The Daily Heller: A Misunderstood Fish Gets a Rebrand

Posted inThe Daily Heller

The Chicago-based firm Span (partners: Bud Rodecker and John Pobojewski) was tasked with addressing a unique set of branding, naming and behavioral challenges around the invasive fish known as the Asian carp. The title above suggests the problem, so I’ll let the strategic design principal, Nick Adam, tell you about the solution.

How did this fascinating project come about?
As this project was initiated by multiple government entities, an RFP (request for proposals) was publicly issued. This is a standard government procedure that allows any design studio to respond. For Span’s proposal, we assembled a team consisting of the systemic design studio Daylight to conduct food and fish perception-based research, brand strategist Donna Spiegel to help tell the story of a fish that has been long misunderstood in the U.S., and public relations group M.Harris & Co. to build a PR plan that would begin to restructure the regional food hub while exciting the public about this delicious and healthy fish. At Span we led the effort, created the new name, and designed a comprehensive visual identity system.

Did the state government realize the fish was having a PR problem?
A public perception problem, yes. The title of the RFP was the Asian Carp Brand Development, Limited Marketing Strategy and Implementation. Through this document, the governmental entities were asking for a logo and some assets to be designed for the so-called “Asian carp,” with the goal of promoting consumption of this fish. This brief seemed light to us and we felt a logo alone would not achieve their stated goal. We believed they needed to change the name of the fish and engage in a comprehensive, strategic identity and campaign to change the perception of this fish in the mind of the public.

During the proposal process we learned much about these fish by reading the decades of research that came with the RFP. We learned that since the 1970s these fish have been creating an ecological disaster and that they are the most active consumers of algae, phytoplankton and zooplankton. Their diet means that they are top-feeding fish (unlike all other common carp) and thereby they essentially have no mercury or lead, unlike popular fish like tuna. We were shocked to learn that these fish are also some of the most loved fish in cuisines across the world, and that it is only in the U.S. that people did not eat them.

Why is it called Asian carp?
We learned the Asian carp name was generic and something invented in the 1990s, and only folks in the U.S. (predominantly non-Asian people) used it. While assembling Span’s response to the RFP, my colleague Bud Rodecker (a partner at Span) and I would chat about this brief and strategies our proposal could take to illustrate the need to rename. It’s a bold move to reframe the brief in an RFP. All it takes is one person on the client side to not like the new idea, and your studio could get kicked out of the running.

What was their response individually, and as a whole, to the idea?
On the client’s side there were many layers of people and organizations involved. Our presentations and meetings would range from six to 12 people, each person representing teams and decades of work on the crises caused by these fish. Many of these people were marine biologist and ecologists and came with a great amount of knowledge about the qualities of these fish. They were excited by the idea of renaming these fish, but cautious and asking the right questions. The most important being, how do we rename a fish? What a great question. 

Exactly, although many fish have two or more names. Do you see similarities between this and, say, branding issues like Coke vs. Classic Coke? Or is it more fundamental (e.g., lobster used be considered bottom-feeding garbage fish and served to the destitute)?
There is a lot of nuance to this question; neither are great examples. The lobster comes close, but there is so much more to Copi [formerly the Asian carp], plus Copi is one of the cleanest seafood items, so we should not bring lobster into the conversation. In terms of products, the avocado is the closest example of how strategy, design and naming can shift the public perception of a food item. In 1910-ish, farmers in California were growing a crop called āhuacatl. Āhuacatl was an extremely popular fruit in Mexico and the Andean states of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. But year after year, California farmers had difficulty selling it in the U.S. They felt the issue was the ability to talk about the fruit. The name was difficult for folks in North America to pronounce … and the translation wasn’t much help, as āhuacatl is the Mexicana word for testicle. So these farmers invented a new word, avocado. The strategy behind how they made the word known to the public was they invented a brand named the California Avocado Association.

The confusion and misunderstanding of these fish in the U.S. comes from the generic term that no other nation uses. The name Copi that we created at Span with our governmental partners removes the unnecessary racialization and the confusing idea of carp. The visual identity system we designed at Span is used as a mark of trade. It is regulated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and they make it publicly available for entities interested in getting involved in the responsible catching, processing and distribution of Copi.

The Catalyst by Jonah Berger offers a case study that parallels our effort: During WW2, the U.S. government embarked on a campaign to promote consumption of organ meats. The initial patriotic calls to the public failed. Progress on this effort only happened when the U.S. Department of Defense enlisted psychologist Kurt Lewin. Lewin was successful in changing the public’s habits by making organ meats like liver more widely available and providing recipes and cooking tips where they were sold.

The creation of Copi follows many of the same tactics. Through recipes and samples we provide corroborated evidence that the fish is not only normal to eat but that it is delicious. Through the knowledge published on the website and the brand materials we decrease uncertainty in the consumer’s mind. By onboarding processors, distributors, markets and respected restaurants, we reduce the distance and make the fish trustworthy. We are also purposely transparent that Copi is a new name for Asian carp. There’s no bait and switch. Through transparency we have an opportunity to educate the public on the benefits of Asian carp and dispel all of the misconceptions.

