Carson College MBA Students
Picked to Help Market Cosmic Crisp™ Apple

Though it takes four years to bear fruit, the WSU-bred Cosmic Crisp™ apple tree is already blooming with success. Sixteen years in the making, the juicy red apple is a cross between the best tasting Enterprise and Honeycrisp you may have ever eaten. The Cosmic Crisp’s™ remarkable texture, flavor, size, and long storage life set it apart as a premium product poised to flood Washington state’s fruit industry with approximately 10 million boxes in the next six to seven years.

No matter how appealing, a new cultivar is only worth as much as consumers are willing to pay for it, says Jill McCluskey, professor of sustainability and associate director of the WSU School of Economic Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS). She and CAHNRS Associate Dean James Moyer met with Carson College of Business Center for Behavioral Business Research Director Andrew Perkins and David Sprott, senior associate dean, to discuss collaborating on the brand marketing and commercialization of the Cosmic Crisp™.

Perkins suggested MBA students in his marketing strategy class could compete to develop marketing plan proposals, with the best being presented to a Cosmic Crisp™ industry marketing advisory board comprised of 12 Washington state fruit industry suppliers.

“WSU has always been a key partner of the Washington state tree fruit industry. WSU’s agricultural science achievements have been broadly recognized, including the development of the Cosmic Crisp™ apple,” says Cosmic Crisp™ board member Robert Kershaw, Domex Superfresh Growers chief executive officer. “It makes sense to extend this partnership by collaborating with the Carson College of Business on the Cosmic Crisp™ go-to-market plan.”

Because Washington state is the finest place in the world to grow apples and is home to WSU’s world-class agricultural science and business schools, there is no reason the fruit industry shouldn’t leverage this to become the Silicon Valley of global apple innovation and marketing, says Kershaw. “The Carson College of Business students have the insight, intelligence, and drive to help us achieve this.”

Student teams propose core marketing strategies

The Carson College MBA students spent all of the fall semester of 2016 generating ideas and conducting market research. They traveled to Yakima, touring orchards and processing facilities to observe in real time how different varieties of apples are processed, packaged, and shipped. They also conducted industry analysis to gain a better understanding of the fruit grower market segment.

Students divided into teams to create group proposals. The three main goals were to define the Cosmic Crisp™ brand, develop a strategy for evoking consumers’ emotional connection to the brand, and create integrated marketing strategies to launch the brand.

The top proposal, developed by Kyla Moen, Zach Disalvo, Jiaqu Ni, Renee Valle, Jordan Beck, and Josh DeBoer, branded the Cosmic Crisp™ as the highest quality apple in the United States. The team analyzed recent, successful introductions of private label fruit and projected the Cosmic Crisp™ could potentially contribute $750 million to the $2.2 billion produced by Washington state apple sales. They identified key insights that resonated with consumers’ emotions, such as fresh fruit’s positive health impacts and valuing locally sourced products. They also developed a target consumer: young active males for whom the large Cosmic Crisp™ apple is a practical and filling snack option. Integrated marketing strategies included using student ambassadors at each WSU campus to spread the word, in-store taste testing booths, packaging with maps showing where the Cosmic Crisp™ is harvested, and a social media advertising campaign.

The top team will present their proposal to the Cosmic Crisp™ advisory board before the end of spring semester. Kershaw says the board is looking forward to the team’s findings. “These talented students bring fresh ideas and perspectives to our industry,” he says. “They have an in-depth understanding of our most important consumer target group, the millennials.”

Collaboration bears long-lasting fruit

“The cross-collaborative aspect of this project was incredible and empowering. I gained a lot of self-confidence from this experience and know it will impact lives and industry,” says MBA student Logan Eres (’16 Ag & Food Bus. Econ). Eres grew up in Lynnwood and has family and friends who are orchardists and farmers. After completing the MBA program in 2017, she plans to pursue a career in marketing analytics. “I never thought of myself as a marketer before I took this course,” she says. “It has given me a whole new set of skills and opened my eyes to new opportunities.”

Perkins, McCluskey, and Kershaw agree this project is a first step in what will be a series of opportunities that invite further collaboration, ultimately helping students gain critical research skills and experience that will benefit industry and Washington state’s economy.

The Cosmic Crisp™ marketing project fits into two of WSU’s Grand Challenges, a suite of research initiatives aimed at pressing societal concerns. Perkins and McCluskey say the work is particularly relevant to the challenge of sustaining health. Apples are a healthy food; thus, marketing an apple with superior eating quality might improve people’s eating habits, they say. Second, it fits into the sustainable resource challenge, as part of producing an improved quality cultivar is to successfully market it.