Des O’Rourke

Des O’Rourke

by Dr. O’Rourke

For any apple grower, packer, or marketer making plans for the next decade, no decision is as important as the choice of variety to handle. That choice continues to widen.

It ranges from traditional favorites like Red Delicious and Granny Smith, new powerhouses like Gala and Fuji, the latest phenomenon, Honeycrisp, and an endless stream of new varieties that are emerging from breeding programs around the world.

There is widespread agreement on what any variety needs to be successful. External cues, like shape, skin color, skin brightness, size distribution, stem health, etc., are important. Internal cues, such as flesh color, firmness, initial taste experience, consistency of taste, etc., must be comparable to those of apples already on the market. Robustness in the production, packing, and marketing channels is also important.

A high packout of the most desirable grades and sizes, resistance to bruising, storage life, etc., all have a major impact on a variety’s profitability. Usually, growers can draw on a wide range of research and extension expertise in learning about the crucial aspects of each variety.

Many existing varieties and numerous new varieties that are coming down the pike can meet these traditional criteria. Indeed, the market is overloaded with excellent apple varieties. The future will be dominated by those varieties that have the greatest market appeal to ­retailers and consumers.

Ten Questions to ask your marketer

1: What unique story will the variety bring that can woo ­retailers and consumers?

2: What price premium can be expected initially and over the longer term?

3: What fees will be involved for trees, production rights, marketing programs, etc.?

4: Do you view this variety as one that can become a mainstream variety, a ­specialty variety, or one aimed at exclusive retail customers?

5: Will it appeal to current apple eaters, or will it attract new buyers to the apple category?

6: Which variety will it compete against most directly for shelf space?

7: Will you be targeting the U.S. domestic market or export markets?

8: What is the rollout plan for the variety. For example, how many boxes do you plan to market in year 1, year 5, and year 10?

9: What is the marketing and promotional plan for the­ ­variety?

10: How experienced is the marketer in ­commercializing other new varieties, and how successful have they been?

—Des O’Rourke

More demanding ­consumers

Thirty years ago, consumers fit into neat market segments. Young families liked Red Delicious, older folks liked Golden Delicious, eastern consumers liked McIntosh, and upper-income consumers preferred tart Granny Smith apples.

Over time, mass markets broke into ever-smaller market niches, and these niches are starting to break into numerous market slivers. Today’s consumer has become accustomed to having products that are tailored to his or her personal preferences. Individual choice has become paramount.

Personalization is most advanced in products like the mobile phone. Consumers can choose the size, weight, memory capacity, camera type, price, etc., that meet their individual needs. They can personalize ring tones, or have different ring tones for different contacts.

They can choose from a million apps that can enhance their user experience. While such detailed specifications are not yet as widespread in apple varieties, even there, consumers are moving towards multiple options of size, shape, color, acidity, brand, etc.

Even within a single household, different individuals prefer different apple varieties. These preferences are constantly evolving as consumers are exposed to new variety choices. On each shopping occasion, consumers balance their need for the familiar against their desire for novelty.

That balance is influenced by their spending power and social status, by the preferences of family, neighbors and acquaintances, and by how much they are exposed to samples, promotions, and displays of alternative varieties.

Above all, it is influenced by how consumers can incorporate the appeal of an apple variety into their own value system.

Targeted marketing

Sponsors of managed varieties recognize that their variety must tell a story that will resonate with their target consumers. Among the pioneers have been Apple and Pear Australia Limited with its sensual promotions for Pink Lady aimed at adventurous young women.

ENZA Limited has focused on the “tangy-sweet taste and loud crunch of Jazz.” Kanzi apples tempt consumers with their claim to be a “hidden treasure.” Sponsors of Ambrosia proudly proclaim that its name means “gift of the gods.” Clearly, the name and the marketing story of each variety have become critical in winning a loyal ­following.

In a very insightful article in Adweek, September 30, 2013, called “Your Content is Dead to Me,” Jon Hamm argues that “the most powerful stories happen in the mind of the audience, making each and every story unique and personal for the individual…. When we start to program a brand, we need to understand the full narrative and which parts of the story we need to create, which to co-create with the audience and which to leave to allow the audience to impart and complete their own meaning.”

Getting consumers to buy into a new apple brand is a very subtle exercise indeed.

Piece of the action

Retailers have been willing to accommodate consumers by stocking a wider array of apple varieties and allowing many new varieties to be tested in their stores.

However, they, too, want a new product that will persuade shoppers to choose their stores over rival stores and will also enhance the image of their stores.

Increasingly, the competition for the favor of retailers depends on the intangible and difficult to measure appeal that any new apple can project. The fate of each variety is increasingly ­dependent on the marketing prowess of the firm, or firms, that handle it.

Different emphasis in future

There are many, many excellent apple varieties that growers could choose to plant. Washington’s traffic associations currently track more than 50 varieties.

Not yet tracked separately are emerging varieties like Envy, Isaaq, Kalei, Kanzi, Rockit, and Smitten. It will continue to be important to choose varieties that meet high standards for internal quality, external quality, and robustness in handling.

However, an even more vital consideration will be that the marketing firm handling the variety understands the subtle forces that now drive consumer and retailer preferences. Unfortunately, there is little research or extension expertise that growers can draw on in choosing the best marketer. They will have to ferret that out for themselves by in-depth discussions with potential marketers.

Dr. O’Rourke is president of Belrose, Inc., Pullman, Washington, publisher of the monthly “World Apple Report.”