The future of aquaponics production depends on public perception and the associated social acceptance in important stakeholder groups (Pakseresht et al. 2017). In addition to potential aquaponics plant operators, players at the wholesale and retail level as well as gastro-distributors and collective catering are important actors in supply chains. Moreover, consumers are key actors as they bring in the money into the supply chain at its end. Even though they have no direct economic stakes in aquaponics production, the general public as well as political and administrative bodies are important aspects to consider. The necessity of involving the aforementioned stakeholders is based on studies such as Vogt et al. (2016), who show that suitable framework conditions are an important basis for the establishment of innovative processes in food value chains. Technical developments without involving stakeholders run the risk of non-acceptance at the end of the research and development pipeline. In general, they build on a comprehensive understanding of a marketing philosophy with a multi-stakeholder approach.
For aquaponics, there is still no knowledge about the conditions that promote the dissemination of this technology. Although the technology used in aquaponics installations for freshwater fish farming in tanks is also used in aquaculture, until now this is unknown to a large part of society (Miličić et al. 2017). With regard to consuming plants from aquaponics, there is scepticism regarding their contact with fish water (Miličić et al. 2017). Preliminary studies based on a small sample regarding the acceptance of aquaponics products by potential consumers indicate that the requirements for products from aquaponics facilities go far beyond what the previous purchasing behaviour of fish products suggests (Schröter et al. 2017c). Based on the results of Schröter et al. (2017a), first hints on the effect of information on the acceptance process are available. These need to be further explored by means of perceptual and impact analyses of various information and presentation variants (e.g. textual facts, images, word-image content) and validation on the basis of representative samples. In addition, previous research has focused on citizens in general and on potential consumers. Studies on the acceptance of other important stakeholders such as potential plant operators, food retailers and public catering as well as political and regulatory actors and the general public are lacking completely.
First analyses of the consumers’ response on aquaponics indicate that consumers showed a positive attitude towards aquaponics, with food safety issues being the major consumer concern in Canada (Savidov and Brooks 2004). Initial preliminary work on the willingness to pay for fish products from aquaponics was carried out by Mergenthaler and Lorleberg (2016) in Germany and Schröter et al. (2017a, b) on the basis of non-representative samples in Germany. Part of these studies show a relatively high willingness to pay for fish products from aquaponics. However, these results are based on small samples and cannot be generalised because the willingness to pay has been compiled from a specialist target group (see Mergenthaler and Lorleberg 2016) or in connection with the visit to a greenhouse for tropical and subtropical plants grown using aquaponics (Schröter et al. 2017a, b).
According to Tamin et al. (2015), aquaponics products are green products. A product is defined as green when it includes significant improvements in relation to the environment compared to a conventional product in terms of the production process, consumption and disposal (Peattie 1992). Based on the “theory of planned behaviour (TPB)”, consumer acceptance of aquaponics products as innovative green products has been examined by Tamin et al. (2015) with closed-ended questionnaires in Malaysia. From a set of different behaviour-influencing factors (relative advantage, compatibility, subjective norm, perceived knowledge, self-efficacy and trust), two factors have been identified as having a significant impact: Relative advantage and perceived knowledge. The relative advantage describes how far buying behaviour is influenced by superior product qualities compared to conventional products. The aquaponics products were perceived fresh and healthy, and this perception led to a buying advantage. The perceived knowledge relates to how much the customer knows about the production method. The more the customers were familiar with the method, the more likely they were willing to buy aquaponics products. There was no correlation in the category subjective norm, which relates to how much the buying decision is influenced by the opinion of friends and family. Interestingly there was no correlation for the factor of compatibility. This factor relates to how much the product buying experience is compatible with the customer lifestyle. It seems as if the product to market process in Malaysia is not very different for aquaponics products and conventional products. So while it is questionable whether the results of this study can be safely transferred to European markets, a base message is that education about the production method and communicating the beneficial effects regarding the freshness of the food and the benefits for the environment are important marketing activities (Tamin et al. 2015).
