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Guest Column: Small businesses can't go it alone

I am a small businessman. I have owned and operated the Union River Lobster Pot restaurant since 1996. Like Maine’s lobstermen, as an independent business owner I must deal with the vagaries of supply and demand, labor shortages, and the ever-fluctuating economy. If I don’t pay attention to everything, from the cost of napkins to the stability of my suppliers, I will be out of business quickly.

Like lobstermen, I operate on my own. When it comes to getting the Union River Lobster Pot restaurant’s name out to the world, I do not have the money or the expertise to promote the business myself. Sure, I can run ads in the local papers and have a Facebook page, but to really market my business, I let others, those with much bigger budgets than I will ever have, do that for me. The Maine Tourism Association allows me to promote my restaurant throughout the country. Other associations, such as Hospitality Maine and my local Chamber of Commerce, give me the ability to get the restaurant’s name in front of visitors and residents alike. It’s not inexpensive and perhaps I don’t have as much control over the message as I always want, but it certainly gives my business a presence that I could never afford on my own.

That’s what the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC) does for Maine lobstermen and lobster businesses. The mission of the MLMC is to grow demand, for both whole live lobster and a variety of value-added products. To do that, we encourage everyone, from well-known chefs to heads of food service companies, to purchase more lobster. Since the MLMC’s creation in 2013, we’ve used a toolbox of techniques to build demand for lobster from Maine, via social media sites, in-person tastings, videos, media articles, you name it.

When the pandemic hit last year, we turned our attention to the home consumer because, let’s face it, everyone was stuck at home for many months. And it worked! Grocery store chains saw spectacular growth in lobster sales. Online companies experienced record-breaking demand. Stay-at-home chefs looked to spice up their culinary repertoire by including Maine lobster. If there had not been a marketing team in place to pivot the message to stay-at-home chefs, sales of lobster in 2020 would have been dramatically less.

Having the ability to promote Maine lobster to a wide audience and cause them to buy it can’t be done by a sole proprietor of a small business. That’s not what lobstermen are good at and it certainly isn’t something that a single business can afford.

Former state Senator Brian Langley is chair of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative board of directors.

This summer the MLMC plans to create new ways to get Maine lobster products into customers’ hands. We will focus on capturing consumers’ attention with media stories that continue to promote Maine lobster as something easy to prepare at home, creating more new Maine lobster recipes for our new online home cooking hub, hosting webinars for industry professionals and promoting National Lobster Week in September.

The MLMC’s ongoing goal through its marketing strategies is to increase awareness of lobster as a premium product and encourage consumers, retailers, and foodservice companies to consider lobster and thus increase demand.

Maine benefits greatly from the lobster fishery, not simply because of the incredible revenue it produces. Maine lobstermen are owners of thousands of individual businesses, harvesting a wild species using time-honored practices. The men and women in the fishery represent certain values — independence, pragmatism, persistence — that are absent from the lives of many people. That is part of what brings so many visitors to the state each year, to experience something that they don’t have. I call this the “Maine Mystique.” And that is certainly part of the reason that the MLMC works hard on your behalf to promote Maine lobster to the world at large.

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