I like the bait and switch reference. So, once the branding nomenclature was solved, what were the next steps in the strategy?
After we defined the brand strategy and the name Copi was vetted across marine biologists, ecologists, multiple agencies in the government, the food industry and the general public, we needed to give the name visual form. At Span we designed the visual identity system. This system would be used to design a series of materials (the logo, a website, packaging, advertisements, etc.) that would be used to inspire trust in the food hub. Span designed a set of tools which allowed the Copi sales team to secure relationships with fish processors, fish distributors, chefs, restaurants and markets. Essentially, before we could launch the name and design into the world, our teams had to begin the work restructuring the food hub to ensure Copi would be available for people to buy. To do this, the nomenclature and design needed to be released to folks in the food industry to get them to know the true qualities of the fish. These actions built the trust in food buyers that the fish is indeed excellent and that there would be a public desire and demand for the fish.

You indicate that this is a nutritious fish. Was that a hard sell to convince the consumer?
Because these fish are top-feeders that consume algae, phytoplankton and zooplankton, Copi is an extremely nutritious and clean fresh fish. This story has been made easier to tell by removing the word “carp” from the name. In the U.S., there is a misconception that all carps are not healthful. In terms of all fish on Earth, Copi is one of the richest in protein, second only to wild salmon. Copi also has some of the highest levels of Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. A lot of times, when talking about the nutritional values of fish, mercury and lead are a part of the conversation … this is most especially true in respect to tuna. Because Copi primarily eat plankton and vegetation, they essentially have no mercury or lead. These details of nourishment are easy to tell because they’re true. It also helps that the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch List recommends eating these fish from both a standpoint of health and because it is an environmentally responsible choice.

Were there alternative names and directions?
A lot of people ask this question. At the studio we do a great amount of identity design that involves naming. It seems that releasing could-be names without the other attributes and assets that make up an entity feels a little like a beauty contest. We see the work produced in a design process to be the property of the client. For these reasons we don’t talk about the alternatives. 

And speaking of difference, how do you feel about improving the image of “food” that is not as healthy as Copi?
Speaking for myself, sometimes I eat for health and the need for calories, other times I eat for joy or even for an experience. All foods have different types of qualities; to me what matters in a design process is that truthful qualities are embraced and communicated. One of my favorite foods that I eat for joy is a Chicago-style, Nashville chicken sandwich. This sandwich was created by another client of mine at Span, a restaurant called Hot Chi. The sandwich has a hot honey butter sauce … no one eats this and counts calories nor believes that it is a healthful item. That didn’t prevent us from designing a lively and exciting visual identity for them. In both cases of Copi and Hot Chi we embraced the true character of the food. For Copi it was the story of health, deliciousness and environmental responsibility. For Hot Chi it was a story of a flavor experience that is spicy and fun.

Do designers actually have it in their power to make the public alter their habits, assuming the lobbyists and profiteers don’t block the effort?
My experience has shown me that designers have long had a seat at the table. But that table varies in size and number of seats, as well, the power dynamics of that table can be inhibiting to folks in the seats. Designers certainly have a role, but much depends on the true experience of the product or entity. In the 1965 book Education of Vision, György Kepes stated something to the effect that, “Every human transforms the visual signals that they receive into structured, meaningful entities. And that the person’s capacity to read their environment determines the quality of their life.”

Designers often create the surfaces that we understand and navigate the world by, meaning designers are much more than decorators. Your question is one I’m extremely interested in—what might be the social opportunities of a designer? Designers have the capacity to utilize the design process to create more than just the execution. They can do so by stepping beyond the role of decorator, or order taker. Of course this isn’t a new idea; Bruno Latour’s A Cautious Prometheus? was published on the same premise. At Span we use the design process to guide conversations and inform what exactly we are assisting in bringing into the world and how it will function. We do this type of “designing the conversation” across disciplines. In the example of Copi, we did so to guide multiple governmental entities across multiple states and three different project partners. This design process led to a new way of thinking (brand strategy) and speaking (voice guidelines) about the fish, a new name (auditory brand), a new visual representation of the fish (logo and visual identity assets), and a public campaign which has generated worldwide news (PR and marketing strategy). All of these efforts have spread this new way of thinking and new knowledge about Copi to a massive audience. This was all made possible by the process of design, not the product of design.

There are a lot of very different ways a designer can be in the world. Designers can easily go about their work without questioning the underlying assumptions of something. Designers can also ask deep questions and expose totally new ways of thinking about something. I think this is where real changes and paradigm shifts exist. This is the approach we use at Span for projects. It is how we approached redefining the client’s brief and then how we achieved consensus around creating Copi.

Finally, how has this initiative worked out? Do you feel you’ve succeeded?
When this project began we learned that for over 15 years the government attempted to secure relationships with fish distributors to carry this fish. They were not successful. Prior to the launch, by utilizing the design system and new language, the sales team secured seven well-respected distributors that work across Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New York and Ohio. The New York group operates out of the Bronx from the famed Fulton Fish Market. We’ve been seeing Copi show up on menus and become available in different grocers. Since the launch and the promotion we’ve seen multiple restaurants sell out of what they have in stock; one market reported a quadrupling of sales. These are massive systemic successes in the ongoing work of restructuring the food hub. An exciting aspect of this project is that this is only a beginning of a multi-year effort that is backed by the ecologist and the government.