Copper River marketing

Great story-tellers can take the most mundane subjects and weave them into marketing messages capable of building business for an entire region

Every year, media outlets ranging from major newspapers to food-centric blogs announce to the world that Copper River salmon has arrived.

Upscale restaurants ride the wave of publicity, while grocery chains and seafood markets remind shoppers where they can find the wild-caught delicacies.

But where does the Copper River salmon fame come from? And what does it have to do with cannabis?

Seafood restaurants and retailers, such as Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market, have helped popularize Copper River salmon.

The Salmon Story

Alaskan fishermen from the Copper River district have successfully promoted their region to be synonymous with the highest quality of salmon.

According to a 2010 story in The Atlantic, the name Copper River alone nets fishermen in the area nearly twice as much money for salmon than their counterparts in other regions of Alaska — “even though they are catching the same species, born in the same clean, glacial lakes and streams and maturing in the same cold, northern Pacific waters,” author Barry Estabrook wrote.

More than 30 years ago, Copper River fishermen began marketing directly to distributors and chefs throughout the Pacific Northwest, and the name Copper River slowly began appearing on menus. In essence, a brand was created.

Over time, restaurateurs started charging more for the “name-brand” salmon — substantially more, in some cases — and the rising tide lifted all Copper River boats.

In doing so, Copper River fishermen unwittingly developed a blueprint from which outdoor cannabis growers could kick-start a successful marketing strategy — one where the emphasis is placed on regional characteristics. Individual cultivators wouldn’t have to shoulder the full cost and responsibility of marketing their products.

Prior to implementing the revamped marketing strategy, many salmon fisheries were trapped in a commodity market. Free-falling export prices led many fishermen to consider new lines of work.

But Copper River fishermen make no concession about the quality of their fish, always stating quite plainly that they have the best king and sockeye salmon in the world.

“We felt that there was more value in our salmon than we were getting by shipping them in bulk to Japan,” fisherman Jim Kallander told Estabrook — a sentiment that surely mirrors the frustrations of sun-grown marijuana producers, who regularly fight for a higher price from wholesale buyers.

Even if Copper River fisheries don’t actually have the best salmon in the world, they’ve benefitted greatly by convincing the world their product is worth a higher price. Marketing genius and food industry legend Jon Rowley has been credited for creating the buzz around Copper River salmon over the past two decades — much to the chagrin of other salmon fisheries.

In a 2001 story by The Seattle Times, Dan Albrecht, the head of a marketing group for Yukon River fisheries at the time, pointed out that Copper River salmon prices are highest early in the season.

“Copper River starts out high because retailers and restaurants know they can charge a premium, and every TV, radio and paper is saying `Copper River’s coming to town, Copper River’s coming to town,'” he told The Seattle Times.

“It is kind of frustrating. There is excellent salmon from other areas of Alaska, or Washington, Oregon and California. But everyone’s been doing the Copper River for so long, they don’t want to hear anything else.”

Great marketing plans aside, Copper River salmon certainly have inherent advantages.

They’re the first to spawn in the spring, meaning Copper River salmon hit the market when consumers are most eager for the year’s first fresh salmon, Estabrook wrote. The geography also plays its role, as Copper River salmon store up large amounts of fat for their long, upstream swim to their natal pools. The higher fat content results in moist, flavorful fish. Combining a high-quality product with a great sales and marketing plan has created a far more robust market for Copper River fisheries. Cannabis growers can potentially follow the same model, using natural characteristics of the climate and soil, along with sustainable, environmentally friendly practices to elevate an entire region of growers.

Outdoor cannabis growers could benefit from marketing tactics that have helped Copper River fisheries and the city of Cordova, Alaska.

Regional approaches

Fishermen are hardly the first or even the most successful industry to utilize a regional cooperative marketing plan.

– Wisconsin Cheese: The Cheese and Burger Society may sound like a group of cloaked individuals who meet monthly underneath Milwaukee City Hall to indulge in fast food, but just like the Grilled Cheese Academy and Wisconsin Cheese Cupid, they are all inventions of a 103-year-old marketing push by Wisconsin dairy farmers.

In 1913, the University of Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station published The Marketing of Wisconsin Cheese for the state board of public affairs. The document detailed how dairy farmers jointly marketed Wisconsin cheese and subsequently grew demand by 87.6% over a 10-year period, while driving demand for out-of-state competition down by 21.6%.

