In one of fall’s loveliest capitals, upstate New York, we all have a childhood orchard. You know, where you (or your dare-devil dad) climb up on those triangle shaped ladders to pick the best ones, you fill your bags until they’re almost too heavy to carry, and you snack on one of your fresh pickins as you wander through.
Well, my childhood orchard just drove its brand off a cliff.
If it’s the cliffs of Dover or just a large rock is yet to be seen. But it’s not looking good.
And it’s all because they neglected their brand.
Brand can be a complex term. A brand is the essence, a promise, and a reputation. Most importantly, your brand is how others perceive you – not what you say it is.
This orchard, I can only assume, would love for their brand to include terms like wholesome, family and traditional. But for me and many others, it’s less plaid and more expensive Walmart.
Neglecting your brand hurts
Last weekend, the unofficial start to fall here in Upstate, proved to be a disaster for the orchard’s reputation. Customers took to social media by the hundreds and explained how they had to pay just to walk onto the orchard, pay an admission fee to use the playground, and commit to a minimum volume of apples picked for even their littlest family members. Families of 4 said they were paying well over $100 for a day of apple picking.
Social media got ugly, with “greedy” being the most common complaint. “Corporate” also showed up and so did “commercial.” It wasn’t all about money, either. People resented having their trunks and wheel wells inspected for stolen produce and being told their kid couldn’t eat an apple until they were finished picking.
Instead of feeling wholesome and traditional, people felt fleeced and resentful.
The comments from long-timers are the most painful. One woman shared: “Won’t be back. End of an era for me. Very little value for what I paid. 20 plus years. Goodbye.”
This sentiment was repeated over and over again. Loyal customers who had looked forward to bringing the next generation to their orchard are going elsewhere. Ouch.
And these comments did not ignore the effects of inflation and staff shortages that have led to rising prices across every industry. Many gave due respect to family businesses struggling to stay afloat, while often pointing out that families are also struggling. They made it clear their grievances were less about cost and more about feeling taken advantage of.
Yikes, what happened?
So what caused the business to change in the first place? I have a theory:
This orchard saw the guys one town up finding success in their off-season by turning their Christmas tree farm into a fall playland with jumping pillows, ropes courses, giant slides, and even carnival games.
Then came the all-too-familiar business move of: “They look successful. Let’s do what they’re doing.”
So they built a cute train track, upgraded their playground, and pruned their sunflower field to be a lovely place for picture-taking. They then charged amusement park prices for a day on the farm.
They never consulted their brand, though, or they never identified their brand to begin with. And that’s the major problem. Pricing decisions can’t be made in a vacuum. Even theft-prevention measures have to be considered through the lens of customer experience and brand.
Consider this very real problem facing the orchard: rising costs from people eating apples without purchasing them. Which statement on a sign would better fit a wholesome brand:
“All apples must be purchased before eaten.”
“Enjoy your apple while picking! Please just keep it to one per person until you’ve made your purchase.”
It’s glaring, isn’t it?
I’m not saying a family-run orchard should hire a chief marketing officer to oversee their brand. But asking themselves and their customers about their experiences, how they want the business to feel, and identifying the personality they’re going for can align the team and prevent costly mistakes like this from happening.
The orchard has already released a statement that they’ve heard the criticism and are making changes to minimize the number of activities that require tickets, but even that announcement was met with significant backlash. Because you can make the place a bit more affordable again, but you can’t erase the bitter taste among old faithfuls who feel like their family favorite spot turned corporate.