The Red Menace of the Apple World

October 28, 2014

For more than 50 years, the Red Delicious has dominated the American apple market. But while no one can dispute the fruit’s famous color, many consumers have begun to take exception to the “Delicious” portion of its name. Even though the U.S. still produces 54 million bushels of Red Delicious annually, production of the fruit has dropped 40 percent since 2000 as demand for other varieties has increased.

The Red Delicious began its ascent way back in the 1870s when a farmer discovered an unwanted seedling growing in his orchard of Yellow Bellflower trees. He cut the seedling down only to discover that it grew back again the next year. Respecting the tree’s tenacity, the farmer allowed it to grow. A decade later the tree bore big, ripe apples with red-and-gold striped skin. He sold the rights for the handsome fruit to a nursery in Missouri who branded the apple as the Hawkeye and spent $750,000 promoting it across the country, leading to a massive expansion of growers.

In 1923, a New Jersey orchardist discovered that a branch of one of his Hawkeye trees began producing apples with a rich red color. The “freak bud” caused an eruption of interest among growers, who labeled it “the marvel apple of the age.” By the 1940s the rebranded Red Delicious became the top selling apple in the nation. The deep crimson hue of the fruit was not only pleasing to customers, it also made the apple’s skin thicker, which increased shelf life. However, as the years went by growers increasingly placed their focus on keeping the apple colorful rather than tasty. Selective breeding caused the skin of the Red Delicious to grow too tough while its flesh turned mushy and sugary. By the 1990s consumer tastes started shifting to varieties like the Gala and Fuji apple, both of which had been originally developed for foreign markets. Coupled with increased competition from Chinese growers, U.S. orchardists lost nearly $800 million in surplus crop from 1997 to 2000 as Red Delicious demand dropped. Though it’s continuing to fall from grace domestically, China remains a major buyer of the apple since red symbolizes good fortune in the country.



  1. What marketing principle did Red Delicious growers fail to keep?
  1. Why may color be an important factor in marketing in the Chinese market?


Source: Sarah Yager, “The Awful Reign of the Red Delicious,” The Atlantic, September 10, 2014. Photo by Farmanac.