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Lights, camera, seafood

TV brings fishermen, cooking ideas into homes, generating excitement for the category

By Joanne Friedrick
September 01, 2007

Does watching a fishing boat tossing on the high seas make TV viewers crave crab? Can a cooking show help drive shrimp sales when chefs feature them in recipes? That's the hope of many in the seafood industry who are counting on the popularity of cable shows such as "Deadliest Catch" and offerings from the Food Network to capture consumers' attention and make them hungry for seafood.

Relationships that seafood marketers have with celebrity chefs bear fruit for the brand or organization because of the impact it has on the public perception of that product, says Laura Fleming, communications director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

"They [celebrity chefs] teach the public how to cook seafood. And because of the [consumer] knowledge gap, there is a fear about seafood. So having a chef whose opinion you respect helps boost the profile of seafood items," says Fleming.

ASMI is trying to expand demand for Alaska seafood through "Ask for Alaskan" ads on the Food Network and HGTV using comedian Ben Stein. At press time, ASMI was negotiating with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and chef Alton Brown of the Food Network's "Good Eats" and "Feasting on Asphalt" to take part in marketing efforts in 2008, says Fleming.

Rich Products partnered with the Food Network during this year's Lenten season for the SeaPak Ultimate Food Network Getaway that gave the winner and a guest a trip to New York to see a live Food Network show, a tour of the kitchens and a dinner at a Food Network chef's restaurant. The company received 170,000 entries and witnessed a dramatic increase in its Web traffic as a result of that campaign, says Bryan Jaynes, director of marketing 
for Rich Products' Consumer Brands Division.

"When we set out three years ago to determine who we might partner with for a multi-media campaign like this one, Food Network was the obvious choice for us," says Jaynes. Research has shown that viewers are highly likely to buy products advertised on the Food Network because of the trust the channel has 
established with its customers, adds Jaynes.

"This loyalty is highly relevant to generating new interest in meal preparation among the most coveted food-oriented shoppers coming into the grocery store today," he says.

Rich's research also shows an untapped market for featuring the frozen seafood category through a relationship such as this one, "so it was exciting for SeaPak to lead the movement," adds Jaynes.

Non-cooking shows such as "Deadliest Catch" have given TV viewers "a new appreciation for seafood," notes Fleming, while increasing consumer awareness on what harvesting seafood entails.

Now in its third season on the Discovery Channel, the Emmy-nominated "Catch" chronicles the voyages of various crab-fishing vessels on the Bering Sea. Rob George, who runs The Crab Broker in Las Vegas, has sourced crab from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where the TV show is based, for 16 years. George has developed relationships with current and former captains of many of the crab vessels featured in the show and now works with some of them to promote his products, which he sells to upscale chefs and distributors nationwide.

George said while the majority of the crab catch is tied to certain suppliers, "the fishermen wanted the most money for their crab, so they've sold their B and C shares to us."

To help tell the story of its fresh product, The Crab Broker invites restaurateurs, retailers and seafood buyers on annual Crab Connoisseur Tours to Alaska, which include time spent handling and processing the catch.

"Last year we had a tour and Phil (Harris) of the Cornelia Marie (a boat featured on "Deadliest Catch") was in Dutch Harbor, so I invited him to the function," said George.

He has also developed a relationship with one of the show's original skippers, Larry Hendricks, who sold the Sea Star and now works as a consultant for "Deadliest Catch," along with Jonathan and Andy Hillstrand from the Time Bandit and Keith Colburn, captain of The Wizard.

By aligning The Crab Broker with stars from the show, George is getting more exposure for 
his company.

"I'm finding new customers and building better credibility," he says.

In August, George conducted events at Dover Downs in Delaware, Bob Chinn's Crabhouse in Wheeling, Ill., and Barnacle Bills in Sarasota, Fla., each featuring several crewmembers from "Deadliest Catch." His plan for "The Bad Boys of the Bering Sea" (it's not a Discovery Channel-sanctioned event so the show name cannot be used) is to develop merchandise that consumers can purchase as well as promotional materials for stores and restaurants such as banners, table tents and other point-of-sale items.

"By taking five or six [crab captains] to a function, it's like bringing in major league basketball or baseball players," explains George. The show has such a loyal following that beyond the captains, viewers know the names and information on all of the deckhands, says George.

