Herring - trendy eating in Eastern Europe

Herring is shedding its dowdy image as traditional fare and taking on a whole new persona in Eastern Europe. Young people in Russia and Poland are seeing herring through new eyes as wholesome, cool and fresh.

A Sustainable Success Story
The herring is a real success story in sustainable management. Subject to intensive fishing the herring population had dwindled quickly, and in the 1960s it was seriously threatened. The Norwegian government imposed strict quotas, and the firm action has paid off: The population is now stabile and robust, and this year’s herring quota is a whopping 1 million tons. “The numbers are so large that it is almost difficult to comprehend them,” Marketing Manager Ingelill Jacobsen at the Norwegian Seafood Export Council says.

With such a plentiful resource it is important that there is a market for it. The NSEC had been working to boost the herring sales in the East-European market for a long time. The marketing efforts were met with one major obstacle: Herring was perceived as so traditional and boring that young people shied away from it. Jacobsen describes how herring is traditionally eaten in Russia: Either served lightly salted with boiled potatoes, onions, olives and a sprig of parsley or as “Herring under Fur”, the famous salad with beets and mayonnaise.

Herring has many advantages: It is an affordable fish – which, in the era of a global finance crisis, should be a selling-point. It is healthy yet lean, versatile and tasty. But herring was struggling with an image-problem which made it difficult to get the message across. “The typical herring consumers were getting on in age, and the real concern was that they would literally die out. Our focus had to be on recruiting young people to eat herring,” Ingelill Jacobsen says.

With a limited marketing budget the NSEC decided to change tactics. While not forgetting the wider target and still distributing pamphlets in stores, the main focus was shifted. “We had to find new consumers, and show them new ways to eat herring. We decided to sharpen both the message and the target group to get the most out of our efforts,” Jacobsen explains.

“Night Brands” is one of the most prestigious awards gala geared towards young people in Poland. Herring is “sledz” in Polish, which means “to follow”.

Trendy Young Women
Now the main target group is young women between the ages of 22 and 35. This is a time in their lives when they are open and receptive to new impulses, they don’t mind experimenting and are eager to follow the newest trends. And eating herring fits perfectly into one of the larger trends, which are health, weight and fitness. “Our goal is to create good habits for the future when women are in charge of the family’s everyday eating. Herring is an excellent choice of nutrition; it is very healthy and contains a large amount of omega 3. At the same time, herring is light and very tasty,” Ingelill Jacobsen says.

New Seledka
Herring, or “seledka” in Russian, needed a new image, perhaps even a new name. It was dubbed “New Seledka” to show the young generation that old dogs could, in fact, learn new tricks.

But in order to forge a new image, herring had to be resurrected as truly different. And what better way than enlist the help of renowned chefs, food journalists and other hip foodies to develop cool, new ways of preparing herring? These recipes were a far cry from the traditional fare, and were also featured on the food innovators’ own bloggs. The internet in general proved to be an invaluable, and cost-efficient, tool for reaching the new target group. It was used in different ways, from good old-fashioned advertisement to translating the Norwegian Seafood Export Council’s own website.

The NSEC also had its own site on Russian portals, something that proved to be extremely successful. The tone of the site was young and fun with recipes, videos of Norwegian chefs, an in-house nutritionalist to answer users’ questions and lots of entertainment including quizzes and horoscopes. An example of the site’s popularity is a photo contest where users were asked: “If you were a fish, which one would you be?” The contestants were to interpret the question creatively and send in photographs of themselves. The contest was open for 6 weeks, and the response was overwhelming: The site had 730,000 hits and 17,000 participants sent in their photos.

Herring is no longer under fur (i.e. as the traditional salad); it is undressed and exciting new dishes are ready to be made.

Herring under Fur
The campaign has also played with herring’s old image in a truly unconventional way: In St.Petersburg a restaurant kick-off featured a couple of models dressed in ankle-length fur coats. When they whipped off their coats, guests were surprised to see that they were wearing nothing underneath except for being body painted as herring! The message? Herring was no longer under fur (i.e. as the traditional salad); it was now undressed and exciting new dishes are ready to be made.

The tactic has been to be where the young people are, or, maybe even more importantly, where they want to be. Trendy venues in proximity to universities and colleges are the ideal hotspots to get the message out. New and innovative recipes have been distributed at student dormitories, and t-shirts with cool designs have been given away.

In Poland they had the added advantage of the language: Herring is “sledz” in Polish, which means “to follow”. This was used in many different slogans: Do you follow the coolest? Do you follow the travel trends? References were made to other aspects of popular culture that youth perceive as cool, such as the Norwegian music scene with groups like Röyksopp and Jagga Jazzist.

Demand has Risen
The export of herring has risen, and in Russian and Poland it is particularly the filet products that have been popular. This has given way to the domestic industry, where excellent new value-added products have been made by lightly salting and marinating herring.

In 2009, Russia imported herring for over NOK1 billion, of which were 153 tonnes of frozen whole fish and 148 tonnes of frozen filet products.

With young people now eating herring in Russia and Poland, the next country out is the Ukraine.

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