Zugravu et al. (2016) surveyed the purchase of aquaponics products in Romania. Customers were influenced by friends and family. This dimension, subjective norm, showed no correlation in the Malaysian survey. The survey finds that consumers have a general good overall image of aquaponics. They think that the products are good for their health and that they are fresh. The paper describes a discrepancy between the perception of fish from aquaculture and wild catch and the perception of aquaculture. Retailers think that farmed fish can have a negative image, but actually aquaculture itself does not really have a pronounced image. The lack thereof is perceived by retailers as a marketing risk, yet it is described in the paper as giving the potential for positive branding through targeted communication. As a recommendation, the paper concludes that the retailers should build on the trust that the consumers showed when purchasing these fish products and should label the aquaculture fish as “healthy and fresh” (Zugravu et al. 2016).
Interestingly both Tamin and Zugravu had a significant higher questionnaire return count from women (Tamin et al. 2015; Zugravu et al. 2016). This raises the question about gender differences in aquaponics marketing. Although quantitative studies include gender as an independent variable in their analyses, no systematic and consistent patterns have been found yet. This asks for more research explicitly addressing gender aspects.
According to Echternacht from ECF in Germany, whose main business model is to set up aquaponics systems, marketing is the component that is usually most underestimated by their potential clients. ECF Farmsystems builds on this experience and surveys their potential customers for their intended marketing and distribution goals. If they have an existing business with actual production and established marketing channels, then the customer is very interesting. Idealistic customers who think that the products are going to market themselves are treated with caution.
Depending on the intended target group, different scales of production units might be favourable. Whilst some consumer segments prefer small-scale production possibly linked to short transportation distances and local production, there might be other consumer segments more interested in resource efficiency and low-cost production which can be realised in rather large-scale production units linked to waste energy and waste heat sources. Results from Rostock show (Palm et al. 2018) that small-scale systems with simple technology can make sense. Medium-scale systems require all the maintenance and the operational expenses of larger-scale systems, but do not have the benefit and output of large-scale systems. Conclusions from their experience show that you should either go small and achieve high prices in local markets or go to larger-scale systems with respective exploitation of economies of scale allowing for price reductions. Bioaqua from the UK is one of the rare European aquaponics companies that decided to follow the path of small-scale production with simpler and cheaper systems and providing the added value via catering and finding niche products for direct distribution to restaurants.
There might be other consumer segments displaying high preferences for fish welfare who therefore have to be targeted with fish from production units that conform to these ideals. As Miličić et al. (2017) show, consumers can express unexpected aversions, such as vegans expressing highly negative attitudes towards aquaponics. As pointed out in the literature, some facets of aquaponics may arouse high emotional involvement, such as the aesthetics of the aquaponics system (Pollard et al. 2017), level of mechanisation (Specht et al. 2016), soilless crop production (Specht und Sanyé-Mengual 2017), fish welfare (Korn et al. 2014), concerns about health risks due to the water recirculation system (Specht und Sanyé-Mengual 2017), or negative emotions bordering on disgust, because fish excrement is used as fertiliser for vegetables (Miličić et al. 2017). In this context, the perception and evaluation of aquaponics and its products may be based on unconscious processes rather than on careful consideration of logical arguments.
For some consumer segments, plants from aquaponics are innovative and interesting, and for others the link between fish and plant production might not be acceptable. This is also shown by ECF in Berlin: ECF decided to modify their initial production and marketing strategy. In the beginning, they attempted to produce a wide range of crops and market them directly on location. Nevertheless, according to Christian Echternacht (Interview Feb 2018) the marketing effort is simply too large. From their experience, the customers do not want to visit too many locations with only a few products at each location. Therefore, ECF decided to produce only one crop, basil, that is being marketed through a supermarket chain. Their experience as well as more comprehensive literature reviews shows that depending on the degree of meeting customer expectations, different levels of willingness to pay can be achieved and therefore achievable market prices are highly context specific.
Similarly, Slovenian-based company Ponika first attempted direct distribution of their fresh-cut herbs to restaurants in Ljubljana. But, just as with individual customers, restaurants were also averse to direct ordering even if the price was lower. For the restaurant managers, the time and effort needed to order individual products was much too high a price to pay, and they were not willing to order directly. They preferred to stay within their own gastro-distributors, whereby they could make their overall purchase in just one order.
