Making it big with the world’s first mini apple
Rockit Global’s journey to success is an object lesson in taking an innovative product to the world, replete with learnings and road bumps due to cultural differences and perceptions of value. For CEO Mark O’Donnell, sometimes it’s not enough to have an innovative product; you also have to be innovative in bringing it to market.
Rockit’s innovative product is the world’s first tasty, nutritious, fully ripe miniature apple. And despite the expectation that an apple that delivers 65 percent more potassium, 21 percent more vitamin C and more energy than a full-sized apple in a convenient snackable size would be an instant success, it wasn’t.
“It was rejected as not being where consumers were heading. They wanted big apples. And in Japan and Asia – important export markets for our fruit — often the biggest fruit is seen as having the highest value,” recalls O’Donnell.
Rockit founder Phil Allison wasn’t deterred and came up with the idea that these smaller apples could be put in a tube, like tennis balls, for convenience and promoted as a healthy snack — which made its major competition manufactured foods, like bars.
But while this leap in a new direction contributed to acceptance of Rockit’s apples by a new market sector, it also raised other stumbling blocks. One was around using plastic tubes for packaging as the world shifted towards minimising both plastic and packaging. The other was at the packing sheds, where the idea was to have a fully automated process including using robotic packers.
The robots couldn’t be an off-the-shelf solution because Rockit’s apples are completely different from everyone else’s. They are the only apples that have to fit in a tube of a certain size. The tolerances required for the robots were also different, with the consequences for getting it wrong being damaged fruit or, in the extreme, a forced pivot into becoming a cider or juice business.
“It’s not like making a widget where they’re all exactly the same. You must get those tolerances right so you get the right amount of apples into tubes. Earlier on, we were scraping apples, we were bruising apples, and some of it you couldn’t see until we got the fruit to market.”
Everybody falls in love with the attitude of this little apple that’s taking on the world one small bite at a time. We don’t want to be the biggest; we just want to be the world’s most loved apple brand."
Rockit engaged with Callaghan Innovation for help with both packaging, and packing robots, and O’Donnell is very complimentary about the process. “We had Callaghan Innovation’s help in funding the initial prototyping of the robots and encouraging us to work with local partners to develop them and connecting us with some that they were already working with themselves.” The packaging was worked on iteratively and collaboratively in a process O’Donnell cites as “fantastic”.
O’Donnell also mentions a side to the company’s relationship with Callaghan Innovation that isn’t often seen: “A lot of it was facilitation and process. When you’re a small organisation trying to be a big company, you don’t necessarily have all the disciplines. They asked the right questions, helping us form the early business cases. It was that process and discipline a startup rarely has, and it’s how many waste a lot of money.”
Callaghan Innovation Student Grants have also enabled Rockit to take on university students over summer. O’Donnell says the students have been involved in the successful implementation of Rockit’s packhouse automation. “The students not only deliver high-quality work, they bring enthusiasm and energy into the organisation that aligns with our attitude and values.”
Rockit’s success as a premium product in the global healthy snack space also owes a lot to the innovative approach the company has taken to marketing it. A lot of work that has gone into making Rockit the little apple with a big personality has resonated with consumers worldwide. Despite the premium price, 84 percent of the company’s Chinese customers, for instance, are repeat buyers on a monthly or fortnightly basis. And astute partnerships with properties like Minions, Pacman and Pokémon mean that even when others are able to make small apples, Rockit’s brand will keep it dominant.
At a glance
- Founded in 2002
- Founded by Phil Allison, CEO is Mark O’Donnell
- Based in Hawke’s Bay
- Exporters of the world’s first miniature apple, with 65 percent more potassium and 21 percent more vitamin C than commodity apples
- Most business is global, with 50 percent of it in China
- Automated packhouse built around bespoke robots
- Visit website
Callaghan Innovation impact
- Support for research and prototyping of bespoke robot packing arms
- Networking support – introduction to robotics companies
- Support for research into alternative packaging for product
- Innovation commercialisation support to develop processes and business cases