"Where the future is with these guys looks bright," adds George. "We're going to do a lot of co-marketing together."

One of the retailers invited to join George on his Alaska tour in October has heard customers comment on "Deadliest Catch" when they are shopping for crab.

"I'm a believer in seeing where the food is coming from," says Jack Gridley, meat and seafood director for Dorothy Lane Market, with three upscale locations in the Dayton, Ohio, area. "I think it all goes back to people like to know where the product comes from."

Gridley likened the interest in knowing how seafood is caught to organic food customers being interested in seeing a photo of the farmer with his crop.

Putting a story behind the seafood, as "Deadliest Catch" does, also helps customers with the price issue. "They say, 'Now I know why it costs so much,'" notes Gridley.

But Evie Hansen, founder of the National Seafood Educators, says that while shows such as "Deadliest Catch" put potential seafood shoppers on the radar screen, it's also just as important to teach them how to cook seafood.

She concurs with Gridley that more people are becoming focused on food origins.

During a recent cooking seminar at Schnuck's supermarket in St. Louis, where both Hansen and The Wizard captain Colburn appeared, people lined up to get Colburn's autograph. "It's putting a face with our fish," 
says Hansen.

The idea of captaining a seafood boat in Alaska appeals to the "free-spirit wanderer" within, says Hansen. "Boats are one of the few places left to do that," she adds.

Gridley sells fresh king crab because of the quality. If a trip to Alaska or a visit by one of the captains to the store helps get the message across, Gridley is all for it.

"I'm interested in the processing part of it," Gridley says of his potential trip. "What's involved in getting the product to the store? And we can get some advertising excitement just from going there."

One problem with scheduling visits by the captains is that the store wants them when the crab is available, which of course coincides with their fishing expeditions, says Gridley.

George is working around that issue by possibly scheduling promotions after ships have caught their quota, but while the season is still under way.

Crab isn't the only seafood item that is vying for airtime these days. Wild American Shrimp has also found its way onto TV through appearances on Emeril Lagasse's "Emeril Live" and via live cooking demonstration feeds.

Eddie Gordon, executive director for Wild American Shrimp, says in addition to doing some advertising on the Food Network, the organization has worked with celebrity chefs, such as Lagasse, to educate consumers about the texture, flavor and nature of Wild American Shrimp®. Emeril did a show in March using Wild American Shrimp as the featured product in a series of recipes, including Emerilized Barbecued Shrimp and Asian Shrimp Bisque with Shrimp Toast.

"Emeril being in New Orleans and having his restaurant down there, he really took to it," says Gordon. "[Emeril's producers] came to us about the show. We sent in talking points, but he's so natural about it. There's something in their DNA - they are a chef and a teacher as well."

National Seafood Educators' Hansen agrees Lagasse "is a pretty credible guy and people relate to him."

WASI also promotes its products via satellite tours with chefs, such as cookbook author Nathalie Dupree, who allows local TV stations to pick up a cooking demonstration and recipes. And the organization works with restaurateurs such as Dean Max of 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Kevin Rathbun, 
owner of Rathbun's in Atlanta, to bring Wild American Shrimp into the spotlight.

Aligning seafood with the Food Network is a way to take advantage of the popularity of cooking shows and celebrity chefs.

"I think right now, the cook-offs and the chefs doing them are all household names. People are tuned in to it. It's the trend right now," says Gordon.

The Food Network producers he has met are "culinary professionals. We've never had a problem with them getting 
the message."

WASI works with the print media as well, Gordon notes, placing ads or getting stories in food publications such as Gourmet , Southern Living and Coastal Living . "Written seems to last, but the impact of TV seems to be the way of the future," he says.

Currently WASI doesn't have numbers to show how a TV show appearance impacts the shrimp business, but that is changing.

"We're setting up a new computer system and Web site to try to track the impact of those impressions," explains Gordon.

Even without a tracking system, "cooking shows and fishing shows are playing big on their [netwo r ks'] bottom lines," 
says Hansen.

As more food hobbyists turn to TV shows and chefs for information, it makes sense that the seafood industry would view this increasingly popular marketing tool as an opportunity to showcase its products and how they are sourced and cooked.

Joanne Friedrick is a freelance writer and editor in South Portland, Maine

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