Sep 8, 2020Managed varieties persevere during pandemic
Managed apple varieties are boldly continuing their marketing efforts in a season disrupted by disease.
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, other challenges remain: A crowded field of competing apples, non-discriminating customers and retailers trying to simplify their shelf spaces.
“There are somewhere close to 40 branded apples and over 100 varieties across the country and there’s no way retailers can have them all,” said Kathryn Grandy, director of marketing for Proprietary Variety Management. PVM manages several apple varieties, including Cosmic Crisp and the very first branded apple, Pink Lady, which she said is still being actively planted decades after its debut.
“I think all of these delicious, branded apples are going to help reinvigorate the category,” Grandy said. “I think people are definitely moving to branded apples, and I think over time we’ll see some of the older varieties reduce. I think eventually the produce section in general – all fruits and vegetables – will be branded.”
Customers need to be taught the differences between different brands, said Jennifer L. Parkhill, executive director of the Next Big Thing, a grower co-op that invests in apple varieties.
“We as an industry have got to do a better job at educating consumers at what they’re buying. Consumers have a variety of different taste profiles; how can we as an industry do a better job getting consumers to the right apple without having them guess? We need to direct consumers to a great eating experience and to do that in the apple category you have to stand out,” said Jennifer L. Parkhill, executive director of the Next Big Thing (NBT), a grower’s co-op that currently promotes the SweeTango apple.
“The apple industry is one of the most innovative produce industries out there – and with the number of varieties we have available I think consumers are confused at what apples to buy,” Parkhill said. “We have almost 100 different varieties grown in the U.S. alone. We need to partner with retail and educate consumers through innovative marketing methods. You have to be a variety that stands out from the rest and we believe that SweeTango delivers this consistently every year.
With 2019’s trade wars and the current pandemic, apple sales had lagged but the industry is seeing a recent double-digit uptick in sales, she said.
“The apple market has had a slowdown but things are looking up with many consumers now eating more home-based meals and snacks,” Parkhill said. “Apples are the second most consumed fruit in the U.S., only second to bananas. Apples are seeing pressure from citrus and berries as consumer spending is being widely spread across the fruit category. We have seen decreasing sales and need to figure out how to get that market share back. NBT is working hard to develop better consumer marketing and expanding of the SweeTango brand direct to consumers.” There’s very fierce price and product competition out there, she said.
COVID-19 has affected the retail market. There was some initial thought that bags of apples, rather than shelves of bulk, loose apples, would sell better. Midwest Apple Improvement Association President Bill Dodd said that bags fit with the theory that consumers were traveling to the grocery store less often and were just stocking up on raw apples.
“We have seen, definitely an uptick in bags over the summer, but bulk is still the predominantly the way that we sell apples,” said Stemilt Senior Marketing Manager Brianna Shales. “I think the initial (idea that) ‘Everything in produce needs to be in a bag so that no one touches it,’ that’s gone away as we’ve adapted to COVID. I foresee retailers being able to sell both bulk and bags of apples this fall.”
Promotional activities are somewhat limited by the pandemic.
“Right now, I’m sure no one is going to take a chance to sample in the grocery store – that’s probably the number one promotion and the number one way to get a following with this apple,” Dodd said of MAIA’s leading apple, Evercrisp. “Not only Evercrisp, but all the managed varieties have had a rough go of it.”
Here are some highlights of managed apple varieties – how many are being planted or sold, how they’re being grown and promoted:
While there are many club apple varieties, Cosmic Crisp stands in a class of its own, with millions of trees planted already by growers in Washington state who will have exclusive rights to plant the trees and sell the fruit until at least 2027.
Cosmic Crisp is the brand used for the fruit of WA 38, a cultivar developed by Washington State University (WSU). Traits bred into the cultivar for the growers’ sakes are resistent to some diseases, an ability to store well and a long, two-week harvest window. The apple will be marketed to consumers as sweet, crisp, slow to brown and exceptionally red.
“We have a little over 15 million trees in the ground now in Washington state,” Grandy said.
WSU has remained active in educating growers about best practices. Stem clipping is now recommended at harvest. Growers are mandated to hold Cosmic Crisp in storage until a specific date each year when they’re determined to reach their peak.
The launch last year went well. Samplings were held in stores. At QFC store in Seattle, a crowd gathered to watch Stemlit president grower West Mathison deliver the first box of commercially-sold Cosmic Crisp.
“People drove a long distance … from Oregon and up by the Canadian border,” Grandy said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Between 325,000 and 350,000 boxes were shipped to various grocery store chains, and that’s just the start.
Grandy said 2 million boxes are anticipated from the 2020 harvest and should be commercially available from early December through June in many regions. Roughly 5.5 million boxes of apples are projected for the 2021 harvest – enough to supply markets year-round, Grandy said.
“We have a lot of consumer media and social media, digital media going on to continue actively communicating with our consumers,” she said. “We do have some specific promotions during the holiday season.”
Members of the MAIA began planting Evercrisp, a cross between Honeycrisp and Fuji, in 2013.
“We’re well past a million trees in the ground,” Dodd said.
Evercrisp ripens late in the season, and most marketers are waiting until after the first of the year to start promoting them, Dodd said.
“Every year we learn new things about it,” Dodd said. Because the tree structure tends to be droopy, harvest pruning is necessary to let the sun in and properly color the apples.
