Mar 26, 2019
WSU marketers count down to Cosmic Crisp launch

Marketers are counting down for the fall 2019 launch of the Cosmic Crisp apple variety.

Their mission? To boldly go where no apple has gone before.

Pink Lady, the first apple with a trademark, debuted in the 1990s, and others have followed since that time. But Cosmic Crisp looks to be something on a larger scale than its predecessors, with about 6.8 million trees planted on roughly 5,800 acres by the end of 2018, with an additional 5 million trees anticipated in 2019.

About 175,000 40-pound boxes are expected to be produced in 2019, with production ramping into the millions in the next few years.

All of those apples require a sales plan. At the end of January, the Washington State University (WSU) Board of Regents approved $10.1 million over four years to support a consumer marketing campaign for the WSU apple cultivar, WA 38.

Photos: WSU/Proprietary Variety Management

Cosmic Crisp is the brand used for the fruit of WA 38, a cultivar developed by WSU. Traits bred into the cultivar for the growers’ sakes are resistance 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.

Not all university-developed cultivars are tied to brand names.

WSU’s first commercial release, WA-2, didn’t have a brand name when it was given to growers in 2011, and university officials at first took a hands-off approach to marketing efforts. The apple was sold by some in the industry as “Crimson Delight.”

In February 2016, WSU re-released it with the brand name “Sunrise Magic” but overall the cultivar has languished.

WA 2 taught WSU a lesson, said WSU Business Development Specialist Albert Tsui.

“We learned that the (intellectual property) owner needs to dictate what the brand may be,” he said. That’s the reason for having a brand name. “Cosmic” is reference to the star-burst spots on the apple skin; Crisp is a nod to the Midwestern hit apple Honeycrisp, which shares the parentage of WA 38 with Enterprise.

But the reason for a marketing budget is more of a response to what the growers themselves have invested.

A simple “back of the envelope” calculation shows growers themselves have millions invested in WA 38, Tsui said. It’s not uncommon for a grower to spend $40,000 per acre setting up an orchard. Multiply that by 5,800 acres planted and you get $232 million. In that light, $10.1 million doesn’t seem like such a bad investment.

“That’s really a response to the stakeholder investment in the new variety, and the idea that we need to launch this so that the growers and stakeholders along the whole chain get a fair shake out of that,” Tsui said. “It’s actually really small potatoes in comparison to what the growers have invested in terms of acreage and plantings.”

And it may not require investment for WSU, either. Royalty revenue received from licensing WSU’s intellectual property rights to WA 38, and the trademark rights to Cosmic Crisp brand, will be used to pay for the campaign. Tsui said WSU’s biggest royalty returns always come from the agriculture college. Cosmic Crisp is eclipsing the wheat royalties that have brought in more than $1 million a year, he said. Fifty percent of anything above costs goes back into the apple breeding program; Tsui said the other 50 percent is split up per rules in the faculty handbook – some would go to the WA 38’s breeders, Bruce Barritt and Kate Evans.

Washington state growers had access to the cultivar starting with the spring 2017 planting and will have a monopoly on growing the cultivar until at least the spring of 2027.

The firm WSU has hired to manage the release is Proprietary Variety Management (PVM), which earlier managed the release of Pink Lady. PVM is putting the money to work forging strategic partnerships with such groups as The Good Housekeeping Nutritionist Approved Emblem, Missoula Children’s Theatre and The Produce Moms.

PVM has enlisted the help of Ellipses Public Relations of Oakland, California, while Santa Cruz, California-based McDill Associates has been tapped for the creative work.

The campaign theme is “Imagine the Possibilities,” and creative marketing invokes the STEAM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) and inspirational dreams.

PVM Director of Marketing Kathryn Grandy said they’re planning an integrated marketing platform rather than a simple media buy.

“Some people spend like $20 million on their Super Bowl ad, but for a single apple brand, I feel like it’s a pretty good-size budget,” Grandy said. She said she’s not aware of another apple brand that has made a comparable marketing push.

“There’s many in the citrus category – like Cuties and Halos, they have really strong marketing campaigns – but the unique part of this is, it’s an apple that was developed at Washington State University, which our growers have been really generous and supportive of.”

PVM is hoping to keep Cosmic Crisp growers in the loop about its efforts through newsletters, she said.

“They’re amazing growers and we’re really just thrilled with this opportunity to have Cosmic Crisp,” she said. “The volumes are going to increase quite rapidly.”

Grandy said the apple has been teased at Asia Fruit Logistica, a specialized annual trade show and conference event for the Asian and international fruit and vegetable business. Cosmic Crisp’s storage capability would lend itself to overseas sales.

Tsui said another advantage Cosmic Crisp will have in the marketplace is a ready product look up code (PLU) codes, which are on the tiny stickers on each piece of fruit and are often required by retailers to assist with point-of-sale transactions. Often the industry doesn’t award PLU numbers in advance, he said, but in Cosmic’s case, retail heavyweights wrote supporting letters so Cosmic could get the codes.

“This is one of those situations where we’ve had a perfect storm of stakeholders and industry supporters for a new cultivar to be introduced,” Tsui said. “It’s a perfect recipe where we have enough supply of apple hitting that critical mass and we’re fortifying that with the marketing campaign so it does get consumer recognition, so it becomes a household name.”

– Stephen Kloosterman, Associate Editor





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