What Key Lime Pie and Maine Lobster can teach us about branding

Florida oranges. Idaho potatoes. Key lime pie. Kobe beef. Champagne. Maine Lobster. These are all examples of foods whose popularity with consumers is partially due to the geographic location in which those foods were grown or harvested. But are these products any “better” (whatever that means) than similar products from other locations? Let’s take a closer look.

When it comes to what’s on the menu, many consumers are willing to pay a premium price for products which they perceive to be “better” than similar products grown or harvested in other locations. For instance, many lobster aficionados will insist on eating only lobster caught in Maine’s waters. And diners are generally willing to pay more money for Kobe beef shipped straight from Japan than for beef raised in many other locations.

And that type of consumer behavior is exactly why location-based (or “geo-based”) food branding is big business. According to some estimates, lobster, Maine’s crustacean delicacy, contributes more than US $1 billion to the state’s economy each year. IdahoPotato.com reports that Idaho’s potato industry contributes about US$4 billion to Idaho’s economy. And champagne brought in 4.7 Billion euros for France in 2016.

For states, territories and countries cashing in on location-based food branding, protecting  the integrity of their food crops is serious business. The Idaho potato is so valuable to Idaho, that in 1937, the state established the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC) to promote and protect the famous “Grown in Idaho®” seal, a federally registered trademark that assures consumers they are purchasing genuine Idaho potatoes. When it comes to wines, EU law and the laws of most countries reserve the term “Champagne” exclusively for wines that come from France’s Champagne wine region located about 100 miles east of Paris. And in 1965, Florida State Representative Bernie Papy, Jr., introduced legislation calling for a $100 fine to be levied against anyone advertising Key lime pie not made with authentic Key limes. The bill ultimately failed, but we have to give Papy, Jr an “A+” for trying to protect his state’s revenue streams.

But, putting legislation and agricultural data aside for a moment, in reality, are Florida oranges, Idaho potatoes and Maine lobster of a higher quality than oranges, potatoes and lobster harvested from any other location? Is geo-based food branding just clever marketing, or does the actual geographic location in which these foods are grown result in tastier products on the dinner table?

Well, it kinda depends on who you ask. According to IdahoPotato.com, “Idaho’s growing season of warm days and cool nights, combined with plenty of mountain-fed irrigation and rich, volcanic soil, produce the unique texture, taste, and dependable performance that keep customers asking for more”.

Two orange slices on an wood background

Two orange slices on an wood background

When it comes to citrus, some Florida orange growers insist that due to Florida’s hot, wet climate, their oranges are juicier than oranges grown in, say, California, whose hot, arid days and dry, cool nights are said to produce oranges that are less juicy, but have thicker peels. And some lobster experts assert that “the exact waters that the lobster is caught in can influence the taste, because of diet and temperature”.

So far, so good. Based on these explanations, it seems as if there are specific scientific reasons why food grown in one location may taste better (or, at the very least, taste different) than food grown in other locations.

Key lime pie with key lime background.  Please see my portfolio for other food and drink images.

Key lime pie with key lime background. Please see my portfolio for other food and drink images.

But, let’s take a closer look at some other location-branded delicacies, starting with the deliciously famous Key Lime Pie. The Key Lime Pie’s name is derived from the limes that are grown in the Florida’s Keys. But, as it turns out, Florida’s key lime is also known as West Indies lime and Mexican lime. In other words, the Florida key lime is pretty much indistinguishable from limes grown right here in our own back yards in the Caribbean. Hmm… “Caribbean lime pie”, anyone?

And Maine lobster, now considered to be a delicacy, was once anything but a premium product! In fact, lobster was once considered to be the “cockroach of the sea”, and was once thought to be fit for consumption only by prisoners, servants and the very poor. And by cats. However, over time, the lobster industry revamped its image, and diners started to view Maine lobster as a premium product.

So, what does all of this mean for Barbados? Is it possible for us to benefit from the lucrative food branding industry? Perhaps. The most obvious contender for Bajan geo-branded food products is the Barbados Blackbelly sheep (although Bajan cherries and “Bajan” flying fish also hold potential). But while the Barbados Blackbelly sheep has developed a reputation for being quite tasty, we still have a long way to go before our local lamb and mutton are as highly regarded as, say, Kobe beef direct from Japan.

