Liability of outsidership: The example of Norwegian produced fish for Norway

The Norwegian farmed Atlamtic Salmon is one of Norway’s favourite fish, if fish were chosen at all for a meal in Norway.
Text by CM Cordeiro & Photo © Nofima, 2019

It was a gathering of about 30 international individuals who had moved to Tromsø for various purposes. I was born in tropical Singapore and had moved to the Swedish west coast when I was 26 years old to pursue a doctoral degree in applied linguistics at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. The intention back in 2002 when I landed in Sweden was to go back to Southeast-Asia to continue teaching and research at a university based in the region, but as life flows have it, that was not to be. At just about the time when I had acquired good enough Swedish to order food so that it comes as I had ordered it (in my early years in Sweden, I had tried ordering blueberry ice-cream and got instead some warm water in a glass), I received confirmation of a research position in Northern Norway, with geocoordinates even farther than what I initially thought was wintry Sweden. So, seated around me in the room for this international gathering in the Arctic Circle city of Tromsø were fellow internationals. and about 12 Norwegians, some of whom were born in the county of Troms or who had immediate family members who lived in Troms.

What is traditional Northern Norwegian food?

As a Market Scientist at Nofima, whose main field of research is non-tariff barriers to market access, my curiosity was piqued about regional food preferences, so I began asking questions such as “Growing up in Northern Norway, did you eat a lot of fish at school and at home? Something your grandparents cooked perhaps that you now like?” Being myself a foreigner who has little knowledge and experience Northern Norway cuisine and food traditions, I also asked the crowd if they could describe some of their favourite dishes and if they had any traditional names for it. I gave them the example of Janssons Frestelse (Jansson’s Temptation) in Sweden, a creamy potato gratin made with mostly caramelized onions and anchovies. The ease of preparing this dish meant that it was a Swedish party favourite, and it is featured at almost every Swedish julbord in restaurants during the festive season. Does Norther Norway have such a dish for example?

A round-table gaze followed to which a reply came, “Norwegian homecooked food is very simple. We usually just have fish. We don’t prepare it in any special way. Then we have, potatoes.” A nodding of heads followed but then came a set of bright-lit eyes, “Yeah! My grandmother, she makes the greatest macaroni and fish dish. She covers fish, with macaroni, and I don’t know what she puts on it, and then she bakes it.” “Sounds super delicious!” I replied, “Does your grandmother have a name for this dish?” “Er no, but I think if you google macaroni and fish, you might find it on the internet” came the reply. I gathered it was fiskegrateng my local informant was speaking about, and asked if there were some unusual fish dishes they could think of particular to this region?

Yes, Mølje. Traditional and with many restaurants in Tromsø serving it come Skrei season, between February to April, the dish consists of steamed Skrei, steamed roe and fried cod liver. It was here that I thought Mølje could be a ‘culturally transferable’ dish. In East and Southeast-Asia, it is quite common to use similar parts of fish (including fish maw, liver and roe), incorporating into the dishes there, Mølje could become quite popular. Besides which, the fish in Northern Norway were certainly more flavourful, personally I loved salmon. “Oh no, I couldn’t eat salmon” came one reply. “No, me neither, it has a funny texture.” “How do you mean?” I asked, “Well, the flesh is not as firm as other types of fish like trout or cod”, came the reply. “Yes, it’s less muscular, you could say.” said another, “It’s not that salmon is bad, maybe it’s a taste preference and I prefer wild caught fish.” I asked others if they grew up eating salmon. “No, we had mostly trout, or sei (pollock), we would go out fishing for them. Those I had a lot of those when growing up. But not so much these days. I like meat.” “Why is that, that you shifted food preferences from fish to meat?” I asked. My informant shrugged. “I don’t know, it’s just a craving. I prefer meat, but not smalahove, you know the sheep head, that I don’t eat. I also eat more vegetables.” Towards the end of the sessions gathering, the general observation was that the Northern born Norwegians were not huge fans of fish, for various reasons of their own.

Norwegian fish in Norway: Swedish ABBA in Sweden?

The findings of the evening’s brief observation, that Norwegians did not eat so much fish, was reflected in a larger news article in Fiskeribladet on 16 Jan. 2019 with the title, “Dei unge skyr fisk – halvert fiskeforbruk på seks år” [1]. Figure 1 shows the per capita consumption of fish in kilograms for Norway. The general consumption trend in the country seems on a steady decline since 2013.

My mind wandered back to the general comments made about fish consumption by Norwegians, and wondered if Norwegian produced fish was facing a Swedish ABBA (the popular 1970s pop-group) phenomenon. ABBA was well-liked and popular all over the world, except in Sweden where they seemed to face a liability of outsidership, a contradiction in terms, they being Swedish themselves. In fact, as a child, I knew about ABBA and could sing along to their songs but I did not know where Sweden was located if asked to point it out on a global map.

At the individual level as unit of analysis, there are of course, many nuances of individual psychology, lifestyles and personal consumer preferences to be considered in this apparent downswing trend of fish consumption on the Norwegian domestic market. But in terms of product to market and taking the firm as unit of analysis, the concept of liability of outsidership is a familiar one that has been researched and debated within the field of international business (IB) studies, in particular, in theorising about firm internationalization processes and managing challenges to introducing (new) products to (emerging) markets.

The firm is a business entity engaged primarily in transaction activities, rather than production, which is the distinctive feature of the firm [2]. As such, the competitiveness of the firm and its ability to get product to market (domestic or international) could be said to depend on its relationship development with its business network, and the knowledge of its business partners. A firm is said to experience liability of outsidership when its intentions expectations and communicative interpretations of its business networks, where business relationships are inherently socially constructed, are misaligned with its own psyche or core organizational values and strategic commitment [3,4].

