It is said to have been on the table at the first Thanksgiving. Later, as the story goes, it was fare fit only for prisoners. Later still, “Diamond Jim” Brady, J.P. Morgan and Edward VII relished it at Delmonico’s. The extraordinary Maine lobster, crawling around as it does in the cold, dark, benthic depths, has had a wild ride on the rollercoaster of consumer sensibilities over the past 400 years. And the thrill continues.
Homarus americanus (Maine lobster) can be found from the mid-Atlantic to the Maritimes. A lobster caught in Long Island Sound is the same species as one caught in Passamaquoddy Bay. Some claim this makes it a commodity.
Let’s consider commodities for a moment. A handful of keystrokes into Google yield the following definition: “A raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold, such as copper or coffee.” This, of course, is the perspective of the finance and procurement professions — buyers, traders and speculators.
We marketers have definitions, too. We speak of products being “differentiated” or having “unique selling propositions.” We like things that create “brand experiences.” Commodities traders may buy and sell coffee by the fungible freighter-load, but when they pop down to Starbucks for their mid-morning pick-me-up, the comparative virtues of Brazilian, Sumatran and Ethiopian matter. Coffee, the commodity, is transformed into an experience.
A brand is only a brand when consumers care enough to make it one. But for the satisfaction we get from experiencing Maine lobster — in a roll, in the rough, at the beach or in the backyard — it wouldn’t be a brand. But it is. We care.
Great brands also inherently make strong promises. In the case of Maine lobster, the promise is one of immense gastronomic gratification. It’s undeniable. That promise, made to you when you watch a few go from tank to bag, or when a waiter describes the lobster special in fine detail, is very powerful. As with Pavlov’s dogs, the mere mention of lobster induces a response.
Despite record catches and a proliferation of distribution channels (e.g., Walgreens), Maine lobster is an idiosyncratic brand indelibly linked to our state. Think Maine lobster, and get excited. Be happy. It’s emotional and automatic. There are few brands anywhere that can do that.
There’s a reason why we’ve never heard of “New Jersey lobster” or “Martha’s Vineyard lobster.” Maine’s isn’t the only coastline producing lobster, but no other place is naturally synonymous with them. Do you hear that, Connecticut? Maine is the epicenter for lobsters and lobstering. No lobster would ever admit to being from any place else.
In 2012 Maine lobstermen caught nearly 130 million pounds of them. Maine lobstermen embody the very spirit of Maine. The Maine brand, the most distinctive and evocative among American state brands, has been nourished for decades on a steady diet of lobster. The equation is simple: Maine equals lobster, and lobster equals Maine. But in a more sophisticated way than Wisconsin equals cheddar. Cheese is delicious but definitely not the equivalent epicurean delight of one of our crustaceans.
By the sheer emotional power of the underlying product, Maine lobster has achieved rare status among brands, one of near-universal awareness and significance. But that is no longer enough. Maine lobster must be actively managed and stewarded like a brand.
We’re willing to pay $8 to eat it from a cardboard container and $31 to have it served over chive ricotta gnocchi (name another food with that much culinary swagger). How do we keep this powerful brand relevant among such a large and hugely variable consumer base? How do we ensure Maine gets the credit it deserves? The answers to these questions are the key to extracting more economic value for Maine’s lobster industry.
Either we figure it out, or we’ll have to shut our traps.
David Goldberg is a partner at Kemp Goldberg Partners, a full-service advertising and public relations agency based in Portland. He is a branding expert who has worked with a range of companies from Maine-based small businesses to Fortune 500 corporations.