The name Ambrosia reflects the aromatic flavor of the apple.
Courtesy Sally & Wilfrid Mennell
Honeycrisp has set the standard for new varieties to follow in terms of consumer acceptance and the returns that growers expect, apple marketers say.
It’s also one of the few varieties that producers can freely plant and sell, and has proven that a new variety doesn’t have to be a club variety to succeed. In a managed system, there’s usually a limit on who grows the variety and how much can be produced.
“Just because there’s a limited supply, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a winner. Demand could still be less than supply,” said Mac Riggan, vice president of marketing for Chelan Fresh Marketing in Chelan, Washington. “Honeycrisp isn’t a club variety, but I think we’re going to be able to sell a lot of them for good money,”
There are many models for how varieties can be commercialized—everything from the top-down managed variety program, to the bottom-up method where consumer interest drives the new variety initially, observes Brian Sand, sales manager at Auvil Fruit Company in Orondo, Washington.
“Honeycrisp is the famous story of an apple that was just out there at roadside fruit stands and built from the ground up,” he said. “It got a name and people started asking for it, and, lo and behold, the big growers wake up and say, ‘This is a heck of an apple here.’”
Robert Kershaw, president of Domex Superfresh Growers in Yakima, Washington, said the success of a variety in the future will depend less on how it is managed and more on the quality of the fruit. Honeycrisp was released without restrictions and became successful simply because it was a really good apple.
“Honeycrisp sell themselves because the consumer loves them,” he said. “I think the more established club varieties are doing great, but the newer club varieties are going to have a tough time breaking in because of the bar that Honeycrisp is setting. How do you improve on Honeycrisp?”
Honeycrisp has set a new standard not just for consumer satisfaction but also for grower returns. Producers might be disappointed if they don’t get the same returns from other new varieties—particularly if they’re paying royalties and fees that they don’t have to pay with Honeycrisp.
A new variety will have to be exceptional for the grower, packer, and consumer, Kershaw said. For example, it needs to be winter hardy, have good storability, and have outstanding eating quality.
“It’s got to meet so many criteria,” he said. “There are so many varieties in the world that are good eating apples that anything new coming down the road has to be exceptional or else there’s no reason for it.”
The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission will commercialize new apple varieties developed by Washington State University and will make them available to any Washington grower who wants them, since the breeding program has been strongly supported by grower funds. The first of the varieties, WA 2, can now be planted commercially. It has been released without a name, giving shippers and marketers the option to choose their own brand names for it.
Sand said the WA 2 commercialization model could be something like that of Cameo, which was released without restriction. Anyone could grow it and propagate it, but, eventually, growers formed a voluntary group to market the variety and establish quality standards.
Perhaps some packer or marketer will decide that WA 2 is a viable apple and run with it, Sand said, but releasing a variety without a name has not been tried before.
“Coming up with the right name is critical,” Sand said. “Honeycrisp is one of the best names ever invented for an apple. It captures everything. You can’t help think when you hear the name, ‘It’s got to be good.’”
Bob Mast, vice president of marketing at Columbia Marketing International in Wenatchee, Washington, thinks the first step with WSU’s new apple varieties should be to identify special characteristics that they have and then develop good names.
CMI markets Ambrosia, a trademarked apple from British Columbia, Canada. Ambrosia is a pleasant, catchy name that reflects the apple’s somewhat perfumed flavor, Mast said. Similarly, the name of SweeTango, the latest release from the University of Minnesota, reflects the sweet, tangy taste of that apple variety.
Mast thinks it important that a new variety have only one name so that a global marketing program can be developed. “There are already so many varieties out there to begin with, I think you’d really get a confused message if you start calling the same variety by different brand names,” he said.
Having a single name helps build the brand and the desire for that brand. It enables consumers to recognize the apple even when they see it in different locations.
A single brand name is also necessary in order to have a dedicated PLU number, Mast pointed out. Scan data are gathered from retailers around the country, and having a single number for a variety will help show how it is being picked up by consumers.
“The more sales you can show in the database, the better,” he said. “If you start using retailer-assigned PLU numbers, it can get really messy in a hurry.”
Riggan, at Chelan Fresh, also believes it’s critical that the variety be named to avoid confusion in the marketplace.
“It could come out and have six different names and still be the same apple,” he said. “Ideally, WSU would just name it—have a naming contest, maybe on campus. That’s what they ought to do. What if Honeycrisp had come out under six different names? It would be a mess.”
Mast emphasized that as well as having a name and a PLU number, any new variety must provide a good eating experience and have something special about it that appeals to consumers so they’ll go back and buy more.
“You can sell it the first time—we can always do that—but if the variety isn’t received well by the public, it’s going to be tough to sell the second and third time, no matter what it looks like,” he said. “It has to be something special, because shelf space is limited, and there are more and more items fighting for that shelf space. There are going to some varieties that fall by the wayside. The varieties that resonate more with the consumer and the consumers enjoy the most will be the ones to survive.”