Chelan Fresh Marketing promotes the proprietary Orondo Ruby cherry. Growers expect more proprietary varieties to emerge. ( Chelan Fresh )

WENATCHEE, Wash. — More cherry marketers may consider branded proprietary cherry varieties in coming years, but the formula won’t be the same as it is for apples.

Already, Stemilt Growers offers the Skylar Rae cherry and Chelan-based Chelan Fresh promotes the Orondo Ruby. More exclusive varieties are coming, many believe.

What will drive variety innovation is flavor and crunch, said Mike Preacher, director of marketing and customer relations for Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima.

“(The question is) if you can make it proprietary,” he said. “Everything we are working with retailers on is to add days of life to cherries.”

Some growers are moving away from the bing variety and looking for bigger fruit size, said Bill Knight, domestic sales manager for Northern Fruit Co.

“A good bing is tough to beat, but they don’t seem programmed to grow large like the new (varieties),” Knight said.

Skeena acreage is expanding and early robin cherries — a variety similar to rainier — also are being planted, he said.

“Most of us are trying to push the season out a bit further if we can,” he said.

CMI Orchards is evaluating potential proprietary varieties that may help the company increase early season cherry tonnage, said Bob Mast, president of CMI Orchards.

“I think the challenge with cherry (varieties) many times is they are not distinctive enough to the consumer for them to be able to identify them,” said Lynnell Brandt, president of Proprietary Variety Management, Yakima.

“Also the window of maturity that they are on the shelf as compared with apples or pears is relatively short.”

However, Brandt said several major retailers are interested in being able to market a premium cherry, whether that premium is expressed in the package itself or other attributes.

“That speaks to the need for a branded approach,” Brandt said, noting there are efforts being made with cherry breeders in the U.S. and internationally to identify those types of products that could have the qualities necessary to distinguish the fruit from the class of generic dark sweet cherries.

Fruit breeding programs in the U.S., Canada, Europe and South Africa are developing cherries that may be tested in the Pacific Northwest, Brandt said.

Branded programs for fruit varieties offer the advantage of creating an identity that is different from other marketers, he said.

“You need to have some identity and that should always be associated with a brand,” he said. “You can point promotional efforts toward a brand. Otherwise it becomes difficult to distinguish that to the consumer in any other way.”

With the branded variety approach becoming more the norm in apples and increasingly so for pears, Brandt predicted marketers will roll out new proprietary varieties in the next few years.

“I dare say you will see a lot more efforts toward branded material, with focused brand promises and focused promotion efforts around that as opposed to generic promotion.”

For cherries, Brandt said many of the varieties in the pipeline are focused on quality, texture, taste, consistency and size.

Breeders are working to create varieties that will increase per capita cherry consumption. Varieties are being pursued that fill a different slot, whether that is harvest maturity, yield or taste, he said.

“Whatever you constitute as being your brand promise, then it is the ability to fulfill that and replicate that in a way that is meaningful from fruit to fruit,” Brandt said.

Given the volume requirements of large chains, successful varieties will also need sufficient volume to create awareness.

“In order to be somewhat of a game changer, you have to make critical mass a part of the puzzle,” he said.

Proprietary varieties are harder to manage in the cherry world because the cherry season is so much shorter than apples, said Randy Abhold, vice president of sales and marketing for Rainier Fruit Co., Selah.

“Between the overlaps of the cherries, it would be difficult to manage one variety versus the rest at the speed which they are produced and sold,” Abhold said.

Regionality in growing districts also is a question, said Andy Tudor, vice president of marketing and business development for Rainier Fruit.

“If you have a proprietary variety in Pasco, then how are you going to make sure you have it up in Selah and up in the north district?” Tudor said.

“I think we are seeing (proprietary varieties) in apples to the point that it is probably inevitable that we start seeing it in other fruits and vegetables,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, Yakima.

“If you have a particular product that consumers want and (reach) out for, and you can control the volume, you have a chance of having a long-term success.”

Top universities, including researchers in Canada, are becoming more protective of their varieties and demanding higher fees, he said.