PORTLAND — If Matt Jacobson’s strategies work, Maine lobsters are going to start showing up on plates in cities like Pittsburgh and Charleston, S.C. And when they do, diners may be handed a small card featuring the name and photo of the Maine fisherman who caught that lobster.

The newly formed Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, which replaces the Maine Lobster Promotion Council and hits the ground running with $1.5 million to spend, hired Jacobson to lead the group’s efforts at expanding lobster sales.

Jacobson is no newcomer to Maine, nor to telling the state’s story. He was CEO at Maine & Company, a nonprofit that helped businesses such as athenahealth and Boston Financial move to the state, and he ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 2010. Jacobson grew up “an Air Force brat,” he said, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served in Europe and the Middle East. Later, he worked for two regional railroads and most recently, as COO for a data center at Brunswick Landing that was later bought by Oxford Networks.

Jacobson is an engaging, personable 53-year-old who likes to laugh and doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. But those who know him also say he’s smart, relies on solution-based thinking, and understands what makes the business world tick. He lives in Cumberland with his wife and their children.

The Working Waterfront sat down with him at the end of his third day on the job in an office above busy Commercial Street.

WW: So you have a lot of experience in marketing Maine as a place to do business. What are Maine’s assets in the national and global marketplace? 

Jacobson: It’s really the story of the lobsterman, that mythological, independent fisherman who does it the right way. That’s what we market. That’s Maine. That’s our best foot.

Internally, we talk about all our problems, but folks that don’t live here, they think of Maine—they remember when they were on vacation, they remember the people that lived here were the nice people at the inn, the folks at L.L. Bean that took care of them, the lobstermen that they watched go out to sea every day. That’s the image.

And then the great seafood that came out of the lobsterman.

We kind of marketed that myth when we were trying to recruit companies to Maine. To me [the new job is], just another chapter of that same book.

WW: Is there the tendency among Mainers to say, “We’ve got a great place, the [good] work ethic, we’re good people, come here because it just makes sense,” and there’s maybe a reticence about realizing you’ve got to get out there and put your gloves on and duke it out in the marketplace?

Jacobson: I think that there’s a realization that we do have to “duke it out” in the marketplace. This organization is an example of that. This only happened because the lobstermen wanted to pay more fees for their licenses.

They’ve agreed—they get it—that we’ve got to go out there and compete. The whole industry banded together and got this law passed to fund this organization.

I think there’s an enthusiasm about doing it and doing it in a way that we can at least make a difference. We’re adequately funded now to go out there and compete.

I know those discussions were hard, but at the end of the day the industry coalesced. It wasn’t close; the industry wanted to do this.

WW: What are Maine’s weaknesses in the global market, national marketplace, both for export and importing business.

Jacobson: I think our biggest weakness is we haven’t engaged up to now. We’ve looked at the people who buy lobster as a zero-sum game: “These are the people who buy lobster.”

But at the same time, it’s been an extraordinary time in this industry. We’ve had record after record for the last three or four years of catch, and yet we found a home for all of that. It didn’t lie on the dock. We, out of necessity, expanded the market. Now, granted, we did it at rates that nobody’s pleased with, but we were able to find a home for it. And that sort of informs this decision, that maybe we can sell to places that we don’t traditionally sell.

There are places where we could sell lobster that we haven’t asked before.

One of the big challenges for the industry and certainly for the collaborative is to identify customer wants and needs. I think there’s a knowledge gap right now about what customers really want.

At the end of the day, the people that are actually buying the lobster to put on someone’s plate, that’s a different group than we have normally focused on.

We’ve focused more on our distribution channels and not as much on the customer who’s buying it at the end. 

WW: Marketing is a term that maybe a lot of people—lobstermen, whomever—don’t really understand. And I didn’t always understand it. It’s not the same as advertising….

Jacobson: The elevator pitch is, it’s creating an awareness and interest. Which is exactly what we did at Maine & Company. I didn’t own any of those buildings, towns, tax incentives”¦ We were just creating interest. [The message was], “You can do it here. Tell me what your problems are and we’ll come up with solutions.” I intend to do the same thing here.

A lot of it is guerilla marketing, one-on-one, understanding the customers, and then making introductions based on needs and wants. Just driving interest in specific geographies. Take Charleston, South Carolina, for example. They eat a ton of seafood down there. But not lobster.

Is there an opportunity to get on “Good Morning, Charleston,” and get a couple of chefs and a lobsterman that talks with a Maine accent and drive some interest? Probably. And then follow that with a concerted effort with the most influential chefs and food service providers in that city.

We have a lot more money than we’ve ever had—$2.4 million staring 2016. And this year, we’re going to be over $1.5 million. But we’re not going to be running Super Bowl ads.

It’s really about relationships. I think what we’re going to try to do is break that down around geography, specific cities, regions maybe, where we can identify who the influential chefs are, who are the influential food service [providers], who supply Westin Hotels, higher end places. That’s probably the best bang for the buck.

What’s going to be important to them is where it came from, is it sustainable, do I know the lobsterman who actually caught this, that’s really important to these higher end places.

WW: Customers may not really understand—it really is a lobsterman going out and hauling traps.

The organizing principle—why we are doing this—is to sustain and enhance this way of life that we’ve created in coastal Maine. That matters to us. If this were just a big factory fishery, I don’t know that you’d have the same enthusiasm. We know who we’re doing this for, and that value and that passion will help us in the sales process.

I tell the staff here, we’re going to run out of money way before we run out of good ideas.