The launch of a new apple

The new apple variety displayed on a mobile phone screen
The new apple variety displayed on a mobile phone screen

Nature cannot be hurried like a marketing and sales team. You can’t set a launch date, commandeer the media and have eager buyers waiting like water-starved travelers. No, nature will work to its imperious beat, and never let you in on all the secrets it holds. In billions of years of evolution, there’s more knowledge stored away unseen and unknown than what all of humanity stores in data centers. You may think you hold the most advanced technological marvel in your palm but nature will make those breakthroughs look like gurgling babies arguing with Einstein.

Cosmic Crisp, the apple being launched, does not look dramatically different to the casual observer, but it is the result of 2 decades of work. Development of this particular variety began in 1997. In keeping with the most desired characteristics, it had to be crisp and juicy but not soft. To scale truly, a new apple variety has to whet the appetites of palates right across the spectrum and carve a slice of a billion-dollar market. Survive the rigors of transportation. And stay fresh in warehouses where optimum temperatures are maintained. There was a time when new varieties were released and had to make it on their own or perish, but that’s no longer the case.

There’s a tempestuous relationship between various parts of the supply chain – from growers to pickers to the transportation and warehousing, and finally the hundreds of thousands of shops where the apples will be sold. It has to satisfy all these constituencies. They all need to make a profit to stay in the business. Anyone talking of the complex manufacturing requirements of the iPhone has not met the raucous deliberations of a farming collective.

Unique branding challenges

A variety of fruits on display -   Photo by Josefin on Unsplash
A variety of fruits on display – Photo by Josefin on Unsplash

If the advertising and communication world thinks that branding is complex, they have to understand that smart lines and nifty packaging are relics of the Stone Age in a market like this. This variety will be sold and given primacy in the numerous fruit aisles in supermarket chains. Branding in the conventional sense, apart from the box that it comes packed in, may be deployed only in the launch phase.

Shoppers who pick it up the first time around and enjoy the apple could possibly search for it the next time they make a purchase. If it isn’t available the year-round, it will simply drop off the shopping lists. This is is a problem way beyond what conventional advertising addresses.

For example, some customers are glued to the notion that yellow apples are unripe, compared to red apples. Or are not aware that some green pears are never going to turn yellow when they ripen. That only happens to bananas. Do you see where this is going? There are no media solutions, no consumer research you can corral this into and come up with solutions that work everywhere – and for everyone

An apple to apple comparison

An iPhone placed next to an apple - the fruit
Comparing the phone and the fruit

Apple needs to sell millions of iPhones and iPads to continue earning lavish profits. Since these devices are a daily fixture in customers’ lives, they get loads of media attention and coverage. Adulation accompanies every little new feature. Or criticism. And version launches are accorded the kind of coverage that royals would envy.

In such a situation, what chance does a real apple command? It’s another fruit on the table, a tiny sliver of happiness in a day, the kind of satisfaction and pleasure we indulge in without a second thought. And since the margins on real apples are significantly lower than its corporate counterpart, there are only a few well-researched pieces written around it.

Fruits are commodities, not objects of interest. Even when the story of growing, tasting and testing the next generation of apples can fascinate, it gets relegated to a couple of lines on a PR release.

Which is sad, because there are real stories all along the two decades it took to develop the fruit. Here’s an excerpt from an article that flows eloquently in California Sunday: To Barritt, the growing methods were inefficient and the marketing plans short-sighted. He began suggesting that growers intensify their orchard systems, tearing out the big, old trees and replacing them with many smaller trees grafted onto the roots of dwarf varieties, a system that would be easier to pick and prune and more productive per acre but would require expensive trellising. This change also helped speed the consolidation of the industry, as small-scale growers without deep pockets struggled to compete. Soon, the old orchards were transformed: Instead of a few hundred branching trees, a single acre held as many as 1,800 thin, elaborately pruned sticks and no longer looked very much like an orchard at all.

Launching in the fall

Apples in a supermarket  Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Apples in a supermarket Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

In grocery stores around the US, Cosmic Crisp will make its debut later in the fall. It is, the article goes on to say, ‘the largest launch of a single-produce item in American history’. Will it succeed? Only time will tell. There are no certainties. And while it will command only a fraction of the excitement that the other Apple, iPhone gets routinely, there’s a lot riding on its success.

From a branding perspective, customers who eat it may never know it by its trademarked name. Some of the more discerning ones will register that it is a variety they haven’t seen before. Even as a runaway success, it will co-exist with the other apple varieties and be given an additional push during the launch. But in most homes, it won’t be referred to as anything more than ‘an apple’ Like the most successful variety before it, Red Delicious, it will be a legend only in the minds of the people closely involved in the entire supply chain. 

There’s a massive system of trademarks, permissions, and standards governing agricultural produce. Most of it will not be of even passing interest to customers browsing fruit aisles. They will only discuss the fulsome texture of avocados or the sharp tang of rambutan and dragon fruit which are frightfully expensive fruits.

The story of those journeys to shelves will ripple across businesses that play a part. As customers discover new fruits and their tastes evolve, existing players will fight to hang on. Think about it, the next time you bite absently into an apple while thumbing social media posts on your iPhone.

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