How to Fall in Love With a Fish

What’s in a name? Everything. That’s why in recent years, several UK fish species have undergone name changes in the hopes of reeling in new fans.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

You say Pilchard, I say Sardine. Does it really matter? Well apparently, it does. Food names influence consumer behaviour enormously, to the point that whole species of late have been getting a makeover.

Consumption of the Cornish pilchard as it was known until 2011, when it was renamed the Cornish sardine, was in sharp decline. Pilchard processing works were closing and the Great British Public has pretty much given up on the abundant oily aquatic specimens, effectively consigning them to the culinary scrap heap. The word ‘pilchard’ conjured up images of war time rations, something smelly in a tin to be kept at the back of the cupboard until it was well past its use-by-date.

That was until Nick Howell, manager of the Pilchard Works factory and museum in Newlyn, Cornwall, decided something had to be done. In a re-branding exercise that would leave the best marketing gurus shaking their heads in admiration, he explains how, in one fishy masterstroke, he intentionally “changed the name and perception” of his beloved pilchards. By re-branding them from pilchards to sardines, Howell almost single-handedly revived a fishing industry on the brink of collapse. A few years ago, there were no sardine boats left at Newlyn; now there are several.

Are pilchards and sardines one and the same? Well almost. Strictly speaking, pilchards are adults sardines, but that’s a mere detail when livelihoods are on the line. The funny thing is, Brits had been tucking into sardines for by the truck load for years on continental holidays to Portugal and Spain, not realising what they were really eating were Cornish pilchards, caught and shipped to Europe where the demand far outstrips the domestic market. What’s in a name? Everything it would seem. The word ‘sardine’ conjures up images of happy holiday barbecues on sunlit Mediterranean beaches, something customers were hankering after in the cold, wet depths of a British winter.

Photo by Knut Troim on Unsplash

Several other fish species have been through similar rebranding exercises in recent times, hot on the heels of the success of the Cornish sardine. Extra paperwork and border checks following Brexit have seriously dented the export market, and the British fishing industry has had to look closer to home for customers. Megrim sole and spider crab which have always enjoyed great popularity in Europe, with around 90% of their respective catches exported straight to markets in Spain and France have had a name change too. Megrim is now known as “Cornish sole”, while spider crab will now be monikered “Cornish king crab” in a bid to influence tastes.

No doubt other industries will now be looking to ape the success of the the UK fishing industry by renaming unfavoured products to increase sales. It seems the name on the label really does influence what we buy, no matter the taste or quality of the product concealed inside.


Published by nickteacher

Nick Simpson is a UK-born English professor living and working in South Korea. He writes about life in Korea, cross-cultural differences and family life.

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