storytelling

Seafood market research reveals the power of fish tales

Carolyn McMaster | September 6, 2016

People are more likely to buy seafood if it comes with a story about how it came to their plate or market, concludes a new market research report, The Untapped Potential of Story to Sell Seafood.

The research, conducted by the nonprofit Future of Fish and the marketing firm i4 Partners, was a consumer survey designed to “explore the power of story to sell more fish and to determine what elements of that story most influence consumer purchasing behavior.”

If you’ve ever bought fresh vegetables direct from the grower at a farmers market or signed up for a CSA food box, you know the concept of “storied” food. Chances are, knowing where your food came from and who grew it is one reason you made those choices. Market research and the sprouting of “local” and “organic” signs at mainstream markets like Safeway indicate you have lots of company.

Silence on seafood stories
The effect of a story on seafood purchasing, however, has been something of a mystery. That’s largely because it’s often impossible to trace seafood to its origins, especially in the case of wild-caught fish. And when it is possible, the story is sometimes ugly. As the report states, the lack of transparency in the seafood industry “masks harmful practices, including illegal, unregulated and unreported fish, fraud, and human rights abuse, which currently pose regulatory and reputational risks to seafood companies and undermine sustainable fisheries.”

The hope behind the research is that if customers prefer “storied fish,” that market demand will accelerate efforts to make all seafood traceable throughout the supply chain, and to address the problems that transparency reveals.

Want a story with that fish? Most say yes
The researchers surveyed 1,300 people who had purchased seafood in the past six months, mostly from chain stores. The good news: 63 percent of consumers in the survey found the concept of storied seafood “appealing.” The bad news: only a third of them had run across it, though of those who did, 71 percent said they bought the storied seafood. (The survey doesn’t address the reason for the purchase.)

The survey also asked people what information is most important. More than 80 percent of respondents said they care a lot about healthfulness of seafood (plus, 72 percent say no to antibiotics, and 67 percent want hormone-free fish). Respondents also want to buy sustainable seafood: 77 percent want the option to buy “ethical seafood” (defined as “accounting for human rights, animal welfare, health and environmental factors”). Three-quarters of respondents said they seek out seafood whose catch or production hasn’t harmed the environment.

Other findings include:

  • Knowing about “the journey of my seafood” mattered to less than half of respondents.
  • Seafood certification labels are not influential: a third said the Marine Stewardship Council label is important, but half said the same of Fair Trade certification.
  • In restaurants, people are not as interested in health benefits as they are when they shop in stores.
  • Media, friends and family, the Internet and grocery stores are the most important sources of information on buying seafood.

Of course, what people say they do doesn’t always line up with their actions, so Future of Fish is planning further investigations to see how consumers “react to story” in retail and restaurant environments, and how the stories are best conveyed (for example, via packaging, labels, menus or point-of-purchase displays).

From a larger communications perspective, this initial report also raises another question: what is a story? I’ll address that in a follow-up post.

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