Marketing the Unmarketable: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

by | Jan 14, 2013 | 0 comments

Have you ever been tasked with selling something so unique and far-fetched it seems almost unsalable? Something so over-the-top that it appears not so much visionary as irrelevant to the industry and even unpalatable to consumers?

Granted, some of the most valuable inventions in history were at first decried as ridiculous, even impossible. Think the telephone, the personal computer, or even the airplane, which even Thomas Edison at first believed would never fly.

A recent movie highlights the daunting task of marketing the, as it were, unmarketable.

Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor acheive the unmarketable in
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

For the characters the delightful 2012 Golden Globe Best Comedy nominee Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the outsize goal is taking the sport of freshwater fly fishing to the arid Arabian nation of Yemen.

Though the film went home empty handed at last night’s awards ceremony, it stands up as a rare treat for marketing geeks: funny and touching while also chock full of inspiring business insight.

The Story

When international finance consultant Harriet Chetwoode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) is commissioned by a hyper-wealthy Yemeni sheik to turn a patch of desert into a viable salmon fishing destination, she recruits highly pragmatic fisheries expert Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) to make the ridiculous project a reality.

A “facts and figures man” with a deep passion for fishing, Jones deems the project absurd and a waste of time and money. His reasoning: There’s no market for fly fishing in the desert – or even water to put fish in. Salmon live in cold, rainy climates, and (as they find out later on in the film), the fisherman of Britain aren’t going to like the idea of exporting precious salmon to the Middle East.

However, the project gets a dose of political urgency when the British government’s hatchet-tongued PR chief (Kristin Scott Thomas) finds herself desperate for good news to come out of England’s dealings in the Middle East. And so Jones is given a choice: manage the $50 million project or lose his job.

What follows in the film is two parts sweet romantic comedy and one part project management jujitsu worthy of NASA.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, don’t worry. We won’t spoil anything. Except to say that in delving deep into the process of devising and launching a project few believe in, the film gives a compelling look at the art of marketing the unlikely, the precocious, and the darn-near impossible.

Here’s how they pull it off…

Lesson 1: Have faith. Many parallels are drawn between faith and fishing, particularly in the observations of the mystical billionaire Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked), a devout Muslim angler who views the sport as a metaphor for the spiritual life.

Fishers spend countless hours on the water, casting again and again, often in vain. But they’re not in it for quick rewards. And sometimes that’s how marketing a difficult product feels. What keeps us casting that hook, however, isn’t the promise of the big fish but the faith that our good, hard work will be rewarded – likely in ways we cannot foresee.

Lesson 2: Look for far-fetched solutions. Faced with the far-fetched concept of bringing water to the desert, Jones looks to the Far East. Namely, to the builders of the world’s most innovative water project in recent history: the Three Gorges Dam in China. Because, why not? The project is crazy to begin with, so why limit the range of solutions to the commonplace?

Now, Jones doesn’t expect these engineers to give him the time of day. But, perhaps owing to the bizarre and visionary nature of the project, the Chinese engineers sign on, bringing crucial outside-the-box skills to the table.

Lesson 3: Make it about the bigger picture. As his quest progresses, Sheikh Muhammed continually fights the perception that he is a vainglorious tycoon with more money than sense. And though he does love his fishing, he also has a more benevolent goal: to use the new waterways to spawn an agricultural renaissance that will benefit his people and transform the land.

Unfortunately, he waits until it’s almost too late to tell this side of the story, which leads to…

Lesson 4: Involve the community. Too often marketers think more about selling than about giving consumers a sense of ownership in the process of developing the product and shipping it to market. Sheikh Muhammed makes the mistake of forcing his plans on the surrounding people rather than educating them about the project’s value and enlisting their help in building it out.

He might’ve instead taken a lesson from another big developer: Walmart. By making inroads to the community through stocking locally sourced produce, the corporate retail giant is changing its reputation from a monolithic, big box retailer you don’t want in your backyard to a friend of local farmers.

In closing, it’s worth noting that the characters in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen stumble into all of these lessons unintentionally, through trial and error. So perhaps that’s the final takeaway.

Bonus Lesson 5: Capture lessons-learned and apply them as they come. ‘Nuff said.

What movies have inspired you in your work?

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