TalentView: Øyvind Ihle

Øyvind Ihle, Chief Marketing Officer at Avramar. Photo: Greg Milner.
Øyvind Ihle, Chief Marketing Officer at Avramar. Photo: Greg Milner.

"A long journey to end up in seafood where I'm happy". This is a very short summary of the background that has brought Øyvind Ihle to his current position as Chief Marketing Officer at Avramar. Talking to him is like taking a marketing masterclass, so it's no wonder he's enjoying the journey of not only building the Avramar brand from scratch but sharing with the world all the health and sustainability benefits of aquaculture. "We have almost too many good things to talk about", he says. It's a marketer's dream.

"Better fish, better lives" is the company's mantra, but it could be his personal one. He, who before joining Avramar was already convinced of the benefits of seafood thanks to his work with Omega-3, loves fish and this is reflected in his speech. He no longer markets just a product, as when he marketed toys, he finally found the way "to create a bigger positive impact" he was looking for. Øyvind Ihle is happy because, for him, "seafood is happiness".

The long road to happiness

If we start by saying that the Chief Marketing Officer at Avramar is from Norway, no one will be surprised. A Norwegian in aquaculture is nothing extraordinary. A Norwegian who is not focused on salmon in the Atlantic, but on Sea Bass, Sea Bream, Stone Bass (Meagre) and Pagrus in the Mediterranean, on the other hand, does sound different. "Not many Norwegians are going abroad to work because people like their country, in Norway it's particular, we like our country, but I'm kind of different", he confesses. Øyvind Ihle speaks seven languages – "I love languages and cultures", he sums up – and in his previous job experiences, he has worked and made contacts in Europe, Asia, the Americas…  "I really love working with people from different cultures, been doing that almost my whole career so, that cross-cultural work has been very important to me", he says. And he continues to do so, with a team that works between two countries, Greece and Spain.

Øyvind Ihle, Chief Marketing Officer at Avramar. Photo: Øyvind Ihle.

On the long road that has brought him to the Mediterranean, Øyvind has passed through many companies and different sectors, but some have left a special mark on him. This is the case of his time at Unilever, where he learned "the basics of consumer marketing", teaching he still applies to his work. According to him, it was a solid foundation still relevant to this day, "that's for me a fundamental building block in how I approach also B2B marketing", he says, because, although Avramar is predominantly B2B, in the end, all is about "understanding what drives and motivates people to change behaviours".

But if Unilever laid the groundwork for his approach to marketing, curiously enough, it was a toy company that was the turning point for Øyvind's career to end up in aquaculture. "I worked at the world's largest toy producer, and had a phenomenal experience there with products that can support children's creativity and development. However, I sometimes felt uneasy", he explains. Influencing children to sell them "products that they'll play with once and then end up at the landfill" didn't fulfil him. "I really wanted to see whether I could do something to create a bigger positive impact", and so it was that he left Mattel and began working as a consultant on a couple of projects that ended up shaping his future.

The first of these projects revolved around dietary supplements, "looking at their health benefits and how people can get better lives if they take better care of their health". For this consulting client, they created a turnkey direct-to-consumer business. "We developed the products, created the marketing mix, established the CRM, all the payment and fulfilment structures, so, creating a company for the client", he says, and adds, "that was very satisfying, very interesting work". At the same time, he was working for a second client, an old acquaintance of the industry, the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC). For them, they created a platform called 'Good Fish' ('Godfisk' in Norwegian) where consumers can get recipes and tips to get the most out of fish all year round, and also came up with a communication strategy trying to create a new season for salmon, positioning it as ideal for barbecuing in the summer. Both ideas are still active nowadays in NSC's strategies, something that, for sure, has to be satisfying for Øyvind, however, that is not what he emphasizes. "I was working on their communication strategies for salmon, that's probably about 12 years ago, so that's my first experience with the seafood", he points out. Nevertheless, it was not yet his time to pursue the seafood direction; instead, he pursued "the Omega-3 career".

Omega-3, the key thing

As we said before, for Øyvind Ihle seafood is synonymous with happiness, but he was still one step away from getting there, although he was getting closer and closer. "I went into work for a company to build an Omega-3 business and, of course, the Omega-3 is probably the number one reason why you should eat fish for your health", he says. Again, the idea of fish and health, but following the Omega-3 path from two adjacent points of view. First, the human health side, "putting it first in soft gel pills" for dietary supplements, and later, from the animal health side, working in a company "that is growing algae rich in Omega-3" to create a shift from fish oils to algae oils in fish feed. "I've been following the Omega-3 molecules", he summarizes. His enthusiasm and commitment to the benefits of Omega-3 are difficult to translate into written words, lacking his enthusiastic tone of voice and twinkle in his eye as he lists them, but let's give it a try.

Øyvind in a work meeting when working at Omega-3 industry. Photo: Greg Milner.

