How Pink Lady plans to build North America's 'most recognized fruit brand'

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How Pink Lady plans to build North America's 'most recognized fruit brand'

Pink Lady America general manager John Reeves says the company's vision is to build the most recognized fruit brand in North America, which he admits is a "pretty tall order". But for any brand to cross the threshold to have the marketing clout of the likes of Chiquita or Dole, a 12-month supply is a must. Reeves tells how the early Maslin variety could help bring the supply consistency Pink Lady needs, with plantations expected to increase in Washington State, Chile and New Zealand.

For the Southern Hemisphere apple growers struggling with returns in the face of problematic exchange rates, Reeves sums up the benefits of the Pink Lady brand in one simple phrase.

"The Pink Lady is high priced even when it’s on promotion," he says.

"How we try to fit the Pink Lady in the market right now is to make it all about pink, with the sweet tart taste, the pink colors, it's a category by itself right now.

"There is always potential for good returns, I think the problems we’ve had with the Southern Hemisphere in the past have been based on quality, and in Chile’s that’s gotten a lot better in the last couple of years."

On a recent visit to Chile, Reeves found it quite clear that the South American country would be boosting Pink Lady plantations, and the task for him was then to persuade growers to export under the brand rather than the variety name Cripps Pink.

Perhaps it is has something to do with negative connotations with the similarly named Los Angeles gang, or it could just be good marketing on behalf of Pink Lady America, but trading the apple as Cripps Pink is falling out of fashion in North America.

"Shippers prefer to sell it as Pink Lady; in the U.S. market it's virtually all Pink Lady now," says Reeves.

"I think the Pink Lady growth as a percentage of the U.S. market is going to continue - we've had shippers tell us it will become a major variety and it is sixth or seventh now in terms of total volume in the U.S."

Reeves adds the industry is very happy with New Zealand Pink Lady quality and consistent volumes, while the brand will probably increase its presence there in the coming years.

The future of the Maslin Pink and Honeycrisp competition

Reeves explains the potential for the Maslin apple variety is not just in terms of the fruit itself but for the 12-month viability of the Pink Lady brand.

"The Maslin Pink is interesting because it’s three to four weeks early. It’s a game changer, and it tends to produce more color in areas with less of a diurnal temperature shift.

"California growers used to plant Cripps pink but they took it all out because the apples wouldn’t color up, Michigan did the same and New York too, so effectively the only pinks grown in the United States are in Washington.

"The color there is not the issue but it’s the latest apple harvested. Having something early is very important, because we have had a couple of pretty big disasters with the U.S. Cripps crop because they froze when they were harvested in November."

In light of production setbacks in recent years, Reeves says being able to grow Pink Lady apples in October is no small opportunity.

"And it's a big deal in Chile because it will open up other markets for the Chileans. I don’t know that it’s going to have a huge impact on what happens with Chilean fruit in the U.S. but in other places I think it could have a big impact.

"What we hope happens is that Pink Lady will have a 12-month supply between what the U.S. can do with the variety through better storage, and the Southern Hemisphere fruit."

He highlights that Maslin will be grown in the U.S. during a strong period for "hot variety" Honeycrisp, but they will unlikely compete given their characteristics are so different.

"Honeycrisp doesn’t store very well so it’s basically the first two to four months of the shipping season and then they're gone, but the flip side is that when you look at apples there are all kind of textures and flavors.

"The Honeycrisp is big with a softer texture, very sweet and I think the variety will have more of an impact on the Fuji than the Pink Lady. I don’t think the Pink Lady brand is being impacted at all by Honeycrisp because it’s a totally different apple.

"There are a lot of nice things about both apples but because they’re so different I don’t think they’re going to compete; I think what they’re going to do is push other varieties out of the way."

He says a 12 month supply achievement would help the brand capture better shelf space, but this would unlikely be at the expense of other fruits.

"12 month supply means we may maintain apple shelf space that we wouldn’t have before where there was soft fruit. But I don’t know if they’ll kick soft fruit out, I just think they’re building more space to put the soft fruit in."

Shipper relationships - the "pull" marketing strategy

Reeves says there is often a misconception in supplying countries that U.S. growers don't pay much money in marketing fees, when the opposite is the case.

"The marketing companies charge U.S. growers a fee, not just for Pink Lady but all the apples. The U.S. growers are paying big time for market development in the United States, and the closer supplying countries like Chile and New Zealand can get with marketers in the United States with a positive relationship in a positive way, the better off they’re going to be with their returns.

"Instead of pushing fruit into a market, it needs to be pulled - you've got to do your homework so you have the right relationships, so Southern Hemisphere fruit is pulled into the American system.

"Don’t work against the American marketer because in the end you’re not going to have 12 months supply out of Chile or New Zealand, but if you have two or three months supply or four months supply, that can be a really important part of your program."

Pink Lady has undertaken a wide range of initiatives to boost the brand and consumption in the U.S., forming alliances with other groups such as the American Cancer Council and Sherwyn Williams. The latter has been an important promotion strategy called 'paint it pink'.

"People can go online or to their Sherwyn Williams store, get the paint, paint whatever they want, something outlandish and send in a picture, and they will be judged and will win cash prizes.

He says the company has also been involved in flash mob dances and enlisted Biggest Loser celebrity Ali Vincent as a Pink Lady spokesperson. It is hoped that other initiatives including pre-mix cocktail development and branded sliced apples could also boost the brand in the future.

"If you look at the big name brands like Frito-Lay, they try not to connect the brand with price sensitivity. We’ve tried to build a multi-level branding plan and part of this we have to execute on a more national basis and we try to do it in a way that doesn’t cost a lot of money.

"We work with companies that might not even be related to the food industry, for example it might be health, and we exchange logos, brands, and get each others' brands out there."

He says Valentine's Day has become the most important selling period; a success Pink Lady America hopes to replicate with Mother's Day in the coming years.

With a strong marketing campaign in full swing, Reeves is upbeat on Pink Lady's prospects, encouraging a range of different countries to get on board.

"I think the U.S. market can take a lot more apples."

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