The story behind rebranding Patagonian toothfish

Jun 24, 2017

There’s an old saying that fishing lures are designed to catch fishermen, not fish.

In a sense, some fish are also designed to catch consumers.

That’s exactly what fish wholesaler Lee Lantz had in mind in 1977 when he visited a fishing port in Chile.

“That is one amazing-looking fish,” he said, pointing to a gray specimen with a gnarly underbite. “What the hell is it?”

Besides “kind of gross,” locals didn’t know what to call it either – they caught it accidentally. They were unaware biologists identified the species 80 years earlier as Patagonian toothfish.

To sell it in the States, Lantz needed a more poetic name than toothfish. It needed to sound familiar enough that people wouldn’t be scared of it, but also exotic enough to command premium prices.

He settled on “Chilean sea bass.”

Never mind that toothfish are cod, not bass. It would turn out to be a wildly successful rebranding.

Almost too successful, actually. Toothfish went from being useless bycatch to overfished in 40 years. It went from anonymous bottom feeder to high-brow entree, sold for $46 a plate at the seafood restaurant a block from our office in Philadelphia.

This is a common thread with seafood. The unfortunately named slimehead fish is now called “orange roughy.” Sea urchin is appearing as “uni,” its Japanese name, on trendy menus. Even lobsters were once considered disgusting until they were marketed as delicacies.

Long story short: perception is reality. The way something’s described makes a tangible difference in how people judge its quality.

It’s not that genuine quality doesn’t matter. Toothfish had to at least taste decent. But an appealing description is what truly hooks people’s interest.

If Lee Lantz could make an ugly icefish sexy, think of the possibilities for your products and services.

Further information on the power of words

The Invention of the Chilean Sea Bass

Priceonomics has the full story behind the toothfish rebrand, which is worth a read. They go into more depth about how Chilean sea bass came to be so popular after it was renamed, and also explain how lobster went from prisoner food to haute cuisine.

What’s In a Brand Name

Creating a great name isn’t magic – it’s linguistics. Here’s a great explainer from The New Yorker on the science behind why some names resonate (e.g. Corvette) and others fall flat (e.g. Edsel).

The Room Where It Happens

Sticking with the food theme of this edition, this episode of This American Life explored how major fast food brands name their sandwiches, especially the more extreme varieties: “What they’re looking for is the story they’re going to tell to explain why the weirdness makes sense.”

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