Cultured oyster production in Virginia is increasing dramatically, with three times as many oysters planted in 2010 than in any previous year. As more and more halfshell oysters are produced, growers need to create new demand in order to keep the industry thriving. That is why the new buzzword in oyster marketing is "differentiation" as Virginia Sea Grant Business and Marketing Specialist Dan Kauffman explained at the recent Differentiated Halfshell Marketing Workshop sponsored by Virginia Sea Grant, Virginia Tech, Virginia Marine Products Board, and Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Workshop keynote speaker Robb Walsh summed up the idea of differentiation by comparing oysters to wine. Whereas consumers are accustomed to expecting different tastes from wines from different vineyards and regions, the same has not been as true for oysters—at least in the U.S.—says Walsh. Speakers Shore Gregory and Chris Sherman of Island Creek Oysters explained that oysters from different locations, even within the same bay, can have drastically different tastes. They backed up the claim with a tasting of oysters from the Western Shore of Chesapeake Bay, the Eastern Shore Seaside of Virginia, and Duxsbury Bay, Massachusetts.
The workshop drew over 60 oyster growers, industry representatives, and others to learn more about how differentiation can help them market their products. "Duxbury Bay is very salty," explained Gregory, "and our oysters are grown on the bottom," so they pick up "earthy" flavors from the mud. Other oysters are described as more "meaty" or "brothy." By creating recognizable brands, Gregory and Island Creek Oysters founder Skip Bennett argued that growers can expand demand for different types of oysters and grow the overall market.
The workshop program was rounded out by presentations from restaurant chefs and owners, supermarket managers, and a seafood distributor, who each gave their take on what oyster consumers are looking for and how growers can optimize their marketing efforts. Specific ideas for branding and marketing using social media were also dicsussed. The event ended with another tasting, this time of seven types of oysters from different parts of Chesapeake Bay.