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  • Writer's pictureJ. Morgan Keim

Why Would Anyone Buy A $3.1M Fish?

Want to know the secret to game-changing marketing?

Look no further than the seafood industry.

Did you know that lobsters were served to prisoners at the turn of the 20th century (the meat was viewed as essentially worthless)?

How about that the "Antarctic Toothfish" was hardly consumed until its "rebrand" to Chilean Seabass in the 1990... and has gone under threat of collapse over the last twenty years.

From 'Trash' to Treasure

Perhaps most jarring, that globally-prized BLUEFIN TUNA were caught for sport, photographed and discarded (or ground into pet food) up until the 1960's... seen as an unwanted fish with too strong of flavor and very little culinary appeal to consumers and sushi connoisseurs alike.

Yet as of last week, a single 612lb bluefin tuna was sold for $3.1M, breaking its previous >$2M record.

The reign of this sushi buyer's marketing scheme to buy the world's most expensive fish will ever-likely last only a few years until the next multi-million dollar fish arrives at port. In the meantime, the sushi buyer can celebrate his reigning glory as having the most expensive fish served in his restaurant... creating brand appeal for global buyers.

But how on earth did we get here?

Consumer Perception Defines Reality

Why do brands spend countless millions blasting message down our throats on every conceivable medium? From Geico's "inexpensiveness" to AT&T's "blazing fast speeds"? Have you been asked recently to "buy this while supplies last?"

Well, there's a good reason. If brands can convince you to believe them, then their message just might become your reality... you might actually believe you got one of the "last" items, or that you got the fastest cell phone, or the best deal. Very quickly are the lines blurred between perception and your reality.

A Rebranding Effort from an Unlikely Hero

Let's go back to the bluefin head-scratcher.

How did a "trash fish" become one of the worlds' most prized cuisines in under 50-years... one that is now deeply rooted in the tradition of Japanese sushi?

Blame the Japanese airline industry. Yes... seriously.

In the 1960's, Japan was emerging as a global electronics powerhouse. Planes and ships were heading all around the globe, and especially from the United States.

As with many emerging nations during their periods of prosperity, the country developed a taste for beef -- the strong, bold flavors of steak.

As with global trade deficits, airlines would fly to the US to deliver electronics, they would return empty. The airlines saw an opportunity to transport bluefin tuna, virtually worthless "pet food" from New England port towns, to Japan and sell it into the sushi markets with culinary value similar to steak... for thousands of dollars. What did they have to lose?

Similar, but different.

Sushi chefs saw the value in variety and experimented with the fatty tuna belly (o-toro), while putting soy sauce on the tuna steaks and serving it as sashimi. Japanese consumers began to love its consistency and heartiness (like steak meets fish!), and started to demand it more and more at their favorite sushi restaurants.

The key here is the airline capitalists didn't try to reinvent the wheel... they simply innovated on a hugely popular staple (sushi), and brought a new product to that category. The positioning became so deeply rooted that most consumers, fifty years later, think of bluefin tuna as synonymous with ancient sushi culture.

And thus started the birth of the modern tuna industry...

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

As bluefin tuna rose in popularity, fish numbers started dwindling, creating supply constraints and scarcity (perhaps the most powerful tool in a marketer's arsenal). This caused prices to rise, and thus reinforce a demand loop that increased value for the meat.

With sushi's rise in global popularity, this only fueled the flames, driving up the price more, all the while tricking millions of consumers in the process of believing that tuna was deeply rooted in Japanese tradition!

Influencing consumer perception is key to good marketing. How might consumers perceive your brand, and how do you want them to see it? That might just be the difference between scraping by and achieving success and impact beyond your wildest dreams.

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