For those amongst us who have discovered sushi over the past 20 years it may come as a surprise to know that salmon sushi was almost unheard of in the previous century. It took a decade long marketing campaign from the Norwegians to convince the Japanese that salmon wasn’t a “garbage fish” and that it was actually fit for sushi. There is plenty to learn from this Norwegian marketing masterclass which convinced the Japanese to take up salmon consumption with enthusiasm: “For the Japanese before the 90’s, salmon was part of the diet, but widely regarded as a garbage fish that you only ate cured or fully pan-fried or grilled that was used to fill out cheap meals.

It was never used in the traditional Edo-mae style of sushi and eaten raw, because of the Pacific salmon’s propensity for infection by parasites. Before modern refrigeration and aquaculture techniques were available, it’d be pretty risky to consume salmon raw.

It was the Norwegians that came up with the concept of salmon sushi, and spent the better part of a decade marketing and selling it in Japan. In fact, you could say salmon sushi is a Norwegian invention.”

So how did the Norwegians do it? Firstly, the Norwegians realised very early on that they needed to take a step-by-step, methodical, long term approach: “In 1974, a Norwegian delegation traveled to Japan to strengthen relations between the two countries. Among them was Thor Listau, a member of Norway’s fisheries committee. He noticed how tuna was a prized fish, demanding high prices, while poor quality salmon was being fried and dried in high volume, at low prices. To him, it seemed like the parasite-free Norwegian farmed salmon would find a market as salmon sushi in Japan.

In the 70’s, Japan was self-sufficient when it came to seafood. But due to overfishing, rising population, and rising incomes with the economic boom of the time, Japan needed to start importing fish.

Though the first Norwegian salmon was imported into Japan in 1980, it was for grilling, and not for sushi. However, it was considered an important early beach head into selling into the Japanese market.”

Secondly, the Norwegians organised themselves on a industrial scale the play the long term marketing & promotion game with Japan: “It wasn’t until 1985 that Listau returned to Japan with a delegation riding twenty deep, representing Norwegian seafood exporters, ministers and organizations to explore market potentials for Norwegian seafood. Convinced it was a viable market to sell the glut of salmon piling up in Norway, they launched “Project Japan” the following year in 1986, to help promote Norwegian seafood in Japan.

Bjørn Eirik Olsen was one of the people to work on Project Japan, and he explains:
“When the delegation arrived in Japan, they sampled raw salmon at the Norwegian Embassy. The then ambassador Håkon Freihow had previously thought that it could be interesting to try Norwegian salmon as sushi, and he got positive feedback from Japanese guests who had tried this unusual combination….”

It took the Norwegian government close to 10 years from the start of Project Japan to change the minds of the average Japanese consumer to eat salmon sushi. They spent a total of 30 million NOK (3.75 million USD in today’s dollars) over the life time of the project on marketing. And it’s paid off handsomely. It brought Norwegian salmon exports to Japan from 400 million NOK to 1.8 billion NOK in the second half of the 80’s. It poised Norway to tackle an even bigger market in China for salmon in the recent decades. Nowadays, Norway exported 233,000 tonnes of salmon for 16.1 billion NOK in the first quarter of 2017.”

Thirdly, the Norwegians identified the Japanese public’s main issues with salmon and addressed those issues specifically: “The Japanese had objections to consuming salmon raw. Olsen again:
OLSEN: And [the Japanese fish industry executives] say, it’s impossible. We Japanese do not eat salmon roll. They say, it doesn’t taste good. They say the color is wrong also; it should be redder. It has a smell. And they say that the head has the wrong shape.

The problem was the wild Pacific salmon fished near Japanese waters were unsafe to eat raw due to parasites. The Norwegians needed to convince the Japanese consumer that although Norwegian salmon is the same species as the salmon around the waters of Japan, the Norwegian salmon is free of parasites because they’re farmed. However, it’s hard to market something as “free from parasites”. It’s like writing on your Tinder profile that you’re “not an axe murderer”…

So what do you do if you don’t want to mention parasites? They tried a lot of things, such as the typical advertising campaigns targeting importers, distributors, supermarket chains, stores and restaurants, as well as individual campaigns. But they also pulled out all the stops, such as having the Norwegian ambassador serve salmon to all his guests and a promotional visit by the Norwegian Crown Prince and Princess.

One of the marketing tactics that Olsen tried was to advertise how pure and fresh Norwegian waters were. That didn’t work. They also tried to get top of the line hotels and restaurants to serve salmon sushi, and get endorsements from celebrity chefs:
“…Then, we rolled up our sleeves and made a frontal assault on Japan. Going via Japanese importers would have been a waste of time, as they thought the fish was the wrong color, shape and smell. Project Japan contacted chefs instead. One of them was TV chef Yutaka Ishinabe, also known as “The Iron Chef.” The thinking was that if professionals of the caliber of “The Iron Chef” spoke favorably about salmon, this would help influence popular perception.”

According to Olsen, the turning point was when he got a single big sale from the supermarket chain that sells frozen foods, Nichi Rei. He had managed to finally strike a deal, after negotiating with them for years.”

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