Sushi has been an integral part of Japanese cuisine since at least the 9th century, and today, raw salmon is among the most popular and commonly found varieties. However, the widespread popularity of salmon sushi is a relatively recent phenomenon, thanks to a Norwegian marketing campaign launched in the 1980s. This article explores the journey of salmon sushi in Japan, from an initially resisted dish to a beloved staple, and the marketing strategies employed to change cultural perceptions and create a booming industry.
Salmon sushi, now a staple in Japanese cuisine, was once considered unappealing due to cultural stigma and concerns about parasites in the fish. In the late 1980s, a Norwegian marketing campaign led by Bjorn Olsen, dubbed “Project Japan,” aimed to change this perception and sell Norwegian salmon to Japan. After years of trying different marketing tactics, Olsen succeeded by collaborating with a large supermarket chain to label the fish “sushi-grade,” making it more accessible and appealing to the Japanese public. This ingenious marketing strategy transformed the cultural perception of salmon sushi in Japan and helped the Norwegian salmon industry grow into a $9 billion business.
Jiang, J. (2015, September 18). How The Desperate Norwegian Salmon Industry Created A Sushi Staple. NPR.
Salmon’s Cultural Stigma in Japan
Before the 1980s, salmon was more commonly enjoyed grilled or cooked in Japan due to the presence of parasites in locally caught Pacific salmon. Many Japanese people, including Michelin-starred chefs, had never eaten raw salmon and refused to try it. They found the taste, color, and smell of the fish off-putting, and even the shape of the salmon’s head was thought to be bizarre. This cultural stigma posed a significant challenge to introducing raw salmon sushi in the Japanese market.
Norway’s Salmon Industry and the Birth of Project Japan
In the late 1980s, Bjorn Olsen of Norway traveled to Tokyo with a mission to introduce high-quality Norwegian salmon to the Japanese market. Norway had an excess of salmon due to a thriving commercial salmon farming industry, while Japan had overfished their own waters. Olsen believed that Japan, with its long-standing love for seafood, would be the perfect market for Norwegian salmon.
However, Olsen’s initial attempts to pitch salmon sushi to Japan’s seafood industry executives were met with laughter and resistance. Undeterred, he launched Project Japan, a marketing campaign aimed at changing how the Japanese viewed salmon and promoting the consumption of raw salmon sushi.
Overcoming Cultural Stigma through Marketing Strategies
Olsen’s marketing campaign employed a multi-pronged approach to change the perception of salmon in Japan. He began by running advertisements showcasing the cleanliness of Norwegian waters, hoping to dispel the notion that salmon was a dirty fish. These ads emphasized that even a fish like salmon, typically associated with parasites, would remain unblemished in Norway’s pristine waters.
However, this initial campaign was met with backlash. Japanese viewers were offended by the implication that Norwegian seafood was superior to their own, and it did little to change public opinion. Realizing that a different tactic was necessary, Olsen turned to the power of celebrity endorsements and high-profile events.
He ran commercials featuring celebrities eating salmon sushi on screen, hoping that their influence would encourage the Japanese public to try the dish. Additionally, he invited Japanese dignitaries to dine with the Norwegian Crown Prince and Princess, creating a sense of prestige and exclusivity around the consumption of Norwegian salmon.
The Turning Point – The “Sushi-Grade” Label
While these tactics led to a slow increase in the import and consumption of Norwegian salmon in Japan, the fish was still predominantly cooked rather than eaten raw. Olsen knew that he could raise prices and further penetrate the market if only he could convince the Japanese to consume raw salmon sushi.
The turning point came when Olsen offered 5,000 tons of salmon at a significant discount to Nichirei, a large chain supermarket, on the condition that the fish carried a “sushi-grade” label. Nichirei agreed, and salmon went on sale at grocery stores across the country. Although much of the fish was still cooked, a small number of low-end sushi restaurants with conveyor belts couldn’t resist the tremendous deal and began offering salmon sushi.
The Spread of Salmon Sushi Popularity
As news of delicious, affordable salmon sushi spread across Japan, other restaurants lowered their prices to compete. Before long, salmon sushi became a staple on sushi menus nationwide, and restaurants were forced to serve it to keep up with the demand.
Olsen maintained artificially low prices for Norwegian salmon, ensuring that an entire generation of Japanese consumers grew up eating salmon sushi. This strategy was instrumental in cementing salmon sushi’s place in Japanese cuisine.
The Global Impact of Norway’s Salmon Sushi Campaign
Today, Norway ships over 140,000 tons of salmon to Japan every year, and as Japanese cuisine has spread worldwide, Olsen’s efforts have helped transform Norwegian salmon farming into a $9 billion industry. The success of Project Japan has also led to the export of Norwegian salmon to nearly every country, further solidifying its position in the global seafood market.
Lessons Learned from the Salmon Sushi Revolution
The story of salmon sushi’s rise in popularity in Japan holds valuable lessons for marketers and businesses. While celebrity endorsements and high-profile events played a role in changing public perception, it was the “sushi-grade” label applied by a grocery store that ultimately tipped the scales.
This case study demonstrates that you don’t always need famous figures to promote your product. Sometimes, the most powerful marketing tactics come from aligning your product with everyday needs and presenting it as a normal, accessible solution.
The Future of Salmon Sushi and Norway’s Salmon Industry
With salmon sushi now deeply ingrained in Japanese cuisine, the future looks bright for both the dish and the Norwegian salmon industry. However, the industry must also address the potential environmental impacts of commercial salmon farming and adapt to changing consumer demands and regulations.
The Norwegian government is considering a 40% tax on profits made in the salmon industry to compensate for the exploitation of common natural resources. This move highlights the need for a sustainable, environmentally responsible approach to the growth and development of the industry.
Conclusion: The Power of Marketing and Cultural Adaptation
The remarkable marketing campaign that revolutionized salmon sushi in Japan serves as an inspiring example of how businesses can adapt to cultural barriers and change consumer perceptions. Through persistence, innovative marketing strategies, and a deep understanding of their target market, Norway’s Project Japan forever altered the landscape of sushi in Japan and created a thriving industry that continues to grow worldwide.