The experiences of ECF from Berlin and Ponika from Slovenia described above are in line with previous experiences in the marketing of organic food products. To sell these products locally through direct distribution will only be possible for a small part of the products. Even though many consumers want to buy local and/or organic products, they often want to make their purchases as conveniently as possible. This means that shopping has to be efficient in order to fit into their daily schedule. As shown by Hjelmar (2011) for organic products, the availability of these food products is important for consumers because most of the consumers are pragmatic. They do not want to go to several stores in order to get what they want. They want to buy their products conveniently in a nearby supermarket and if the supermarket does not have a wide selection of organic products, many consumers end up by buying conventional products (Chryssohoidis and Krystallis 2005). Similar experiences can be described for consumers buying regional products in Germany (Schuetz et al. 2018). The same will presumably apply to aquaponics-grown products. If these products will not be available in supermarkets, aquaponics will probably remain niche production.
Organic food shoppers constitute a special potential target group of aquaponics. Indoor production of vegetables might require less or no pesticide applications, but soilless cultivation of plants is not an option in today’s legislation on organic agriculture (cf. Chap. 19 of this book). Therefore, aquaponics in its strictest sense will not provide the necessary characteristics to be eligible for certification as organic production and no organic labels would be allowed on aquaponics products. Therefore, either policymakers have to be lobbied to induce changes in organic legislation, or organic shoppers have to be educated in this rather complicated issue. This aspect is also important in the regard that organic classified products usually achieve higher market prices than conventional products, and such certification would make the aquaponics systems more economically viable. If aquaponics-grown products can be sold at the same prices as organic products, under certain conditions, the payback period of aquaponics systems can be reduced by less than half (Quagrainie et al. 2018).
Besides product marketing, services surrounding aquaponics production can generate additional income streams. The high level of innovativeness of aquaponics generates high levels of interest, which can be exploited in different service offers which included paid-for aquaponics visits, workshops and consultancy services around the establishment of new aquaponics systems. There are several examples of aquaponics facilities venturing in this direction:
ECF provides business consultancy for the establishment of new aquaponics systems.
UrbanFarmers, Den Hague, offered paid visits to the facility as well as an event location. (Note: The project has now ceased).
Besides adjusting production systems to customer expectations in a comprehensive marketing concept, communication strategies also play a role. Up to now, knowledge about aquaponics in the society is weak (Miličić et al. 2017; Pollard et al. 2017). When acquiring information, different variants of information and of information representation will significantly influence the public perception of this innovative technology. To satisfy the stakeholders’ information demands, different channels of communication and different information materials can be used. Diversification strategies are required that include workshops, visitor guides and other services. There are opportunities for new and alternative business ideas. Examples of innovative communication approaches by some commercial aquaponics operators show the specific challenges associated with aquaponics:
ECF, Berlin: Choosing red variety of tilapia. Branding as “Rosébarsch” at the beginning of sales. Inspired by a customer’s branding in a restaurant, ECF rebranded to “Hauptstadtbarsch” (capital city perch) in the meantime (Interview Echternacht 2018). Thereby regional branding is put in the foreground of communication rather than the inherent product quality oriented at the colour of the fish meat.
Aqua4C, Belgium: They introduced jade perch from Oceania into the European market. Aqua4C developed a branding as “Omega Baars” thus taking a novel food approach. They implicitly market the regionally unknown fish species as healthy while carefully avoiding to make any health claims.
Ponika, Slovenia: Marketing of produce from aquaponics has been difficult. The situation was complicated as the aquaponics farm was located far away from the market which was too far for a quick visit and also no other attraction was nearby. They concluded that without the possibility of visits, it would be difficult to secure the farm additional revenue sources or marketing directly to consumers. In their marketing approach, they thus first targeted gastro-distributors with a focus on quality and local production for a competitive price. They did not dare to target individual consumers via supermarket chains due to having too small of a system and subsequent inability to secure a steady, large enough volumes of production. Thus they sold fresh-cut herbs directly to gastro-distributors, whereby the price and local production played the most important role. Their experience showed that gastro-distributors liked the story of innovative food production and they liked helping young people in their start-up business. So they were supportive in the sense that they adopted their purchasing process by taking up the produce when it was available and ordering from foreign sellers when it was not. In general, however, they were not very interested in the sustainability character of aquaponics – in other words, they did not care how the fresh-cut herbs were produced but rather that they were locally produced and had appealing packaging (1 kg and 1/2 kg) where the local character of the production was emphasised. Thus in their experience with retailers, a company story of young innovators worked the best. Customers at the retail level furthermore did not like the connection with hydroponics as they mixed aquaponics and hydroponics. In Slovenia, the customers are wary of hydroponics, and the Ponika company needed to tackle the challenge of changing the consumer’s perception from hydroponics, which has a negative image as being “unnatural”, into aquaponics and create a positive image of aquaponics. Additionally, the selection of fresh-cut herbs for the individual consumers proved to be problematic, since the health benefits were not important enough in fresh-cut herbs as people just do not eat that much of those to care enough about, for example, pesticide-free production.
