Imagine biting into a beautiful dark red apple. It looks so appetizing, resplendent in color, and free from bruises and imperfections. But upon biting down, you find the skin crumbly and coarse and the inside somehow mushy and flavorless. Congratulations – you’ve just eaten a Red Delicious apple!

Guess what? Red Delicious apples are actually awful. And this is not just my opinion, but rather the subject of a shocking amount of op-eds:

  • MyRecipes: The Red Delicious Isn’t Very Delicious. Why Is It So Popular?
  • New England Food: Red Delicious Apples Weren’t Always Horrible
  • The Atlantic: The Awful Reign of the Red Delicious

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If you look at Tiermaker, you can see that four human beings on this planet have gone out of their way to make tier list memes about the quality of apples. Cumulatively, Red Delicious was put into the F-tier.

To quote the top commenter on a Reddit thread on the subject of Red Delicious apples: “the comment section on the article is surprisingly heated for an article about apples.”

So what gives?

For over fifty years, Red Delicious apples were, by far, the most popular apples in the United States. It took the mighty Gala apple to finally unseat it as the most popular apple in the United States in 2018.

So naturally, you may wonder – how on earth did an apple purportedly so mediocre become and remain so popular for decades on end?

The answer is a surprisingly straightforward example of farmers desperately trying to please consumers, sacrificing tastes for looks. But the details of how this happened tell us a lot about consumer behavior, the grocery industry, and how marketing works. So let’s get into it.

How Red Delicious apples won over orchard owners in the early 1900s

With very few exceptions, bad things don’t get popular. Not truly bad things, anyway. Mediocre things with a lot of money behind them, maybe. So-so options when nothing else on the market will suffice, maybe.

But the truly bad seldom sell well. You might be surprised to learn that the Red Delicious is no exception.

According to the US Apple Association – which I naturally only learned about the existence of when ranting about apples on a marketing blog – the Red Delicious has been around since the 1870s. Indeed, it was discovered in Peru, Iowa in 1872 and first marketed to growers in 1908. The old Stark Nurseries corporation – which still exists today – took what was initially called the “Hawkeye” apple and renamed it a couple of times, finally settling on the name we know today.

The original Red Delicious was something more akin to a Golden Delicious, being described as having red-and-golden striped skin. It was said to be a wonderful-tasting apple at the time, but unfortunately, there’s no way for us in the modern era to confirm that fact. Unfortunately, the flavor and texture of the Red Delicious would change over time in response to the quirky vicissitudes of market demand.

Stark Nurseries bankrolled the growth of Red Delicious because they loved the taste and couldn’t get enough. After seeding the industry and waiting a few years for their investments to blossom, they eventually saw the fruits of their labor. Both growers and consumers loved the apples and wanted more.

The signature redness of the apple was the result of a freakish mutation

Then, in 1923, one tree in a nursery started cranking out red apples instead of red-and-golden striped ones. They looked beautiful and customers wanted to taste them.

Paul Stark, one of Clarence’s sons, travelled up from Missouri and laid down $6,000 for the limb. News of the deal spread, and soon The Gettysburg Times reported that more than 500 horticulturists from 30 states had gathered at the orchard to discuss the “freak bud” that produced “the marvel apple of the age.” Their meeting marked the beginning of an era of fruit improvement, as growers began to seek out and cultivate similar mutations.

The Awful Reign of the Red Delicious, The Atlantic

A couple more decades passed, and the freakish change to the Red Delicious apples had caught on. It’s not hard to see why – Red Delicious apples look beautiful. Their color is rich and full and it’s just so incredibly tempting to grab a bag of them off the shelf, especially given how common they are.

The look, combined with the good taste, made the Red Delicious the most popular apple in the United States by the 1940s.

But this wouldn’t last forever.

Red Delicious apples paid a terrible price for their beauty

There are a lot of reasons why bright red apples sell well. The most obvious is that they really shine on the shelves and that makes you just want to buy them and eat them all. Growers liked that you could pick them early and they would still look nice and red and grocers liked that the shelf life would be long and the dark skin would hide bruises.

And this is where history goes a bit fuzzy. In the 1940s, the Red Delicious most likely tasted great. According to MyRecipes, “it truly was delicious until the 1950s, when its success intersected with mass production. Taste was no longer top priority, giving way to efficiency and uniformity. Growers who grafted (cloned) Red Delicious apples sought out darker apples, yielding the unmistakable Red Delicious hue.”

Try to pinpoint exactly when things went wrong, though, and you’re out of luck. Suffice it to say that the genes associated with bright red skin and sellability were not the same genes associated with taste. In fact, the very same qualities that gave Red Delicious colorful, thick skins also made them bitter and coarse on the outside, and reminiscent of plain oatmeal on the inside. Yet people were making their purchasing decisions based on looks, making grocers do the same, and forcing growers to meet demand.

By the 1980s, the Red Delicious made up 75 percent of the crop produced in Washington. By the time selective breeding had taken its toll, according to Burford, a few big nurseries controlled the market, planting decisions were made from the remove of boardrooms, and consumers didn’t have many varieties to choose from. The Red Delicious became “the largest compost-maker in the country,” he said, as shoppers routinely bought the apples and threw them away.

