Adrian Barlow is the long-time chief executive of English Apples & Pears (EAP) and has presided over huge expansion of an industry that for a number of years had shown signs of being incapable of meeting the demands of an increasingly competitive marketplace. Here, the influential Barlow talks to Tommy Leighton about the latest season, the multiple retailers and the growing importance of the English crop to apple fixtures around the country
The season started early this year – how did EAP and the industry respond?
Adrian Barlow: Our PR campaign this season kicked off earlier than for many years, partly because of the Scottish Referendum, which we felt could take away some of our exposure, but also because the crop was early.
We did the same sort of job as we have done in previous years, but because the season was significantly earlier than last year, it was so important to get the message out to consumers.
We received an enormous amount of publicity on radio and TV from the end of July and managed to maintain that momentum into the autumn when we officially launched the season in late September.
Sales through the autumn were 25% ahead of last season
What happened next was a departure from the norm though. The English apple industry launched its first consumer advertising campaign (with a committed spend of £250,000) in more than 20 years. How did that come about?
AB: After a number of discussions with the industry, it was decided to hold a secondary launch on January 12.
In addition to promoting our own crop, we wanted to address the fact that apple consumption had been falling per se. In 2011 total sales of fresh apples in the UK amounted to 527,000 tonnes compared with 482,000 tonnes in 2014, a decline of 9%. Production volumes have risen and we have an opportunity to increase our market share by replacing imports, but that opportunity diminishes if the market as a whole is getting smaller.
We decided that we had to act with a campaign that also looked to raise apple consumption overall, focusing first and foremost, of course, on the English crop, but also conveying messages that will impact favourably on the whole category.
We chose an advertising agency – Marketing Matters from Southampton – that had never been involved with fresh produce previously and set about revitalising the apple category for shoppers by injecting some fun into a campaign that ran ads for a month in nine women’s magazines, a series of online lifestyle websites and on Heart FM radio, as well as via a new website – www.loveenglishapples.co.uk – which is aimed particularly at families. To complement that work, we also took the back page of Dear Doctor, a magazine that is distributed through doctor and dentist surgeries, hospitals and other health-related locations, as well as through a couple of national newsagent chains.
We concentrated on two messages – one being Love English Apples and the other being that there is ‘an apple for everyone’ and concentrated on the availability of some of the newer English-grown varieties – Braeburn, Gala and the even newer varieties, such as Jazz, Reubens, Kanzi and Cameo, that are taking the season further into the spring.
What were the direct results of the campaign?
AB: The radio ads reached 1.25 million listeners and 27.7% of our core target audience – women with kids aged 25-44. They heard the ad on average four times each.
The nine women’s and lifestyle magazines were on the shelves between mid January and mid February and had a combined circulation of 1.8 million. Dr Chris Steele, the doctor on ITV’s This Morning who is also behind Dear Doctor, also featured us on the programme. This was approaching the health issues with a different perspective – not by preaching to consumers, but by highlighting the fun experience of eating apples.
The rotating digital ads generated 3 million impressions and Facebook advertising another 150,000 impressions. Our own website received 86,000 page views in the first month, as we entertained and engaged consumers with fun facts, news and competitions that changed regularly so people didn’t keep seeing the same message.
And how do you feel the season-long effort has impacted on sales?
AB: It’s always difficult to tell whether you can attribute additional sales to these activities, of course. However, we have been consistently way ahead of last year in terms of sales to the multiples. This despite the difficulties across the European market.
As I said earlier, sales through the autumn were 25% ahead of last season and as of now we are 16% ahead, having sold an extremely large proportion of the crop early. At this point, I’m expecting the end-of-season figure to be around 11% up.
Most importantly for the market, Kantar figures are showing that apple sales have picked up. In the 52 weeks to January 15, they were up 2.3% and that’s what we were hoping for.
Have the UK’s supermarket buyers been supportive of English growers this season?
AB: The supermarket buyers have so far been extremely supportive in general, particularly when you bear in mind that they have consistently paid significantly more for English apples than they could have paid for fruit sourced from the continent.
It has to be said that prices and returns to growers have still been way below where they need to be but they could have been a hell of a sight worse.
The message we have consistently given to retailers is that English apples are very important to their own position.
The fact is that the British consumer increasingly wants to buy English apples because 1) they believe they taste best 2) they are concerned about global warming and climate change 3) they want to support local economies, farms and ancillary services, and 4) for the really deep thinkers, they want to benefit the UK’s balance of payments.
A retailer’s business will either stand or fall on their ability to provide consumers with what they want and if a consumer switches stores because they do not have English apples, they will also buy a lot more products at one of your competitor’s stores too. We want to work with every retailer to ensure that they are able to satisfy their consumers with high-quality English apples throughout the season.
How has the apple industry in the UK responded to changing market requirements?
AB: In 2003, English apples represented 23% of the overall UK apple market, including fresh, processed and juice, but not the cider sector. Now, that has risen to 38%.
That change reflects not just the support of customers, but also the enormous change in the industry in the last 15 years. People weren’t growing the right varieties and there was a widespread arrogant belief that they were the most efficient in the world with the best product. There was a lack of awareness of the performance of industries elsewhere and the English industry hadn’t taken on new growing techniques, invested in new technology or machinery, or in innovative new varieties.
Now, the industry has a different portfolio of modern, high yielding, high quality varieties and we have also seen massive investment in modern packhouses, coldstores and grading equipment. This is a very different industry now and the people in it are different too. They are aware of the necessity to keep tabs on what happens elsewhere and to take advantage of the opportunities technology presents.
You also work extensively with the UK’s leading cooking apple variety Bramley. The last few years have been difficult – any improvement this time around?
AB: The improvement for Bramley apples has been pronounced. The last three years have been tough, with two seasons of not having the volume to meet demand followed by a season when demand was down – the market’s response to the previous two years.
This year though, we have seen a fantastic performance, with volume sales up 25% to 10,500 tonnes to date. We are not quite back to the levels of 2009 – which was the bicentennial year for Bramley, but we are ahead of the levels of 2010 and it’s definitely a year of recovery.
Bramley Apple Week at the beginning of February was very successful – we launched six new recipes with celebrity chef Valentine Warner and herb specialist Jekka McVicar, who between them showed how herbs can replace sugar in recipes and provide the sweetness. During the week, we generated 54 articles, with 24.5 million circulation.
We also engaged with some of the most influential food bloggers, including Maison Cupcake and The Crazy Kitchen and held a Twitter party with the hashtag #BramleyApples that got into third spot in the Twitter charts and gained 8.2 million impressions, 82% of which were replies or retweets which suggests a lot of engaging conversation.
The English season regularly runs through to mid-late May and starts up again before the end of July – could production and storage techniques eventually see availability run throughout the year?
AB: We do want to replace as many imported apples as we can, but we must never compromise on quality, or ask our apples to go for longer than they should. The industry is still lacking a really high quality eating apple with which to begin its season in late-July, early August and while Braeburn and some other varieties can go late, it would need an improvement in storage to go any later.
The important thing is that the suppliers to the fresh market have strong relationships with their retailers and once they have agreed to a programme, they don’t let their buyers down and keep them informed throughout the season.
We will be out of the market a little earlier this year due to the heavy sales early in the season, but I don’t think we would necessarily want to exit the market this early every year having sold our crop. Selling the whole crop is obviously the aim, but we have to be careful that we don’t promote excessively to achieve those sales.