NerBreen, Spain: NerBreen is focused more on the aquaculture element of their business, since 70% of their business model represents the revenue from selling the fish. Yet they provide extensive marketing of both the fish and the vegetables. In both cases, they try to target the individual consumers via retail chains, preferably those retailers that target consumers who are willing to pay the premium price for higher local quality, aiming for approximately 20% higher prices than average. They face challenges in the marketing of both vegetables and tilapia. With vegetables they focused on fresh garlic and cherry tomatoes because they could reach higher prices due to smaller competition in those areas. Their marketing efforts include well-designed packaging with leaflets, whereby they explain the sustainability benefits of aquaponics. Here, they focus both on securing premium quality and adding additional story to their branding. When selling tilapia, they face a bigger challenge. The Spanish consumers currently have a negative perception of tilapia since they either mistake it with pangasius which is considered as a cheap and low-quality fish or they think it is imported from intensive aquaculture from the Far East and similarly ancd supposedly to be lower in quality. Within their marketing efforts, NerBreen thus needed to change this negative image and is focusing on providing information on the fact that this tilapia is locally produced, whereby both the water quality and the fish feed quality are of highest consideration, resulting in a high-quality fish product.
Urban Farmers, Netherlands: In an effort to generate additional income streams, they established visits of aquaponics production facilities. It is, however, currently questionable if the visitor business is economically sustainable. Questions arise whether the visitor stream will wane when the hype around aquaponics settles or once “everyone” has already seen it. Apart from visitors, other income streams are already tapped: Rooftop Farms offer gardening workshops. (It should be noted that Urban Farmers in the Hague ceased to trade.)
Print media and social media are suitable for public education, as well as thematic workshops, guided farm visits and tastings of aquaponics products (Miličić et al. 2017). However, information provision will be successful only if it meets the information needs of the target audience. Stakeholders, such as representatives of national governments, different associations (e.g. organic farming associations), plant operators or plant manufacturers are probably more interested in comprehensive factual information. For citizens’ and consumers’ information, focusing on emotion and entertainment could be more attractive. With regard to this target audience, pictures combined with concise text messages are particularly suitable for information transfer. For these stakeholders beyond conscious information perception and information processing, also unconscious effects play an important role. Different frames, that mean different presentation formats of the same information, can influence the recipient’s behaviour in different ways (Levin et al. 1998). For a better understanding of the unconscious processes that may influence the stakeholders’ behaviour, neuroeconomic research methods in association with traditional methods of market research are useful tools. Eye tracking makes it possible to answer questions regarding visual perception in an objective way. Combined with other empirical methods of communication research, especially qualitative and quantitative surveys, it is possible to conduct complex perception and impact analyses. As a pilot study by Schröter and Mergenthaler (2018a, b) shows, attitudes towards different aquaponics systems are related to the gaze behaviour of the study participants whilst viewing information material about aquaponics.
This underlines the importance of a careful and target group-oriented design of information material about aquaponics. The possible solutions are that either production planning has to accommodate and to add the additional revenue sources or direct marketing by growing a large variety of different crops, thereby further complicating the production process. Yet as, for example, ECF in Germany shows, they started with a variety of vegetables but decided to focus only on basil and sell it through one large retail chain. Another possibility is to build strategic alliances with other regional producers in order to achieve innovative marketing and distribution strategies. In general, however, we can conclude that the marketing aspect of commercial aquaponics is one of its most important challenges and one in which European aquaponics farms had to undergo a number of changes in attempts to try and find the right product-market fit. It remains to be seen, however, whether this product-market fit has been found and how stable it will remain.