With taste testing at grocery stores out of the question, MAIA is instead looking to promote the apples through the farm markets and U-pick orchards that mostly remain open. This October, when EverCrisp reaches peak harvest at member orchards nationwide, and as families get excited about the Halloween season, MAIA members can participate in the “EverCrisp: So Crunchy It’s Scary” promotion at their fruit stands and orchards. MAIA will ship to its members promotion kits featuring signs, handouts, digital files and other supporting materials. A social media push and photo contest will be coordinated for the brand.
Another MAIA apple generating attention this year is Ludacrisp – it has roughly 80,000 trees planted this year.
“This is the first year that there were quite a few trees planted,” Dodd said. “We’re still a couple of years from fruit actually getting to customers.”
Next Big Thing co-op launched in 2006 with plantings of Minneiska, a cultivar developed by the University of Minnesota by crossing Honeycrisp and Zestar, an early-ripening variety. The apples are marketed by the name SweeTango and only grown by licensed professional growers all members of the CO-OP.
“Since that time, there have been two additional plantings by our grower members,” said Next Big Thing (NBT) Executive Director Jennifer Parkhill. With more than 120 acres by over 50 grower-members the COOP has some big plans for marketing SweeTango in the future.
“For me, after I tried SweeTango for the first time, it completely changed the apple landscape for me,” she said. “SweeTango in my mind is the best apple out there, but you’re competing for a lot of shelf space in retail. We have to be the best-eating apple on the market to secure that shelf space. I think we do that year in and year out, but the competition is getting more prolific with more varieties coming on the appearing in market.”
While traditional marketing activities have focused on retailers, she sees a need for more consumer education marketing, including through social media and other media channels.
The Next Big Thing has other apples in the works. A red-fleshed apple, Kissabel, was recently commercialized. The group is also testing other apples with promise.
“The NBT co-op was developed to research and develop new innovative apples with our group of elite growers, so we’re always out there looking for additional varieties to bring to consumers in the U.S. and Canada. I am excited and honored to be a part of that future,” Parkhill said.
The Rave apple is Stemilt Growers LLC’s marketing name for the fruit developed at the University of Minnesota as the First Kiss apple. The cultivar is a cross between Honeycrisp and an early-ripening parent from the University of Arkansas.
“We don’t really like to share numbers,” Stemilt’s Shales said when asked about plantings and sales. “I will say that with any club apple, you have to start from very low volumes and you work your way up. But Rave is definitely something we’re actively trying to grow more of.”
The trees are well-adapted for Washington state growers, said Stemilt R&D Manager Rob Blakey.
“It grows pretty well here,” he said. “It comes off so early.” Harvests began during the third week of July, during the cherry season.
The apples have minimal bitter pit issues compared to their famous parent cultivar.
“It’s a much more grower-friendly apple than Honeycrisp,” Blakey said.
The season was well-underway in early August. Shales said the main marketing push is to get retailers to stock it – a task that’s made easier by the apple maturing so easy.
The company has also worked on direct-to-consumer marketing. Stemilt has started a social media campaign to make the Rave apple “the first verified fruit,” and inviting fans to “Rave” about something they liked.
“We’re trying to create an aura of positivity,” Shales said.
SnapDragon and RubyFrost apples were developed by Cornell University. They are managed by Crunch Time Apple Growers, a company owned by 147 grower-members, who represent roughly 60% of New York state’s apple production, according to the group’s website.
In April, Crunch Time Apple Growers and Schwinn bicycles staged a consumer promotion designed to boost awareness of Crunch Time’s SnapDragon apple variety. The contest on social media garnered a total of 19,130 consumer entries.
“Our marketing message is ‘SnapDragon apples are the healthy, perfect fit for consumers with active lifestyles and make the perfect snack to pack … from our family to yours,’” Rena Montedoro, vice president of sales and marketing for Crunch Time Apple Growers, said in a news release.
“As the apple category continues to get more crowded, there’s even more competition to get your brand noticed,” she added. “Promotions like this are designed to generate awareness and buzz around an incredible apple that’s been growing in popularity sales year over year every season.”
While Crunch Time Apple Growers manages the cultivar domestically, PVM is handling international licensing with growers in other continents, with some interest in Australia and New Zealand, Grandy said.
A Japanese apple discovered and developed by an Italian grower, Kiku apples are licensed internationally.
Applewood Fresh Growers LLC, is the exclusive marketer of Kiku apples in the Midwest; while other partners in Pennsylvania (Rice Fruit Co.) and Washington state (CMI Orchards) also grow the apples.
“The Kiku is super sweet, juicy and crisp – so for anyone one that likes sweet apples this is the apple for them,” said Applewood Fresh Vice President of Marketing Antonia Mascari. “Available from November through July, so not just a short season, they can enjoy for a long period of the year.”
In addition to Kiku apples, Applewood markets Kanzi apples, which have “an intense sweet-tart flavor to them,” and “crisp firm juicy bite.
Applewood Vice President of Sales and Business Development Brian Coates, said marketing plans for the harvest include a partnership with The Produce Moms, a social media influencer, for several promotions including a “Produce Challenge to help guide consumers to healthier eating habits and educate them on the flavor profile, Kids Activity Sheets & Content for Kids in the kitchen, Recipe Videos & E-book and/or stop motion apple videos.”
Other efforts include billboards in Michigan and digital media efforts.
— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor
Top photo: clockwise from the top left, SweeTango, Evercrisp, Cosmic Crisp, Rave/FirstKiss. Top photos courtesy of Next Big Thing, Midwest Apple improvement Association, Proprietary Variety Management, Stemilt Growers.