CPG Playbook   //   February 12, 2024

Inside Yes! Apples’ quest to build a brand around fruit

Most people don’t shop for produce based on their brand name – but one apple company is trying to build a brand around its fruit.

Yes! Apples is a network of 50-plus New York state-based family farms that grow and sell over 20 apple varieties. The company’s roots date back to 1919, and currently operates under the parent company  New York Apple Sales. Today Yes! Apples farms grow several apple varieties, including EverCrisp, Fuji, Pink Lady and Ambrosia, among others. The company sells at over a dozen grocery chains that include Sprouts, Wegmans, and Walmart. But what the company is really trying to do is build a household name to go along with its apples.

“But how do you brand produce? Tenley Fitzgerald, Yes! Apples’ vp of marketing, told Modern Retail. “It’s not easy, is the short of it.” About five years ago Fitzgerald – who has worked at Blue Apron and FreshDirect – was brought on by Yes! Apples’ parent company to help market the apples. At the time, there was not yet a consumer-facing brand in place. The good news is, there aren’t too many people who don’t like apples, “so it’s sort of an easy sell,” Fitzgerald said. But at the same time, she added, “there is so much competitiveness for shared stomachs – whether it’s with berries, citrus or non-fruit snacks.” 

What’s in an apple name?

There are a few recognizable brand names in fruit, like banana brands Dole, Driscoll’s and Chiquita, as well as Cuties clementines. “Fruit brands do exist but they’re thought of as legacy brands that have been around for decades,” Fitzgerald said.

It has been somewhat of an uphill battle in getting Yes! Apples placed prominently in stores, where customers could recognize the name. “A lot of retail buyers who are not used to buying based on brand, and mostly go by variety,” Fitzgerald said, and apples in particular are purchased on a variety basis, such as Gala and McIntosh. To the retailer at first glimpse, it’s bewildering to add branding on top of these varieties.

That’s not to say there aren’t apple types with their own IP attached. SweeTango, for example, is the trademarked name for Minneiska, a cultivated apple that’s a cross between the Honeycrisp and the Zestar apple. The trademarked name and its marketing use belong to the University of Minnesota, which developed the SweeTango through its plant development program at its Horticultural Research Center.

One category in which there’s been more brand-building momentum in recent years is greens and lettuce. there are countless green mixes by brands found in the refrigerated section. Companies like Gotham Greens and Bowery Farms have managed to become more recognizable CPG brands. Other agricultural success stories include Vital Farms, which was founded in 2007 and went public in 2020; The company expects net revenue to hit $465 million for the 2023 fiscal year.

Yes! Apples’ demand is consistent thanks to its established retail partners. Some of the biggest accounts that Yes! Apples’ farm network supplies are private labels, Fitzgerald said, “which is a killer for business but not that helpful for trying to build a consumer-facing brand.” 

As such, packaging is the most obvious way for produce to stand out in stores. Sometimes the company’s apples are sold in the brand’s own Yes! bags, making them easier to identify. But other times, they’re merchandised in bulk with the small PLU stickers found on most fruits. “That means I have one inch of space to show our brand,” Fitzpatrick said. 

Marketing a fruit

Interestingly, the DTC business has been the biggest opportunity for converting customers to Yes! Apples, which Fitzpatrick said is unusual for a grocery brand. The brand sells its most popular seasonal and out-of-season apples through its website, including subscriptions and mystery boxes. Brand collaborations are also sold through the DTC channel. “While online food and beverage distribution is typically thought of as non-viable, we have seen a big uptick in sales,” she said. “Over the holiday period we had our biggest sales period yet, with higher basket sizes than usual,” she added. Some of the holiday season spike was fueled by gifting media and influencers with apple boxes, which Fitzgerald said helped create visibility on social media.

For the direct-to-consumer channel, the company is positioning apple boxes as gifting is a big part of that. But overall, this is a different shopper than the majority of people who buy their apples in stores.

And so physical marketing is tricker. This is why leaning into digital marketing campaigns and working with influencers has been most successful in driving people to find Yes! in stores or at specialty CPG shops like Pop Up Grocer. 

Yes! Apple’s marketing mix consists of typical tactics like press, influencers, social media, in-store promos, and more recently in-person events. One way the apple company is going about it is through sponsoring running groups, which kicked off in New York City last fall in partnership with running club Endorphins.Fitzgerald said the idea for these activations is to be a part of pre and post-run nutrition, positioning apples as “the original healthy snack.”

In November Yes! Apples collaborated with beverage brand Avec to create a fuji apple and cardamom sparkling drink, released for the holiday season. The beverage was sold for a limited amount of time on both brands’ websites, and in stores where Avec is sold.

The company also partnered with Upstate New York-based apparel brand on a tote bag, launched in time for apple picking season. These collaborations are also available to purchase on the Yes! Apples site.

“The Avec partnership was largely for brand awareness,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re happy to supply the juice for a delicious product, but it also helped our name reach a new segment of people who like to buy flavors like apple.”

CPG branding consultant Nate Rosen said building a brand around a produce is challenging, but there are some examples showing it can be done. 

“I think the way the Sumo [Citrus] has been able to stand out is a good example,” he said. The seasonal citrus has the advantage of having a unique shape and flavor that helped it gain a following.

“But apples are harder because there are so many kinds competing for shoppers’ attention,” Rosen said. This is where doing brand partnerships and in-person tastings can come in handy. “I think with something like apples, it’s going to come down to storytelling to help highlight the company’s ethos – whether it’s being family-owned or being known for a specific variety,” Rosen said.

Fitzgerald said building an apple brand modeled after CPG startups will take time, and is a years-long strategy. “Our job is to get people excited about apples,” Fitzgerald said. “The trick is to get them to buy us when they see us on the shelf.”