Mainers know that few people need encouragement to eat Maine lobster. But those in the industry know that the market has to expand beyond an occasional half-dozen lobsters bought to impress weekend guests. The job of driving demand for the crustaceans – and, it’s hoped, firming up prices – now falls to Matt Jacobson, who was named executive director of Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative this week. The collaborative was formed last year after a huge catch depressed prices. It is funded by surcharges on licenses for harvesters, processors and dealers and is aimed at creating a unified marketing effort and opening new markets for lobster. Jacobson is perhaps best known from his five years as president and chief executive officer of Maine & Company, a nonprofit that worked to encourage companies to locate or expand in Maine. He also ran for governor in 2010. Jacobson takes over the collaborative next month.
Q: What led to you to take the collaborative’s top job?
A: I had an opportunity to be a stay-at-home dad for a while, and I was sort of looking for things that interested me. I’ve always been about how to make to make things better, so I was looking for a job where I could make a difference. And, I don’t think there’s anything more iconic than Maine lobster, so this sounded like a lot of fun and something that could help out here at home.
Q: I imagine you heard about Maine lobster a lot while at Maine & Company.
A: The work ethic of the lobstermen and the view of lobster boats heading off, I’ve been touting that for a long time, so it didn’t seem like a big stretch. That was attractive to me.
Q: What’s the biggest issue behind a stronger marketing effort for lobster?
A: The price issue. The collaborative was born from that realization that we’re catching more and not getting paid for it. How do we make it better for everyone in that supply chain? That’s the central issue and the organizing thought behind the whole thing.
This is where my experience from Maine & Company comes in handy. We were marketing Maine, and that kind of fell into that same situation: You create awareness and try to make connections. Not every processor will like every approach we uncover, not every harvester will agree and not every dealer will back the same approach, but some will, and if we create more opportunities and drive more awareness, we’ll make more sales. There is an unprecedented opportunity here. You have the unity of the industry that led to passing the funding mechanism, which is no small thing, so for the first time ever, the Maine lobster industry has a realistic advertising budget, we’ve got an abundant resource and people care more about where their food is from and who caught it and whether it’s sustainable. Nobody has a better story on that than we do. Those things all come together for a unique opportunity we haven’t had before.
Q: What do you do with that opportunity?
A: There’s a couple of steps we’re going to have to take. Having a consensus around where to market makes sense to me, so I’m going to meet with processors and discuss where they sell live fish. There’s demand in Asia and interest there, but the main thing we need to understand is, where do we get the most return for the effort? Have we done all we can in the big markets of the U.S.?
I also really like the notion of reverse trade missions, to bring people (potential buyers) here. That’s a powerful idea and I’d like to do some of that and then look at where the product is selling already and how we help with those existing efforts.
Q: Lobster also has a real seasonality to it, with demand so much higher in the summer. Does that make marketing it more difficult?
A: To some of the chefs and restaurants out there, there’s so much they don’t know about lobster, so there’s an educational piece to it and the collaborative has already started on that – how to cook it and where to get it and when. We do have a season, but scarcity can drive demand. One of my favorite marketing examples is Beaujolais Nouveau. It’s not great wine, but a sign that spring is coming and we can do that kind of thing with Maine lobster as well, build on that seasonality.
Q: You have a background in business and economic development. Do you worry about not having experience in selling seafood?
A: It’s good to be new. I don’t come with 100 years of history, but I come with a passion for the people in the business and I’m not hamstrung with, “We’ve always done it this way,” and the board wants to try some new things.
Q: It’s also a big responsibility. Along with rocky shores, lighthouses and L.L. Bean, lobsters are Maine to many people.
A: That’s one of the main things that attracted me: It’s bigger than just a job; it’s something that matters to Maine. We have a fabulous story to tell and a great responsibility. It’s a billion-dollar business to Maine and it affects everyone, from the fishermen and sternmen up to the whole industry.