If we talk about fish feed, he reminds us that it is part of their natural diet in the ocean, they need it and that is why it should be added to their feed. However, he also points out that fish oil is a finite resource that we have almost maxed out but is still needed for an aquaculture industry that must keep growing. "Now, that's not possible without new sources of Omega-3 like algae, so, the growth of aquaculture in the future will rely on new sources", he explains. "It's been motivating for me to think that I can both work with something that provides sustainable solutions for the future, for feeding us, for feeding us sustainably in the future and, at the same time, deliver great health benefits to consumers".

What are those benefits? As the CMO of Avramar tells us, when you say Omega-3 most people think about heart health but there are more. For instance, when you have a good Omega-3 level in your body, you are boosting your immune system and your resolution of inflammation is faster and more adequate, and that means that you have much better resilience to diseases such as COVID-19. Indeed, as Øyvind Ihle recalls, "nobody really actively communicated these benefits during the pandemics, but I think consumers instinctively thought that 'ok, I'll eat more fish because that's better for my health'", and as they did, the demand for fish grew. Therefore, as he tells us, "heart health benefits are more relevant when people get to their 50s and 60s and so forth, but not for people in their 20s and 30s because they think at that point they'll live forever".  And that's why "different messages are relevant in there to different target groups and different health messages as well".

In aquaculture we have both health and nutrition, and, as Øyvind says, those stories "resonate very well" not only for him, but also for consumers, whom he imagines thinking, "okay, not only am I doing something good for myself when I have fish for dinner, but I'm also doing something good for the planet". However, he believes that right now, consumers are still not aware that it's actually better for the planet if they eat more farmed seafood than if they continue to eat beef and pork, etc. And there is where the opportunity lies:  "you can feel good on two levels with seafood and that's very unique, and I think it's also something that can be brought to marketing to a much greater extent than we currently see".

A new brand and 40 years of heritage

So, that road that began at Unilever had a turning point at Mattel, passed through Omega-3 and its benefits, and, without abandoning them entirely, ended at Avramar. "A long journey to end up in seafood, where I'm happy", says Øyvind. The Chief Marketing Officer feels at home in this company where he faces a double challenge: building not only the company's strategy but also the brand itself. "As a marketing person, it's always very motivating to be allowed to work on a new brand because nothing is set in stone, you have more influence on what the brand is going to be about, and you choose the positioning for the brand", he says. However, there is one particularity in this 'new' brand: it has more than 40 years of heritage behind it. "We have a very proud legacy in the companies that became Avramar. We've been doing aquaculture for more than 40 years, so, in the Mediterranean, we are among the oldest".

Øyvind at Avramar booth in SENA Boston 2022. Photo: Øyvind Ihle.

For them, the first step has been "tapping into this awareness that people have". People have heard of Nireus or Selonda before but not necessarily about Avramar, that's why the first year they spent "quite a lot of effort" saying, "ok, Nireus is now Avramar" or "Selonda is now Avramar". As he sees it, they have to benefit from the legacy and benefit from the awareness that these companies had, especially in the B2B space, where they mostly operate. The next effort was directed at branding. "You have to be very consistent with the message, trying to repeat and repeat the same key things", says Øyvind Ihle, and the fact that they are building a new brand allows them to get both the company's strategy and brand message in sync. "Some brands are not really synced with the company strategy and with Avramar is different", he claims, "this 'Better fish, better lives' is actually the foundation of our strategy as well". And, in this case, when he talks about strategy, he is not just referring to marketing.

"All the things that we do to make sure the fish is better, that we provide better fish, fresher fish, more nutritious fish, better solutions to consumers adapt, that is all that better fish mantra. People in the company are really believing that's important", he tells WeAreAquacualture. "And then, also the second part 'better lives', where we talk about the health and nutrition side of eating our fish, but also the environmental impact sustainability", he continues. "ESG is important. We have very good programs on anything from business ethics to the sustainability side where we work on specific KPIs on how we can reduce our footprints. So, branding and marketing go hand in hand with the company strategy and what the company believes in. That's very good with Avramar and makes marketing also easier because what you're communicating is also what we strongly believe in", he concludes.

However, as he sees it, we can talk about nutrition, but "taste has to always be in the mix" because, in the end, "first and foremost, it's about you eating food for a food experience". According to him, taste and freshness are always going to be key drivers for consumption decisions. Then you can give consumers more rational reasons for why they should feel good about the choice of fish, and they can be different by country. In some places, you can talk about sustainability and that can be your second message, in others, your secondary lever can be health. "The opportunity with all of this is that you have a fantastic source of storytelling", he claims, "for instance, one thing that nobody's thinking of, for me, seafood is happiness".

Too many good things to talk about

We told you at the beginning that Øyvind is happy with seafood, "it's really the happiest food that I can think of", he says and adds, "seafood is light, you never get too full when you eat it, it's more comfortable for your stomach, you feel better when you eat it, and, you know, the stories of fish and seafood being aphrodisiac". And not just, some studies demonstrate that seafood has mental health benefits or is good for fighting against depression, lot of things you can use as content marketing so "you can tell these stories that actually build up to "happiness" as the proposition". There are so many angles that can be taken that Avramar's CMO goes so far as to say that "we have almost too many good things to talk about". It's almost every marketer's dream, isn't it? Yes, it is, but with some buts. "It's hard to pick and choose, we have to find out which messages or which stories resonate the best for which target audience. That's the trick".

