in Oregon as pink salmon. The chum salmon are not much different in color than the pinks, but why call the chum salmon pinks? I can understand why the grocers I saw in Arizona calling pink salmon king salmon. Much more appealing name. Consumers for the most part don't know there are different species of salmon, much less the subtleties of their flavors. Is it because 'pink' is just more understandable than 'chum'?

Granted 'chum' is much better than calling them 'dogs' as we did in Alaska. Is it time the lowly dog salmon get a name makeover? What does 'chum' invoke in the brain of a consumer in Oklahoma anyway? Is it time the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute did some research on a more appealing name?

King salmon doensn't need changing, nor red or pink salmon. But what is 'coho' too? My father ran a plant in Petersburg that did pioneering work on harvesting and processing king crab. He was also involved in the first efforts to develop a national advertising campaign for those crab. Tanner crab got a new name about that time as well. Not sure if the Alaska King Crab and Quality and Marketing Control Board had anything to do with tanners, but most likely they did. Maybe someone knows. I can't ask Dad anymore.

The King Crab Board morphed into ASMI, giving it more responsibility and State monies after a can of salmon from Ketchikan was found to be the culprit in a case of botulism. The only case I've ever heard of in 147 years of canning salmon in Alaska. Imagine the number of cans of salmon that effort has produced. But that's not the point either.

The point being, a change of name for marketing purposes has a whopping effect. What would another twenty cents a pound, or even a lot more, in the market yield to Alaska and the whole supply chain with a more appealing name? Believe me, there is no emotional attachment on my part as a former fisherman and processor to the name 'coho', or 'chum,' especially if it meant more money in everyone's pockets. And I think other fishermen and processors would feel the same.

Folks down here are coming up with names for their micro-brew beers, wines, and ciders all the time and that seems to be their strength. Now you have 'Druid Fluid,' 'Apocalypse,' 'Angry Orchard,' and the list goes on and on. Even going back to 'Chicken of the Sea' tuna, the salmon industry never seemed to take note of marketing subtleties. Why is that?

I proposed a label design to a big canned salmon brokerage I knew one time and the answer was it takes too much money to promote a new label. Even if the label outsells the other ones on a year after year basis? But as we know, it's hard for bureaucracy to change course. It reminds me of trying to dodge a log while on wheel watch on a big ship once. You can turn and turn the wheel, but the heading stays the same. Remember the Titanic?

Well, maybe it will be up to the brokers, distributors, direct marketers, and small processors of said species of salmon. You still would put 'coho' or 'chum' on the package, but in smaller print. Then use what you think would find a niche market in larger print. What would you use to lure the Mac and cheese crowd? Maybe 'Zombie Fuel,' or 'Angry Ocean' with a illustration of a Perfect Storm wave on the label. Anyway, you get the drift.

For the upper crust crowd, you take the tack toward a genteel label and trademark that reinforces their sense of entitlement and superior DNA. Well, that's only 1% of the market, so maybe forget that niche. But they do have the money to buy a sixty five dollar can of smoked coho with a label that would demand such a price. Hint, the name 'Rothschild's' is already taken. 'Newman's Own' did rather well. 'Jimmy Buffet's' not so much. Maybe 'Warren Buffet's' though. I suspect that 'Elvis' chum salmon would sell in Japan with their penchant for Karaoke.

These would not be wasted efforts. Unlike the effort to sell turbot from Alaska down here. The Fisheries Industrial Technology center in Kodiak has been trying for decades to make that predominant catch of the trawlers in large sections of the Gulf of Alaska into an edible product. I purposely ordered a real fishy sounding flatfish in one of the top restaurants in Southern Oregon because I suspected it was turbot. And sure enough it was. Completely inedible. Even though the waitress warned me off it, and the cook came out and asked me how I liked it. I didn't let on that I knew the whole story of how they got duped by the distributor and packer into thinking it was some new kind of Alaska true, left handed sole, or whatever it was called on the menu. Now that took imagination and guts. Well, maybe duplicity and naivete.

 In that case it was a attempt to boost the fortunes of a large trawl/processing combine that harvests valuable sablefish as a bycatch, and which it got quota rights for through the Federal Fisheries Council process, and of course, wheel-greasing by it's lobbyists. A huge amount of information represented by that one bite. I never did tell that restaurant what they were trying to peddle. I have close friends that have the award winning cafe in Medford, 'Capers,' where I talked the cook into switching to Copper River King salmon. I don't  doubt they will retain their title as having the best tasting food in Southern Oregon.

Last on the menu today is the subject of Pacific ocean perch, aka, POP. These had been caught in vast numbers by the Japanese and Russian trawlers prior to the 1976 implementation of the '200 mile limit law.' They caught many hundreds of thousands of tons every year. Not that that level of harvest was sustainable. POP does propagate exponentially and rapidly though, like cold germs, sometimes dying off en-mass due to overpopulation in juvenile rearing grounds. The U.S. fleet is hip to their existence and is cautiously increasing the catch limits every year, now much more than the halibut catch. And they are highly prized in Japan for their bright red skin color, portion size and fabulous taste.

But there are tons of other kinds of rock-fish in the Pacific ocean and the name 'Pacific ocean perch' doesn't ring anyone's bell in particular. And West Coast distribution would impact the market for all the other miscellaneous species of rock-fish, especially here with the Oregon Trawl Commission at cabinet level status. I haven't seen POP in the market here yet. I'd love to though. It's in restaurants in Texas, where their red snapper are not as abundant as the demand is. Looking forward to seeing more POP in the stores in the Lower 48 as the quotas work their way up in years to come.

Remember, that resource is about as valuable as Bristol Bay red salmon. Hence the gradual move to utilize it fully by big companies buying up trawlers, and their quota holding owners, in the Gulf of Alaska. When the fleet is satisfactorily consolidated in a few hands, then you might see these delicious fish sold more widely as 'their' fisheries management council delivers a maybe ten-fold quota increase.

So what would you call POP on the U.S. market? Maybe 'Scarlet O'hara.' You might get a whole lot of older white males looking for 'Scarlet' in a dining out experience. Maybe 'Deep Reds,' in contrast to the shallow reds of Bristol Bay. I don't think it does any good to wait for 'someone' to come up with a catchy name that will sell the fish well in the market. Just experiment. Innovation doesn't come from bureaucracy as we all know.

Some of the biggest breakthroughs in Alaska seafood marketing came from regular guys with imagination and guts, like Denton Sherry, RIP, who opened the sujiko market, and Dean Kayler who opened the frozen coho and chum market in Europe. The latter contributed greatly to the rapid expansion of cold storage capacity in Alaska, which allowed the rapid shift to frozen sockeye when the Japanese were kicked out of our Exclusive Economic Zone.

Trying something new is mostly not expensive, doing nothing is very expensive.The investment in trying to market sujiko (salmon roe), and frozen bright chum and coho came at the astronomical cost of an airline ticket each.