The Awful Reign of the Red Delicious, The Atlantic

Red Delicious apples were suffering a serious reputational crisis by the time the 1990s came around, and yet the growers were stuck with all these Red Delicious apples that wouldn’t sell. It would have crushed the apple industry in Washington state. They only saving grace was that the Clinton administration bailed it out in 2000.

Imagine being stuck growing apples that taste so bad that the most powerful man in the world has to save you. Not a great situation for farmers just trying to make a living!

How America weaned itself off of Red Delicious apples

With bailout money in hand, orchards were able to continue doing what they already were – hedging their financial futures by growing Gala, Fuji, and Honeycrisp apples. But it wasn’t until 2018 that the Red Delicious was finally dethroned by the Gala apple, which had then become the most popular apple in the United States.

Getting to that point required the entire apple industry to reinvent itself. It had to find new cultivars that the general public would want, replace many of the fruit-bearing Red Delicious trees, and work out new deals with grocery stories.

These days, if you walk into a grocery store, you will be greeted by an assortment of inexpensive apples. Pink Lady. Granny Smith. Ambrosia. Gala. Fuji. Honeycrisp. You have lots of options!

Every product – no matter how ubiquitous it may seem – has to please some key group of people, or it will die

Red Delicious apples serve as a cautionary tale about the consequences of choosing short-term marketing objectives over long-term ones. What happened to the Red Delicious over time was an accident, but a preventable one.

There aren’t many hard-and-fast rules in marketing. In fact, I can only think of two:

  1. Make something worthwhile.
  2. Tell people you’ve made something worthwhile.

All the rest is flexible. But you can see it all hinges on the word “worthwhile.”

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Every target market is different, as are the things they will want. Some people will pay extra for that perfect sweetness of a Pink Lady. Others love the sour bite of a Granny Smith. Still, others would prefer to buy oranges.

Every product that wants to succeed has to fit some market need. It has to have product-market fit. It has to have a niche.

Of course, the rules of marketing are applied much more stringently at the beginning. Once you have a big enough brand, you can retain customers even if you slip up.

With apples, it’s actually pretty simple. The only rule is that any given variety of apple has to taste good to some group of people. It can be a crowd-pleaser like Gala or polarizing like the Granny Smith. But it has to at least please someone.

No one really liked the Red Delicious. They just kept buying it because they recognized it and because it was there. Without fixing the taste of the Red Delicious, any marketing strategy employed by Big Apple would be rotten to the core.

Growers and grocers overcommitted to the Red Delicious and suffered as a result

The other key strategic mistake here is that growers and groceries put all their eggs in one basket. Or apples in one bushel, if you prefer.

For small businesses, the playbook is simple: find a good niche and work really hard to be great within it. For larger companies, it’s a different story. Large companies need to be operating in multiple different niches at once.

Products have lifecycles. Nothing stays popular forever. Not even milk. Consumer tastes change, sometimes unpredictably. Changing up a business to suit changing tastes can take a long time. It’s better to have multiple products to keep a business stable for generations than to overspecialize in one thing and make a massive amount of money, only to collapse later.

If orchards, growers, and grocers weren’t going to taste-test the apples, they should at least have had multiple varieties growing at once without any one apple taking up too much of their portfolio.

Of course, that’s the textbook answer. Have some empathy for the people in this situation. Who should have made the first move? Who should have said, “forget quarterly profits, I’m planning for 10, 20 years in the future?” Any company that bucked the trend would have a tough time.

In the long run, customer experience prevails

One of the most interesting places to study human psychology is the supermarket.

People struggle to make multiple decisions in a row, and end up making all sorts of weird decisions as a result. Tired from thinking through everything, they default to sloppy heuristics. That looks like:

  • Saying “I’ll just get the one that says it’s a health food” instead of checking the true nutrition label.
  • Saving money throughout the whole store only to buy $20 in gum and chocolate bars at the end.
  • Grabbing the reddest, prettiest-looking, most flawless and bruise-free apples instead of trying to remember which kind tastes best.

Consumer behavior is weird. In the short run, people make all kinds of decisions that don’t seem rational.

But ultimately, customer experience prevails. People remember terrible experiences and they talk about them to their friends. Emotional connections are made in their brains, and these sloppy heuristics change because new emotional pathways are formed.

In practice, the shopper who has reluctantly eaten Red Delicious apples for years realizes one day that they actually don’t like them. Maybe they tried a better apple somewhere else.

Something clicks. They say “wait a minute” next time they’re in the store. “Don’t these actually taste terrible?” Then one consumer changes their mind. More consumers change their minds. They create a dogpile on Reddit to commiserate over their shared hatred of Red Delicious apples.

By the time that happens, it’s really hard to fix the problem. The brand is just too toxic.

Final Thoughts

If you’re running a business and you’re reading this article, here’s what I would recommend.

Always be testing your own product. Make sure it truly is good. It doesn’t have to be right for the whole world – in fact, it probably shouldn’t be – but it needs to be near-perfect for someone.

Once your business gets some traction, make sure you’re offering more than one product or service. That way if uncontrollable factors threaten the success of one, you’ve still got the others.

Lastly, stay in touch with your customers. Make sure they truly are enjoying what you make. Otherwise you might find yourself digging up a lot of trees and losing a lot of money.

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