Food & Drink

The Cosmic Crisp Is Trying To Become America's Most Popular Apple

A crispy new apple variety is coming soon to supermarkets and farmers markets. And millions of dollars are being spent to persuade you to buy it.

This December, there’s going to be a major apple launch. No, not an Apple launch ― this has nothing to do with a smartphone. Buzz is building about an actual apple.

Boxes of Cosmic Crisps will soon start arriving in stores across the country, 20 years after the project to invent it began at Washington State University. The result of crossing a Honeycrisp with an Enterprise, the Cosmic Crisp is coming in hot, with some big claims behind it. It is “the biggest consumer apple launch in history,” due to the sheer amount of produce hitting shelves, as well as the $10.5 million marketing budget.

Cosmic Crisp’s trademarked tagline is “The apple of big dreams,” and the first ad campaign is called “Imagine the Possibilities.” A former NASA astronaut is among the influencers enlisted to promote it. A campaign video declares it “the apple the world has been waiting for” and shows a Cosmic Crisp spinning like a globe, light bouncing off its deep-red peel. It’s that peel, marked with pinprick white dots, that inspired the “cosmic” name. To some, it looks like stars in the sky.

For a humble apple, it’s an enormous amount of hype. But then again, this is the era of the designer apple. SweeTango, Envy, Rave and Zestar are some of the new varieties to hit shelves in recent years as tastes move away from traditional varieties, such as Red Delicious. But what’s the big deal?

How The Cosmic Crisp Is Different

Kate Evans, the director of the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, who has led the project since 2008 (when the apple was known as the WA 38) describes the Cosmic Crisp as being in a league of its own, impossible to fault and appealing to pretty much everyone. It’s essentially the Meryl Streep of apples.

“It’s an ultra-crisp apple, it’s relatively firm, it has a good balance of sweet and tart and it’s very juicy,” Evans told HuffPost, adding that the Cosmic Crisp is not genetically modified. It was created via the old-fashioned method of cross-pollination.

Sustainability is another perk of the Cosmic Crisp, for both growers and consumers.

“Cosmic Crisp is slow to brown when cut and stays fresh for a year in storage,” Evans explained, “so we should see less food wastage because fewer apples will be discarded because they haven’t kept to the level of quality consumers want.”

“New [fruit] innovations don’t come along very often. People think of an apple as something natural and already existing in the world, not a man-made creation.”

- Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management

Yet, it’s not the apple’s qualities alone that have resulted in such hype before its debut. Kathryn Grandy, director of marketing and operations at Proprietary Variety Management, the marketing agency handling the launch, told HuffPost the investment Washington growers have made in Cosmic Crisp is unprecedented.

“There are 12 million trees planted in the state of Washington, so this year we’ll have 450,000 boxes of Cosmic Crisp apples,” Grandy said. “Next year, it’ll be over 2 million, the following over 5 million. Normally, when a new apple is introduced to the market, there might be 2,000 boxes, and it might take 10 years to hit a million boxes.”

Grandy said the goal is for Cosmic Crisp to become “the most popular apple in America.” Looking at the numbers, it’s not as outrageous as it sounds. Forecast figures suggest the 2026 harvest will produce 21.5 million boxes of Cosmic Crisp (by comparison, it took 20 years for the Honeycrisp to hit even 3.7 million boxes). That’s a lot of apples. Which explains the marketing blitz: If the Cosmic Crisp is to succeed, growers need millions of Americans to buy it and try it.

A Risky Investment

Some might say the Cosmic Crisp campaign is grandiose, but from Grandy’s perspective, the hype is justified.

“Most pieces of fruit don’t have a story like this,” Grandy said, noting that the entire Washington State apple industry came together to make Cosmic Crisp happen.

“It’s been an inspiring journey, and we’re just trying to pass on that feeling of inspiration to people.”

Still, there’s something absurd about the idea that we need to be persuaded to buy an apple ― let alone by a former astronaut. (Leroy Chiao, a former International Space Station commander, is among the brand “ambassadors.”)

It’s … an apple. But that’s exactly the challenge for Cosmic Crisp, according to Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

“Initially, they’re going to have to overcome some skepticism,” Calkins told HuffPost. “In some categories, we see new brands of things all the time, like beers or smartphones. Fruit is different, because new innovations don’t come along very often. People think of an apple as something natural and already existing in the world, not a man-made creation.”

Consumers will have questions about an apple with a new name. We’re more suspicious about the source of our food than ever before. Where has it come from? Is it GMO? Addressing such concerns, Calkins said, will be central to whether Americans embrace the Cosmic Crisp.

“If they can create positive associations around this brand, it could be extremely successful,” Calkins said. “But if there are negative perceptions, or even just questions not easily answered, it will be a huge challenge.

“Consumers make associations about a brand or product in their minds, and once established, they are hard to break.”

Other designer apples, like the SweeTango, Rave, Envy and Zestar, have so far not become household names, like Honeycrisp or Pink Lady, in the way it’s hoped the Cosmic Crisp will. But none of those other new varieties had 12 million trees planted for the first proper harvest or a $10.5 million marketing budget to blast the public consciousness.

Or an astronaut.

Speaking to Evans, you get the impression that the tagline, the promotional videos, the Instagram influencers are just shiny ornaments with which to attract the attention of consumers in a noisy and crowded world, rather than a persuasion campaign.

“Our expectation is that after trying Cosmic Crisp the first time, a large proportion of people will discover the quality of the fruit and will want to buy it again,” Evans said.

In other words, the proof will be in the pudding. Or, in this case, the apple pie.

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