But just because Barbados Blackbelly sheep is a front contender, that doesn’t mean that it is the only contender. What about lionfish, the invasive species of fish that threatens to decimate our indigenous reef fish, our coral reefs, and by extension, our tourism product? In recent years, our answer to this underwater scourge has been quite pragmatic. The solution? Simply harvest and eat the darned things!

The red lionfish (Pterois miles) is common in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

The red lionfish (Pterois miles) is common in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

But while some effort has been placed on getting Barbadians and tourists to eat the pesky lionfish, so far, there have been no large-scale efforts to position lionfish harvested in Barbadian waters as being tastier and more premium than lionfish caught in other waters. Perhaps this is something we should consider – instead of asking locals and visitors to eat the lionfish to help save our marine ecosystem, perhaps we should go all in and position the “Bajan lionfish” as a premium (and expensive) item on the menu. “Why?” Because several studies have shown that consumers who pay more for their meals, tend to rate their dining experience as being more favorable. An expensive lionfish meal at a top-notch restaurant is likely to result in a more favorable dining experience than a cheap lionfish meal – at least, so the theory goes.

Perhaps then, there’s an opportunity for us to seriously cash in on the lionfish invasion by harvesting the lionfish, branding it as a premium, exotic product and exporting it to international destinations – and in the process, earning valuable foreign exchange for the country.

But, for Barbados to benefit from the lucrative geo-branded food industry, from a branding perspective, we’d need to do at least three things exceptionally well:

Legally protect our products

One of the things we’d need to do exceptionally well as a country would be to legally protect our products. Just like Idaho and France aggressively protect the authenticity of their potatoes and champagne respectively, Barbados would need to rely on legislative means to protect our food crops. One way to do this would be to follow Idaho’s example and leverage an official “Grown in Barbados” seal to assure global consumers that they are purchasing authentic Barbados Blackbelly sheep raised in Barbados, rather than Blackbelly sheep raised in the USA. And yes, there is such a thing as American Blackbelly sheep – and it would be a shame if the American Blackbelly sheep farmers beat us to the punch and positioned their breed as being a more premium and exotic version of our Bajan Blackbellys.

And, if we decided to pursue a strategy of positioning lionfish as a premium and exotic seafood menu item, similarly, we’d also need to set up a “Harvested in Barbados” seal that assures consumers that the lionfish they are consuming have been harvested in the pristine waters of Barbados, rather than in the lionfish-infested waters of other territories.

Differentiate our products

Secondly, we’d also need truthful, verifiable reasons why authentic Barbados-grown Blackbelly sheep or Barbados-harvested lionfish are more premium than sheep grown in, say, New Zealand, or lionfish harvested in other waters. Perhaps, following the examples of the Idaho potato industry, the Maine lobster industry and the Florida orange industry, we simply need to uncover and actively promote reasons why our climate produces conditions that are more favorable for succulent, tastier Blackbelly lamb and mutton. Similarly, we’d also need to uncover and actively promote evidence that our pristine waters result in lionfish that are more premium than their cousins found in other locations.

Brand our products

Thirdly, we’d need to back up these assertions with an aggressive branding campaign that positions our geo-branded food products as being high-quality, exotic and in-demand items on the global market. As we’ve seen with the case of Maine lobster, consumers’ attitudes towards food can change over time. Even if today, our Blackbelly sheep and “our” lionfish aren’t as in demand globally as we’d like them to be on the global market, with a solid geo-branding food strategy, it’s quite possible for “grown in Barbados” Blackbelly sheep to be as “in demand” as Japanese Kobe beef or New Zealand mutton. It’s also quite possible for “harvested in Barbados” lionfish to be as sought after as a premium seafood product.

But it wouldn’t happen overnight. We’d need to cook up (no pun intended) a great branding strategy that acts in our favor. If Maine can transform its “cockroach of the sea” into a highly profitable industry, we too can cash in on the premium geo-branded food industry. All it would take is a little “out of the box” thinking, commitment to a long-term branding strategy, patience, and hard work. Lots of hard work.