Liability of outsidership

The case for fish on the Norwegian domestic market being less popular as food choice is interesting because it highlights the example of how liability of outsidership and the experience of foreignness is not an exclusive phenomena to the firm internationalization front with emerging markets, but one that can be experienced at home, within national and regional geographic proximity. So what does this mean for the Norwegian domestic market? And how can Norwegian fish producers overcome a liability of outsidership facing their own products at home?

The aim of theory building is not to reproduce a complex reality, rather, based on conclusions of research, it is meant to highlight central elements of processes and phenomena that in turn could be used in experiential learning. One of the most cited and critiqued firm internationalization models is the Uppsala model [5]. Since its launch in 1977, the model has been revisited to include a network perspective of firm internationalization [6], various facets such as the concepts of liability of foreignness and outsidership [3] and firm ambidexterity [7].
Figure 2 illustrates the basic elements of the Uppsala model. Although the model is meant to explain firms facing the international front, the core elements of the model are ubiquitous and can be applied to firms in any context, even on the home front with the underlying working assumption that a firm operates within a market environment and exists within a business network in which partners are assumed to be committed. Market knowledge, relationship specific knowledge and network activities influence the success of a firm’s performance. Researchers have found that close and lasting business relationships (with other local suppliers and direct contacts with consumers) are indeed important whether within or between countries [8].

Figure 2 The basic mechanism of internationalization: state and change aspects [5:26]

In most cases of market challenges, a coordinated network of concurrent activities proves efficient and the current holistic activities from fish health addressing salmon lice to (re-)introducing salmon to children at school lunches, or to get children involved in home cooking are promising first steps in addressing fish liability of outsidership. An element that is also highlighted in the Uppsala model, is the social aspect of trust and commitment building. Ad-hoc activities in school or public events that bring fish to consumers as food samples over a week for example, sends no indication of a long-term commitment on the part of the fish producer to build any home market base. Rather, a concerted discourse from multiple actors, acting at different levels of society need to be orchestrated around the subject of ‘smolt to table’. It is this long-term commitment from the main actors, conscientiously drawing in and creating a foundational network of actors that will in the long run, gain traction and shift the current paradigm of Norway’s preference for “Grandis” pizzas as easy-food, to fish [1].

Photo by Eneida Nieves, Fari Photography

Mølje pizza?

In a scenario where theory meets practical reality, back at the international party I attended, we had continued our discussion on the theme of Norwegian traditional food, compared with traditional foods from the countries of origins of the group, such as Hong Kong, Portugal, Greece and Sweden. At the suggestion that Norwegian fish had become ‘old fashioned food’ and food associated with only the older generation such as grandparents, a Chinese woman who was born in Hong Kong said, “Yes, in Asia where I come from, our grandparents also cooked fish for us grandchildren. And if we didn’t like to eat it, my grandmother would invent something new. Like one time, she put salted fish on like a steam bun dough and steamed it for us.” She said bright eyed. “You mean like bacalao on steam bun?” came a question from a Portuguese individual, visibly shuddering when envisioning the resulting dish. “Mmm, yes something like that.” Said the Chinese woman. Seeing the brief silence that followed around the table with each of us trying to envision the proposed dish, the Chinese woman brightened and said, “If Norwegians like to eat a lot of pizzas, why don’t the food companies do like my grandmother and put fish or this salted cod on Grandis pizzas? Or maybe come up with a Mølje pizza? Fish roe is also a delicacy in China you know! It will be a very expensive pizza!” Without registering the look of wide-eyed horror that swept around the table showing in the eyes of some Norwegians, she chirped, “I think it will be a huge success!”. At which, the one who was born in Singapore turned to her and said tongue-in-cheek, “Yeah, but you know, the Chinese, they are known to eat almost everything that moves.”

References
[1] Grindheim, J. (2019). Dei unge skyr fisk – halvert fiskeforbruk på seks år, Fiskeriblaket. Internet resource at https://fiskeribladet.no/nyheter/default.asp?artikkel=64647. Retrieved 16 Jan. 2019.
[2] Snehota, I. (1990). Notes on a theory of business enterprise. Uppsala: Department of Business Administration, Uppsala Univ., Sweden.
[3] Johanson, J. & Vahlne, J.E. (2009). The Uppsala internationalization process model revisited: From liability of foreignness to liability of outsidership. Journal of International Business Studies, 40(9), 1411-1431.
[4] Vahlne, J.E., Schweizer, R. & Johanson, J. (2012). Overcoming the Liability of Outsidership—The Challenge of HQ of the Global Firm. Journal of International Management, 18(3), 224-232.
[5] Johanson, J. & Vahlne, J.E. (1977). The Internationalization Process of the Firm—A Model of Knowledge Development and Increasing Foreign Market Commitments. Journal of International Business Studies, 8(1), 23.
[6] Vahlne, J., & Johanson, J. (2013). The Uppsala model on evolution of the multinational business enterprise – from internalization to coordination of networks. International Marketing Review, 30(3), 189-210.
[7] Vahlne, & Jonsson. (2017). Ambidexterity as a dynamic capability in the globalization of the multinational business enterprise (MBE): Case studies of AB Volvo and IKEA. International Business Review, 26(1), 57-70.
[8] Johanson, J., Hallén, L., & Seyed-Mohamed, N. (1991). Interfirm Adaptation in Business Relationships. Journal of Marketing, 55(2), 29.