The truth is that as industry aquaculture has a lot to offer. We have talked about nutrition, health, and sustainability, but there is more. There is, for example, the advantage of food safety. As far as in aquaculture the diet of the fish is controlled, there are almost no pollutants in it. As Øyvind Ihle sees it, the biggest problem that the industry has with marketing is that "there is little opportunity to communicate in-store, and there's less of you don't have packaging". As he recently explained in our article on possible solutions to the aquaculture image problem, "we do need to get consumers onboard" and, according to him, the solution for communicating comes first through innovation in the product itself that is offered to the consumer. "There's no reason why we can't create premium offerings and charge a higher price", he claims.

Avramar is the largest producer of Mediterranean fish. Photo: Avramar.

Product differentiation, premium products with premium packaging, and a product presentation at the point of sale where you can communicate and thus take advantage of the unexpected advantage that the pandemic brought us and that, not so long ago, seemed increasingly difficult to achieve: people are going back to cooking fish at home. The difference now is that, when we go back to the routine, we go back to the lack of time, which is why it is so important to make things easy for the consumer, to find what the Chief Marketing Officer at Avramar calls "the convenience factor". "Since you're building solutions to a problem, consumers could be willing to pay a bit more for the innovations that makes life easier", he explains. That means they can have higher margins and "higher margins mean that you can also afford more communication".

However, in the current context, with raw material shortages making it more and more difficult to feed the fish, with inflation and the coming recession, getting more money for marketing and communication does not seem an easy task. For Øyvind Ihle those are the biggest challenges the industry will face in the coming years, especially considering that, at the same time, the industry must continue to expand, "because the world needs us to expand". Therefore, he sees the current situation as a kind of operational conundrum, "an operational Gordian knot, so to speak", but then he thinks about the opportunity side, "in innovating and communicating, that's what everyone should be doing".

Teambuilding to meet challenges

In this environment, even when margins are shrinking and getting smaller and smaller due to rising costs, Øyvind confesses that, for him, continuing to argue "that we should still continue to invest in marketing is going to be my personal challenge that I need to address". To do so, he relies on the invaluable help of his team. Avramar's CMO bets on people, "probably the most important factor for success", or perhaps we should say that he bets on 'his people'. "We have a lot of companies doing the same thing. We have cages in the sea, we breed the fish, feed the fish, and sell the fish. But what makes a difference is how we work as a team and how the quality of our people and how we take them into the company, care for them and also train them and develop them, how we grow together, how we work together, and how we win together".

If this is important for any company, it is even more so for Avramar, the only cross-Mediterranean. Four companies that came together to create one and become stronger, getting the scale needed to be able to invest. "We're in several countries and that makes it even more challenging because we're not only a Greek company, we're not only a Spanish company, we are in Greece and Spain, so, we need to more than anyone find ways to work as one team. Make sure that the best learnings from the Spanish side are migrating to the Greek operations and vice versa. So that, we can learn from best practices within the company and adopt that as fast as we can", he states.

How does he manage it? "Half of my team is in Valencia, the other half is in Athens, and we have also reporting lines across so it means that some people in Spain might report to people in Greece and vice versa", he explains, "and also, we ensure that we can travel, that we can see each other, meet personally and have team buildings". For him that's important "because when we have good team spirit, I think that's also something that customers, when they meet us in the trade shows and they meet us in meetings, they feel that we are a good team, that means they also want to work with us on the personal level because we're positive people who play as a team". His reasoning is simple and effective, "if we play as a team internally, it's easier also to play as a team with our customers".

Øyvind Ihle in Valencia, Spain. Photo: Øyvind Ihle.

As previously said, it has been a long road to happiness, but Øyvind Ihle has got it. "I'm really happy with being in seafood", he says, and you believe him. Everything in his speech exudes that happiness, that conviction of being in the right place. This Norwegian has found his place in Avramar, by the Mediterranean, and, although the future is not easy, he is very clear that, together with his team, he can convince us all with his "better fish, for better lives".

About Avramar

Avramar is the largest aquaculture company in the Mediterranean, the result of the union under one name of four leading companies from Greece and Spain.  With 10 hatcheries, 72 fish farms, 3 fish feed factories, 12 packaging facilities, 3 processing plants, and a global distribution network to more than 700 customers in over 30 countries, they have fully integrated the value chain.  Their goal is to guarantee the highest quality fish from sea to plate, while offering full traceability of their Sea Bass, Sea Bream, Stone Bass (Meagre) and Pagrus. Committed to sustainable and responsible farming, with operations certified to the highest health and safety standards, innovation is part of their DNA to create value-added products to enhance the eating experience and health.

*Cover photo of Øyvind Ihle, by Greg Milner.

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