The impact from the global COVID-19 pandemic has resonated across Washington apple export markets, disrupting shipping, distribution and sales. Retailers and consumers have been forced to develop new shopping habits, accelerating changes that were occurring in some markets and kick-starting those changes in others. One of the biggest shifts has been the trend toward e-commerce in the grocery and produce sector.
As the pandemic progressed, and countries have experienced varying degrees of lockdowns, sales in traditional brick-and-mortar stores have declined. Grocery shopping, which used to be a leisurely weekend outing with the family, morphed into a quick in-and-out to get supplies, with consumers spending as little time as possible in the physical store. Almost overnight, the ability to implement traditional consumer-facing activities to push sales of Washington apples in retail stores disappeared. In-store activities such as sampling and merchandising are either prohibited or only allowed with strict protocols that limit the activity’s reach.
Internet use surged during the pandemic, as consumers in many countries were confined to homes during lockdowns. Digital media use skyrocketed, and with smartphones becoming increasingly affordable and accessible, mobile devices have become the main means to stay connected and shop online. Social media has become the de facto information-gathering tool, and consumers increasingly rely on advice and recommendations from either friends or “key opinion leaders”— social media personalities who focus on segments of daily living (typically health/fitness, food/cooking, lifestyle, family, etc.). Even if they still do most of their perishable purchases in person, the internet has become a primary source of information on storing, preparing and consuming food items.
At the same time, fresh fruits and vegetables have taken on starring roles as consumers are increasingly aware of the link between eating healthy foods and building strong immune systems.
Washington apples fit well into these new shopping habits. They store relatively well, so a kilo of apples can last a week, and they have a wealth of health benefits. With restaurants shut during lockdowns, consumers have been forced to cook or eat at home. Suddenly, people who previously ate most meals outside the home were looking for easy and healthy ways to feed themselves, and digital sites specializing in recipe preparation saw large upswings in visitors.
The Washington Apple Commission, WAC, has responded to the new challenges in communicating with consumers by ramping up our digital marketing presence. Although WAC had a social media presence in several markets, most of the promotional budget was previously funneled into face-to-face consumer activities. With that option greatly curtailed or eliminated, and the injection of additional funding from an Agricultural Trade Promotion grant from the Trump administration, WAC pivoted to expand the Washington apple digital presence across all markets.
In Vietnam, during the Washington Apple Week promotion in early December 2020, 13 different social media influencers posted about Washington apple topics, ranging from quick and simple recipe preparations to health and exercise tips, with over 2.5 million Vietnamese consumers reached/impacted by the posts. This exceeded the initial goal of 600,000, by 1.9 million, showing the power of choosing the right influencer for the message. WAC continued the campaign throughout the spring, with social media posts and articles by influencers, live-action recipe videos, online media articles and e-commerce advertising with retail partners and home delivery services.
In India, WAC partnered with the online supermarket Big Basket and sponsored an ad using a well-known internet personality. The retailer saw their sales double during the promotion, with over 8.5 million impressions and 41,000 banner “clicks” (people linking to the shopping site to purchase apples). Also in India, WAC is partnering with two well-known celebrities — chef Sanjeev Kapoor and actress Disha Patani — to serve as digital brand ambassadors through a variety of media, social and paid digital advertising. An early post in December 2020 achieved a massive reach of 6 million people, with 747,000 reacting favorably (likes), 2,074 comments, 3,098 shares and 5,615 saves. The “engagement rate” (level of interest) was 14 percent, whereas an average is in the low single digits, so it’s clear these posts helped WAC work toward the goal of increasing Washington apple visibility and awareness in the market.
In Mexico, WAC is beginning the third season of the “Life is Easier with Apples” campaign. This innovative campaign seeks to strengthen the Washington apple presence in the lives of Mexican consumers by associating Washington apples with typical Mexican proverbs (“dichos”) in a humorous and memorable way. WAC partnered with retailers through their e-commerce sites to promote sales using the Life is Easier theme, as well as running the campaign on traditional and social media sites. Over 145 million consumer impressions (the number of times it was viewed) and 5.3 million reactions (likes, shares, comments, etc.) showed that the clever campaign struck a chord, particularly with consumers ages 18–35.
WAC is gearing up for another season under the cloud of COVID-19. We have all discovered how difficult it is to make plans, only to have to suddenly change in the face of new virus restrictions. However, the Washington Apple Commission is committed to supporting our growers by implementing digital marketing tools, as well as traditional marketing, to reach international consumers with the message of “Live Healthy, Love Life.” That is our silver lining. •
—by Rebecca Lyons
Rebecca Lyons is the international marketing director for the Washington Apple Commission. She can be reached at Rebecca.firstname.lastname@example.org.