Japanese restaurants worldwide proudly serve Norwegian salmon these days. That wouldn’t have happened without some innovative marketing 35 years earlier.
The Norwegian government and the country’s seafood industry launched Project Japan in 1986, focusing on doubling exports to Japan over a three-year period. It would be easy to assume these efforts were a rousing success given how prominent salmon has become. The journey, however, was filled with many twists and turns.
Mr Bjorn Eirik Olsen was along for the ride. He joined the newly established Project Japan as a market analyst and strategist when it launched. Having studied the Japanese language and culture as well as boasting a background in seafood marketing studies, the position was a great fit.
When Project Japan started, salmon wasn’t a prioritised product. This decision wasn’t related to consumption as salted, dried and grilled Pacific salmon was a staple of Japanese diets at the time.
“Those who have eaten the traditional Japanese breakfast of rice and miso soup cannot have avoided having a small piece of grilled Pacific salmon with the meal,” Mr Olsen recalls. “Norwegian salmon could have been brought in as a competitor to this, but it would have meant we were nothing more than chicken of the sea.”
Mr Olsen’s fondness for sushi and studying the market led him to a different and more ambitious opportunity for Norway’s salmon exports.
“Instead of grilled salmon, I felt we should focus on getting Norwegian salmon into the exclusive market for raw fish used for sushi and sashimi. Bluefin tuna dominated this high-class segment, but there were also a large number of other types of fish and shellfish that were sought after,” Mr Olsen says. “In general, the prices were three to ten times higher than for the fish that ended up on the grill or in a casserole.”
There was one tiny problem with this plan. Japanese consumers had no appetite for raw salmon and making this popular required changing long-held beliefs about food.
Project Japan did not come up with the idea of topping a piece of vinegared rice with raw salmon. In Northern Japan, small amounts of king salmon had traditionally been eaten raw as a seasonal dish, but it never gained a following. Making Norwegian salmon popular for sushi and sashimi would require changing longstanding eating preferences along with clarifying misconceptions about salmon. The marketing endeavour started with a new name.
“To differentiate the Norwegian salmon from Pacific salmon, I suggested not calling our salmon by its Japanese name. All other Norwegian fish species had been translated into Japanese, but here there was a point to mark a difference,” Mr Olsen explains. “We, therefore, introduced a new brand by ‘Japanising’ the Norwegian Salmon name into ‘Noruee saamon’, written with Japanese katakana characters. Nobody had heard of it, and nobody believed in it, but we still launched supermarket promotions for raw salmon marked as ‘Noruee saamon’ fit for sushi and sashimi.”
A new name was the beginning. Next was to get salmon sushi and sashimi into the hands of consumers which produced some interesting results for the Project Japan team.
“We discovered that the less knowledge a person had about the seafood industry and trade, the better they thought the Norwegian-farmed salmon tasted raw. Those who worked in the industry claimed for their part that the farmed salmon smelled like river fish, it had the wrong colour, and the consistency was not good,” Mr Olsen recounts. “This provided important experiences; we had to get closer to the consumers, then perhaps the industry would follow.”
Influencer marketing also played a role in spreading the word. Mr Hiroshi Niwa, then Head of the Norwegian Trade Council, contacted innovative chefs willing to try Norwegian salmon. One of these was the legendary Mr Yutaka Ishinabe who is best known for starring in the popular Iron Chef cooking show. This helped raise the stature of Norwegian salmon in the country, but its profile was still modest.
With Project Japan winding down in 1990, Mr Olsen was offered the newly created position of Fisheries Attaché at the Norwegian Embassy in Tokyo to follow up this initial push.
Crisis & Opportunity
Norwegian production of farmed salmon increased significantly at the start of the 1990s and Europe and the USA could not cope with the sudden influx. Prices fell dramatically which saw the Fish Farmers Sales Association (FOS) store large quantities of frozen salmon.
As the cost of salmon continued to sink into 1991, the FOS and many companies in the salmon fishing industry went bankrupt, along with a bank lending to the sector. This spiralling crisis led to a government intervention that sought to quickly offload the frozen salmon and stop the entire industry from going under.
“In Project Japan, we had started long-term work on building a new brand aimed at the sushi and sashimi market. Dumping large volumes of salmon for grilling would most likely destroy what we had built up. It would also put us in direct competition with the Japanese seafood industry and Japanese companies could suffer financial losses,” Mr Olsen states. “At Project Japan, we promised to cooperate, not compete, with the Japanese industry. If we carried out this sale, we would lose face.”
After much deliberation, a deal was agreed upon with respected Japanese frozen food company Nichirei who promised to label each package as ‘Noruee saamon’ for raw use. This would raise the product’s profile while calming the mood in Norway.
At the same time, the bursting of Japan’s real estate bubble was a crisis that offered a new opportunity for Norwegian salmon in Japan.
“Businesses and people suddenly found themselves much worse off. Sushi and sashimi had been expensive, and it was primarily eaten out in restaurants since preparing it at home took a lot of work. Conveyor belt sushi restaurants were the solution,” Mr Olsen explains. “The motorised belts reduced the need for labour meaning prices could be lowered. The children thought train carriages with sushi were fun, and these became very popular with Japanese families within a few years.”
More importantly, it allowed Norwegian salmon to reach consumers unfettered. The younger generation gravitated toward the product at conveyor belt sushi restaurants since no one was around to dissuade them. Those in the Japanese seafood industry may not have been believers but their role as gatekeepers had been minimised.
“The children could pick what they thought looked tasty when the various sushi platters drove past. The children had no prejudices. They saw that salmon had a nice colour and picked it from the belt. They liked it, and consequently, their parents also had to try it. As a result, the attitude to raw salmon started to change,” Mr Olsen says. “However, most of the industry, including importers, wholesalers and chefs, were still pessimistic.”
A product of marketing
Mr Olsen concluded his time as Fisheries Attaché in November 1994 with Norwegian salmon in the ascendancy. Some 35 years after he helped first introduce salmon usage for sushi and sashimi in Japan, it was named the country’s most popular type of fish for those dishes for the 12th straight year. The product was essential but none of this would have been possible without marketing.
“Our salmon for raw consumption in Japan was not a product innovation. It was a marketing innovation. Putting a piece of salmon on top of some vinegared rice is easy. The challenge, however, was not in the product, it was in people’s minds,” Mr Olsen says. “To change the perception of the importers, wholesalers, supermarket chains, chefs, seafood journalists and consumers was the job we set out to accomplish. Changing the perception of 120 million conservative Japanese seafood lovers was bound to take time.”
The journey also highlights the need for patience and perception across the Norwegian seafood industry. Opportunities exist that may not even be realised because people only see things one way or don’t want to invest the time needed for success.
“Personally, I learned a lot from this experience. That one must have patience is obvious. Likewise, you should not let other people’s opinions stop you if you believe in something. But the important thing I learned was the value of perception. Perception can be said to be the filter of habitual beliefs and patterns, learned preferences and thoughts by which sensory impulses,” Mr Olsen proclaims.
- Project Japan began 1986 in order to increase Norwegian seafood exports to Japan
- Prior to the 1990s, Japanese salmon consumption was primarily salted, dried and grilled Pacific salmon
- Influencer marketing and a new name helped raise the profile of Norwegian salmon in Japan
- The growth of conveyor belt sushi restaurants in the 1990s increased interest in Norwegian salmon
- Norwegian salmon has been named Japan’s most popular fish for sushi and sashimi for 12th straight years
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