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The American farm-raised catfish industry - the country's first and greatest aquaculture success story - was invaded by a foreign fish fraud. After The Catfish Institute (TCI), Belzoni, Miss., spent 15 years building a market in the United States, Vietnamese importers effectively applied the colloquial name "catfish" to their similar variety, called basa. More favorable production costs overseas created a lower price for the imported fish, which rapidly displaced sales of the domestic fish at a rate representing 20 percent of the U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish fillet market. Furthermore, U.S. catfish industry leaders feared the different taste and texture of the imported product would disappoint American consumers.

To stop the erosion and reclaim market share, TCI teamed with Fleishman-Hillard's food and agribusiness experts to differentiate U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish from the foreign competition.

"The Catfish Institute has done a great job of building a market for catfish in the United States," said Henry Gantz, TCI president. "Consumers now expect the high-quality, consistently mild-tasting fish supplied by the industry. We're concerned that consumers could turn away from catfish entirely if they had a bad experience with Vietnamese basa."

It was time to shift TCI's communications emphasis from promoting catfish to emphasizing U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish.

Fleishman-Hillard and The Catfish Institute poured over primary and secondary research to understand current attitudes about fish in general, and catfish specifically, as well as emerging food trends. "The research revealed real opportunities to highlight the Southern roots of U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish, to strengthen its homegrown image and appeal," explained Jamie Greenheck, Fleishman-Hillard senior vice president and senior partner. Her Kansas City-based team of food experts developed a strategic plan, which creatively connected U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish to high consumer expectations of American-made goods, helping distinguish it from its foreign foe by addressing the benefits of the homegrown product.

Ultimately, the plan sought to establish consumer preference for U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish and to position the product as a consistently high-quality and versatile fish. "We wanted to educate consumers on the positive attributes of U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish, but also saw the fun and quirkiness of catfish as an opportunity to maximize publicity opportunities," said Greenheck. "This proved to be a very effective strategy to communicate our primary messages - that U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish is a quick and easy mealtime option, strict quality controls make the product among the most consistent available, and it's suitable to a wide array of flavor applications and cooking methods... you don't have to fry it to love it!"

The Catfish Institute and the Fleishman-Hillard team launched the "Raised in the U.S.A." program from the catfish ponds - literally. The World Catfish Festival provided the perfect backdrop to expose national media to the industry in a setting only the Mississippi Delta could provide.

The event, staged in the "Catfish Capital of the World," Belzoni, Miss., began with an industry tour, taking media along the path from "the pond to the plate" to experience firsthand the pride and care taken to deliver a consistently high-quality product. At the festival, celebrity chefs prepared original, non-fried, U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish creations, providing the content for a video news release to spread key messages to television audiences across the country.

"There were 23 news programs from Baltimore to Los Angeles that picked up the video feed," TCI President Henry Gantz wrote in a July 2001 editorial in The Catfish Journal, an industry publication. "I never thought an event at the festival would work, but consumer impressions were well into the millions as early as the Monday after."

To broaden TCI's American-made messages, the program included several media outreach tactics, such as a series of monthly postcards to help keep the product in front of busy food editors year-round and a pre-designed, full-color food page featuring U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish as a "Fish for All Regions."

A creative special delivery to food editors included a light-hearted restaurant recipe booklet featuring fictitious couple Deanna and Harold's journey to sample U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish recipes across the United States. The delivery was mailed in a well-traveled "suitcase" that also included TCI's mascot catfish puppet and a "toiletry kit" containing some of the journal recipe ingredients.

"The food media long for more creativity in media materials and story ideas they can use, as their desks are piled up with product pitches every day," Greenheck said. "The suitcase and journal addressed the regional and versatility messages for U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish in an attention-grabbing manner."

Publicity efforts also included outreach to non-conventional news media. Catfish puppets, a logo apron, and a tip sheet with fun facts about U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish were sent to weathercasters nationwide to spice up their forecasts during August, National Catfish Month. A trip to New York City with a Southern chef from the heart of catfish country brought TCI's messages and quality product to the offices and mouths of consumer magazine food editors and prominent decision makers at the Food Network. Finally, capitalizing on the growth of the online medium, Fleishman-Hillard refined The Catfish Institute Web site,, to create a more valuable communications tool, adding a searchable recipe database, a media room, and an online fulfillment center.

Both consumer opinion and media placement results demonstrated the program was moving the needle to establish a preference for U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish over imported Vietnamese fish. The results of an August 2001 survey revealed 88 percent of consumers prefered U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish. On the other hand, only two percent prefered catfish produced in Vietnam.

Consumers also proved interested in eating more catfish. The August research showed that 27 percent of today's consumers expect to increase consumption of catfish over the next two years, nearly double the 14 percent of 2000. Among current catfish users, 67 percent said they were more open to eating catfish than a year ago, 60 percent agreed U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish is one of the highest quality fish available, and 63 percent agreed that purchasing U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish means purchasing a mild-flavored fish, every time.

Fleishman-Hillard sailed past its initial 2001 year-long goal of 100 million media impressions by 53 percent, tracking more than 153 million media impressions. This figure represented a 94 percent increase over year 2000 media placement results. More importantly, 56 percent of media coverage included all three key messages, with placements encompassing media outlets such as CNBC, "The Wall Street Journal Report," NBC's "Today," CBS's "The Early Show," the Food Network's "Cooking Live!", and high-circulation magazines such as Cooking Light, Southern Living, and Better Homes & Gardens.

"Fleishman-Hillard and our board of directors deserve a huge pat on the back for a great 2001 PR campaign, and I think our plans for 2002 are even better," said Gantz. AM

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