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IFG committed to dynamic performance in grape category

The recent launch of new grape varietal logos by International Fruit Genetics has helped the Bakersfield, CA-based breeder improve clarity in a category where differing names for the same fruit often persist. “It’s a prescriptive approach,” explained Andy Higgins, CEO of IFG. “Let’s clean it up to help all involved understand what we're offering, and consumers know what they’re buying.” The program is intended to provide value for all involved, with IFG providing graphic files and logo use guidelines, and placing it in the hands of growers and marketers to bring them forward.

“If you go back 40, 60, 80 years, typically the table grape world has always been represented as a commodity, as far as what consumers can choose from,” said Higgins. “Certainly driven by Thompson Seedless, which was introduced in 1894. We didn’t see a lot of innovation until the 1970s when seedless breeding came to the forefront.” According to Higgins, from that point on much of the effort was focused on creating improvements to Thompson and the seedless category at large. That early work, continuing into the last two decades was focused largely on what could be considered grower channel attributes such as yield, storability, and berry weight.

“Our motivation for the breeding we’re doing these days is to say, that’s all great; however, the vitis gene pool is enormous,” said Higgins. “A lot of our work is on hybrids, crosses between vinifera and a lot of other species. Can we take these attributes and create more flavor? Our early creations, like Cotton Candy were entirely that — how can we enhance the eating experience — that’s been a big part of what we’ve been focused on.”

Since that time, plenty of IFG’s competitors have introduced their own varieties and the company has focused on how to differentiate to the consumer. “We’re now working on Cotton Candy’s grandchildren and it's not just about flavor any longer, but the entire eating experience,” outlined Higgins. “One example is that some consumer surveys say texture trumps a lot of the other attributes.”

With consumer studies showing that shoppers purchase apples, as well as potatoes, by variety name, there is a clear trend that people are forming opinions and confirming that what they are experiencing within a given category really is different. “Julep for example has an adult taste, it really is strong,” said Higgins. “It has compounds in it that add to the taste making it a little bit spicy/minty. So we’re finding that we need to do a good job presenting it to the consumer, there is a story to be told there and hence we’re trying to name everything so that there is a recognisable brand associated with it.”

According to Higgins, there is feeling in the retail world that the grape category is getting cluttered. “We aren't the only breeder, so it isn't all about IFG but we are taking this on to try and sort it all out.” The company is by no means slowing down, but understands that there is a limit to the number of varieties that should be in production. “We know that if we have 200 varieties that’s too many so we’re trying to organize around that,” he said. “I do think our program is going to evolve and our genetics are only going to get better. What you’ll see from IFG is that we will be much more vigilant about variety lifecycle management, trying to put our very best foot forward at every chance.”

It’s an eight to  10 year process to develop a new grape variety. Once a cross is cultivated it takes three years until that new vine fruits. A variety isn’t out on test until after two to three years of fruiting. From there, test agreements typically run three years for evaluation. “Our model is based on royalties and oftentimes people may wonder where that money goes,” said Higgins. “It’s a lot of time and money to make these programs possible. We also know that they’re not all going to be home runs, we’re going to do our best to move on and provide an upgrade path to our growers.

“We want to make sure that we’re providing options for retailers to manage the category,” continued Higgins. “Good, better, best — we should always have varieties that can be placed in these three tiers. And that allows the grocer and marketer to optimize their earnings. We just see so much potential in making sure the grape category isn’t commoditized. We’ll fight tooth and nail to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Higgins also said IFG will be making an effort to help the marketer and retailer categorize their varieties into less than a handful of major profiles. “We’re going to start grouping our varieties to help the marketer and retailer build their programs,” he said. “How do you present and strategize that? If you have a top tier variety — say Cotton Candy — should it be on the shelf for 52 weeks or should it be 18 weeks, allowing it to come and go and drive excitement on its return? Going forward we’re going to be much more engaged, hopefully we’re doing our job by creating the inspiration.”

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