The future of fish marketing is hanging in the balance as Seafish waits to hear whether its case is to go to the Supreme Court. Michael Barker reports

Even as it came to rest in Davy Jones's Locker last month, British Seafood was still causing havoc on the high seas.

The fish processor and distributor had already gone into administration when the Court of Appeal upheld its challenge against industry body Seafish's right to charge a levy on importers. If the decision is not overturned, Seafish stands to lose three quarters of its income and could be liable to repay up to £40m in levies.

Where does that leave industry hopes of getting consumers to increase their seafood intake, moving them closer to the aspirational two-a-week target? Will its radical plans to up marketing spend by more than 500% come to naught?

Seafish itself is confident it will win the right to appeal and will not only avoid having to pay out anything, but will win its £2m counter-claim against British Seafood for unpaid levies.

It has initially requested that it not be forced to pay anything to the stricken company money that would "disappear into a black hole", it points out and that it be given the right to challenge the Court of Appeal's decision in the Supreme Court. A decision is expected next week, with the Supreme Court likely to hear the case in the summer if Seafish is given the go-ahead.

Defra support
The body has been given strong backing by Defra, which has insisted it will not allow Seafish to fold.

"Our immediate priority is to stabilise Seafish's position and we are actively exploring with them the support they need from government so that they can continue to operate and meet their legal obligations," says a spokesman. "We will be working very closely with Seafish to consider the longer term implication for their operations."

Should the unthinkable happen and Seafish fail, however, it would leave plans to increase fish consumption in the UK from the current average of 138g a week just under one portion to 280g in tatters and derail the biggest generic marketing push the industry has ever seen.

Current awareness of the 2-a-week message is 48%, but Seafish hopes to increase that to 54% on the back of a hefty increase in its marketing budget over the next three years.

In recent years Seafish has spent about £400,000 a year directly on marketing, but following a lengthy consultation with industry it had decided to increase that to £2.5m a year over the coming three years a figure that represents some 60% of its available budget.

"We are going on the front foot with the marketing of seafood generally and encouraging fish consumption," says defiant chief executive John Rutherford. "This will add overall value, whether to branded products or for fishermen themselves. Everyone agreed on this, that more than half of our efforts in terms of both people and money should be directed on encouraging the consumption of seafood."

The campaign
Seafish plans to kick off its campaign by commissioning market research to help it formulate a consumer message and creative direction, with the approach expected to emphasise the taste and nutrition benefits of Seafood and hammer home the 2-a-week message.

"Currently 30% of people do consume their 2-a-week, so clearly there's masses of headroom to grow that," says Rutherford. "Fish is the right protein to be working with at the moment."

Details on where the extra cash would be spent have yet to be revealed, but with a budget in the millions rather than the hundreds of thousands, Seafish would have greater marketing clout and more advertising options than before.

Although Seafish isn't quite sitting on its hands at the moment it says it is getting everything ready for when the courts give the go-ahead there is palpable frustration that it has not yet been able to put its plans into action.

"April 1 was to be the first day of the new plan," says Rutherford. "But until we get just a shade more clarity we are just having to sit and talk to Defra."

The supplier view
Branded suppliers are bullish that the British Seafood storm will not derail category growth and are continuing to push their products.

"Princes is committed to the long-term health of the category and we have a strong programme of innovation, promotions and investment to support our ranges," says Princes' marketing director Ruth Simpson. "The challenge facing suppliers in 2010 is to develop products that consumers are willing to pay a premium for. Innovations in packaging and added value products have huge potential to drive value into the market by encouraging consumers to trade up from core lines."

And the smaller fry?
It is arguably not so much the big manufacturers that stand to lose out if Seafish's appeal fails, however. The body supports numerous industry projects and smaller associations that simply do not have the clout to fund major marketing campaigns themselves.

The Shellfish Association of Great Britain, for example, received funding from Seafish to support the Shellfish Industry Development Strategy. "Seafish is an integral part of the seafood industry and its demise would be a significant blow," says SAGB assistant director David Jarrad. "Marketing in shellfish is done by the big brands for the big brands, but the industry is made up of small players who don't have the funds or wherewithal to promote themselves and that's where Seafish comes in."

While SAGB does what it can to boost consumption it is currently working on a tasting guide for oysters it doesn't have the cash to spend on major marketing initiatives and welcomes Seafish's plans to upscale generic promotion, Jarrad adds.

Certainly Seafish's new emphasis on marketing has gone down well with the industry. "I think it was set up to be quite a promising year in terms of getting value for money [from the levy]," says Seachill marketing director Simon Smith. "There are a lot of positives to what they've done within their remit. Over the past year, the quality of their work has been very good and I've noticed a tighter focus."

Seafish says its lawyers are confident it will overcome its challenge in the courts this year and if it does, the whole industry looks set to benefit. There will be some nervous individuals hoping the grand plans to boost seafood sales do not sink without trace.