Lobster marketing wars? Canada launches effort to develop unique Canadian lobster brand

Chad Dorr of Dorr Lobster Co. in Milbridge holds up a lobster with a Maine-shaped tag hanging off the lobster's claw.

Chad Dorr of Dorr Lobster Co. in Milbridge holds up a lobster with a Maine-shaped tag hanging off its claw.

When someone orders lobster at a restaurant in New York City, chances are the menu touts it as “Maine” lobster. Ask someone on the streets of San Francisco where lobster comes from, chances are they’ll refer to our great state.

Lobster is to Maine as bourbon is to Kentucky. It’s iconic and an incredibly valuable piece of the overall Maine brand.

Canada, though its fishermen catch an incredible amount of lobster, doesn’t have as strong a branded connection to the crustacean as we do — a fact it is now trying to change.

The Lobster Council of Canada has announced an effort to define “a Canadian lobster brand identity, focused on its superior quality, delicious taste and year-round availability.”

The council said in a press release that many in the Canadian lobster industry believe its lobster “has a positive but under-leveraged reputation.”

“A national brand identity will highlight Canada lobster’s many strengths including the coastal waters where it is harvested, the thousands of inspiring harvesters and their families, and the value that Canadian lobster has in the global marketplace,” Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada, said in a statement.

My immediate reaction — admittedly incredibly biased — was territorial. “Hands off the lobster,” I thought.

Of course, that’s not a fair reaction. After all, lobster is a billion-dollar industry in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island that supports thousands of jobs in those provinces. In 2011, Canadian fishermen landed more lobster than Maine fishermen (66,500 metric tons versus 47,580), according to data from Canada’s fisheries department and the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Irvine from the Lobster Council of Canada addressed the inevitable competition between Canada and Maine over lobster branding efforts in a recent column penned for the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance monthly newsletter.

“The challenge for all of us will be how we position our respective brands both alongside and against each other,” Irving wrote. “There is intense political and sectoral pressure on both sides of the border to differentiate the Maine and Canadian lobster brands.”

I asked Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, what she thought of Canada’s impending lobster-focused marketing blitz.

She said the Maine and Canadian lobster fisheries are very closely tied together, and share both a competitive and cooperative relationship. This is not the first time Canada has launched efforts to brand Canadian lobster, she said, though Maine lobster has always maintained broader name recognition.

Maine’s lobster industry shouldn’t feel threatened by Canada’s efforts to market its own lobster brand, she said. On the contrary, in fact.

“The success of each of our individual branding efforts will help the category as a whole — a rising tide floats all ships!” She wrote in an email to me. “In some ways, its similar to Coke and Pepsi competing. They are both colas and compete with each other to get their brand out there. If one is doing well, it typically benefits the other because they are both colas.”

She continued: “Maine and Canada will both continue to develop and promote our individual brands, but we will also continue to cooperate. If we are each successful, both industries will benefit greatly.”

Of course, the whole discussion of Canada branding lobster it exports as Canadian is confused by the fact that Maine sends a large amount of its lobster north of the border to be processed.

In 2012, the U.S. lobster industry, which includes fishermen from New Hampshire and Massachusetts, exported two-thirds of its live lobster to Canada to be processed, according to a report published in November 2013 by Canada’s Maritime Lobster Panel. The majority of that processed lobster is then sent back to the United States with what I can only assume is a label branding it as Canadian.

That doesn’t sit well with Maine’s fishermen, which is why there are efforts underway to increase Maine’s seafood processing capabilities.

But Canada claims the branding of another country’s lobster goes both ways. Canadian fishermen in 2012 exported 75 percent of their live lobster to the United States, according to the report, which goes on to claim that “an unknown amount of Canada’s live exports are repackaged in the US and exported elsewhere or directly re-exported.”

Since consumers can’t tell the difference between a Canadian lobster and a Maine lobster, it will be interesting to see how Canada’s effort turns out. Will Canadian lobster — does that sound more exotic? — catch the eye of chefs and gain a foothold on restaurant menus in the United States? Or, as McCarron claims, will the Canadian marketing effort only propel the lobster industries of both countries forward?

What do you think? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

Follow me on Twitter at @whit_richardson or @BDNbiz

Whit Richardson

About Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.