In 1983, Wisconsin dairy farmers voted to create a milk marketing entity known as the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. For every 100 pounds of dairy product marketed and produced within the state, 10 cents goes back to the WMMB to “help grow the demand for Wisconsin milk by providing programs that enhance the competitiveness of the state’s dairy industry,” according to the WMMB’s website. The aforementioned Cheese and Burger Society, Grilled Cheese Academy and Wisconsin Cheese Cupid are all parts of the WMMB’s digital marketing strategy for 2016.

According to the marketing group’s 2016 review of the Wisconsin dairy industry, there are 9,900 dairy farmers producing 3 billion pounds of cheese annually in Wisconsin — 96% of which come from family-owned farms. The report also shows that farmers bring in $1 billion in export sales annually and contribute more than $40 billion to Wisconsin’s economy.

– California Avocados: For decades, California avocado farmers have been dealing with widespread theft. According to an article in The New York Times, thefts surged as the fruit’s price jumped from 10 cents to $1.60 per pound in the mid-1970s.

”When the Super Bowl comes, there is going to be thievery,” one farmer told The New York Times in a 2004 story. ”People want guacamole.”

The enormous jump in pricing was also due, in part, to marketing efforts by the California Avocado Advisory Board (which later became the California Avocado Commission) as detailed in the book, Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies.

The California Avocado Commission represents more than 5,000 California avocado farmers today. The organization produces everything from social media marketing to Super Bowl ads, but it also organizes retail meetings on behalf of the growers with corporate accounts like Walmart, Kroger and Safeway.

– Florida Oranges: According to the Florida Citrus Mutual website, the orange industry contributes an annual $9 billion to Florida’s economy.

Similar to Wisconsin’s approach to dairy, Florida orange farmers have their own state-run entity to market their citrus products to the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia. The Florida Department of Citrus website credits the entity for providing marketing, research and regulatory support for the state’s industry since 1935. The nine-member commission is appointed by the governor, but the agency encourages all orange farmers to attend meeting and provide input on decisions and policies. Citrus industry members fund the Department of Citrus through an excise tax on every box of product that moves through commercial channels; the agency spends about 80% of its budget on advertising and public relations.

Cannabis Farmers residing in Humboldt County or the Emerald Triangle could take note of Wisconsin’s dairy industry.

National commodities

Douglas B. Holt, a professor of marketing at the University of Oxford, wrote in a case study that a 15-year decline in milk consumption led California’s dairy farmers to look for new ways to market their products to consumers. The largest of the state’s milk processors voted to create and contribute 3 cents for every gallon sold to the California Milk Processing Board, Holt explained. In 1993 the board contracted San Francisco ad agency Goodby, Silver & Partners to breathe new life into one of the oldest commodities in existence.

“What could you say about milk?” former executive director Jeff Manning said. “It was white and came in gallons. People felt they knew all there was to know about it, so it was hard to find a strategic platform.”

According to a 2001 article in The New York Times, the “Got Milk?” campaign managed to level out the consumption decline and it became one of the most recognizable ad campaigns of all time. Although the campaign was considered a critical success, the article points out that it did not increase milk consumption. However, Manning told The New York Times that the ad campaign stabilized the industry for dairy farmers across California.

A more successful campaign among consumers came from pig farmers looking to compete with their poultry counterparts. In 1987, the National Pork Producer’s Council announced its $7 million campaign to re-classify pork under the healthier title of “the other white meat.” The promotion cost the nation’s 110,000 producers a 0.25% tax for the first-time sale of any hog, according to a story published in 1987 by The New York Times.

The campaign boosted national sales by 20%, from $25 billion to $30 billion annually, The New York Times reported in a 1991 follow-up article. Variations of the campaign were used to advertise the industry for more than 17 years.

Pork’s marketing campaign was often compared to the much more expensive and iconic push by the beef industry around the same time. Even vegetarians recognize the phrase, “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.”

The Beef Council contracted an ad agency to create the slogan. According to a 1992 article by The Chicago Tribune, the campaign ran for 17 months and cost $42 million, funded by ranchers paying $1 per cattle sold in that time frame. The Beef Council, now known as the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, is part of a national commodity checkoff program.

Governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, commodity checkoff programs are designed to promote a specific industry through broad, all-encompassing participation. These organizations are responsible for marketing pushes like “The Incredible, Edible Egg,” “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner,” “Pork. The Other White Meat,” and “Milk. It Does A Body Good.”

While a national cannabis commodity checkoff program is at least a couple decades away, growers may be able to use some of the examples above to coin an unforgettable slogan.


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