Marketing the Cosmic Crisp: Will Consumers Bite?

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Wharton's Cait Lamberton and WSU's Kate Evans discuss the development and marketing of the new Cosmic Crisp apple variety.

For apple aficionados who share in the opinion that the Red Delicious can “rot in hell,” as one Vice.com columnist wrote in an expletive-laden diatribe on the mealy fruit, there’s a new variety that promises to tickle the taste buds. The Cosmic Crisp is an intriguing hybrid of the popular Honeycrisp and Enterprise varieties that should find its way into some grocery stores by fall.

A large, juicy apple with a firm texture, the Cosmic Crisp is the result of more than 20 years of research by Washington State University’s fruit-breeding program to produce better apples for both consumers and farmers. What’s remarkable about the new apple is that it can stay in storage up to a year without losing flavor or texture.

“We have done a lot of evaluation, and we are really excited to get it out there for consumers this year,” said Kate Evans, horticulture professor at WSU and lead scientist on the Cosmic Crisp, which was initially developed by WSU emeritus professor Bruce Barritt. “How nice is it to be able to have some confidence that the piece of fruit that you purchase in May is equally edible as the piece of fruit that you purchased in November.”

The science behind creating hybrid apples is well-established, but it takes time to get it right. Enough trees have to grow to maturity to bear fruit, and enough fruit has to be harvested for sampling, storage and other tests. And then there’s the name.

“You can imagine naming an apple — it is not an easy thing to do. I think actually it’s worse than naming your children because people are a lot more vocal when they don’t like it,” joked Evans, who spoke about the Cosmic Crisp during a segment of the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on Sirius XM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page).

The university used focus groups to taste-test the apple and asked participants what they would call it. One person said the lenticels, or white spots on the apple skin, reminded them of the cosmos. The “crisp” part of the name is a bit more obvious and draws on the consumer popularity of the Honeycrisp, Evans said.

Produce marketing firm Proprietary Variety Management (PVM) will oversee the Cosmic Crisp launch campaign with a $10 million-plus budget, calling it the “largest consumer launch in apple history,” according to The Shelby Report.

Novelty and Familiarity

Wharton marketing professor Cait Lamberton, who joined Evans for the radio segment, gives the researchers top marks in naming the fruit. The choice of words connects apple consumers from the old product to the new, and from the known to the unknown.

“In a category like produce, where we all have our familiar favorites and we know what we expect to see, it’s hard to jump out. You have two different conflicting forces to deal with in marketing,” she said. “What they have done is make a really nice metaphorical jump for people. They’ve made a connection that allows people to accept novelty in a place where they expect familiarity, so I think it is a brilliant name.”

The professors said people get attached to the kind of apples they like to eat, and some consumers will forsake all other varieties out of loyalty to the flavor they like best – be it Pink Lady, Fuji, Gala or even Granny Smith. That’s why it’s important not to underestimate the power of a name when marketing a new variety like Cosmic Crisp.

“It seems a bit bizarre, perhaps, to think of an apple as a piece of intellectual property, but it is.” –Kate Evans

“What is nice about apples is they play a different role in your life in different cases,” Lamberton said. “One is the lunchbox apple, one is the fruit and cheese apple, one is the pie apple. There is room for all of this variety and there is a reason for it. It is not a meaningless proliferation of variety, as we sometimes see in some categories.”

Evans hopes consumers will embrace the Cosmic Crisp because there’s a lot riding on its success. Millions of pounds of apples are thrown away each year along various points in the supply chain, and consumers have grown wary of varieties, like the Red Delicious, that look beautiful on the outside but may taste spongy and flavorless on the inside. The long storage life of the Cosmic Crisp means consumers won’t have to forgo flavor, growers won’t have to worry so much about sell dates, and less food will be wasted.

“With any industry, new products are really the lifeblood. They keep things moving on. They give growers opportunities to change out and to try perhaps new orchard systems, new management systems,” Evans said. “We want growers to be sustainable, and in order for them to be sustainable they’ve got to make money. A new variety, some new interest, hopefully getting more consumers to eat the apple — we want to just boost returns back to growers.”

The project funding came from apple growers through the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which is why the patented Cosmic Crisp will be sold first in its home state before being more widely distributed. Evans said it’s only fair for the state’s growers to get an initial return on their investment.

“In a category like produce, where we all have our familiar favorites and we know what we expect to see, it’s hard to jump out.”  –Cait Lamberton

“It seems a bit bizarre, perhaps, to think of an apple as a piece of intellectual property, but it is,” she said. “In order to protect the intellectual property, which means they have some say in the future of what happens to that apple around the world, we’ve had to license it into different international territories.”

The Cosmic Crisp has tested well in consumer trials, and Evans thinks it will be a hit just in time for fall. Lamberton agreed, saying she expects the consumer testing will be followed up by free in-store samples to entice buyers.

“You’ve got the apple pies [at Christmas], and then January comes and you’ve got all of these people who just made resolutions to eat fewer candy bars and more apples,” she said. “When it is a new kind of apple, what you get is this nice combination between, ‘Yeah, it’s healthy so I can feel good about it,’ but it’s also this new cool thing, so it feels special.”

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