Make a plan

Features - Marketing

The foundation of any marketing plan is a precise definition of your target customers, their needs and value drivers.

November 24, 2015

It’s no surprise that IGCs want plants that are tested to be compatible for the target climate. Are you communicating enough with your retail customers?
Photo courtesy of Young’s Plant Farm

During the past decade, marketing has become an increasingly important function in the horticultural industry. For many, marketing is viewed narrowly as advertising, brochure development, or logo design. Some view sales and marketing as the same thing.

The most elegant definition of marketing is “meeting needs profitably.” Marketing management is the science of choosing target markets and getting, keeping, and growing customers through creating, delivering, and communicating superior customer value.

In most consumer-driven organizations, marketing managers are responsible for making decisions related to products, pricing, distribution (place) and promotion, commonly referred to as the four Ps of marketing. It is the combination of these activities that deliver value. In your organization, who is responsible for ensuring that this is done in the most optimal fashion?

Two critical components are often overlooked during marketing conversations: needs and customer value. Do you really know what the needs are of your customers beyond just the plants you grow? How are you aligned with their needs? How do your offerings and activities create or destroy value for your customers?

If you can’t answer these questions with great confidence, then you are doing a poor job of marketing. No amount of money spent on trade shows, brochures, catalogs and websites will overcome misalignment with customer needs and value destruction.

Another important component of marketing is precise targeting. Who exactly is your customer? If you are a grower, your customer may be one or more of the following: the independent garden center, the box stores, landscaper, et al. All of these selling channels have different needs. A valid question to ask yourself: Can you profitably meet the needs of all of these groups?

I’d argue that in some situations, your target customer is an individual buyer, for example. Whether or not you get the order probably depends on if you are meeting an individual’s needs. What does a buyer really want from you? Make him or her look good? Reduce risk? If that’s the case, then you’d better be aligned with those needs.

Some in this industry think their customer is the homeowner and the retailer is just an intermediary. That’s certainly a valid strategy but requires a laser focus on the consumers’ value drivers — which are far different than the retailer.

The principal outcome of this EAGL (Executive Academy for Growth & Leadership) marketing module is a marketing plan. Many of our EAGL delegates sell to local independent garden centers (IGCs). To calibrate the group, we organized a two-hour focus group with six leading garden retail establishments from across the United States.

The IGC speaks

Based on our focus group, we identified five “higher order” needs of the IGC.

1. Be a partner

Retailers want vendors who act as business partners. Develop a personal relationship based on understanding the retailer’s needs, desires and obstacles.

  • Know my business and clientele (demographics and consumer shopping habits)
  • Act as a market expert by informing me on what’s trending, and help me make the connection to other product categories outside of plants
  • Have efficient communication and logistics:
    • Quality and inventory of plants and trees (you can deliver what you sold me)
    • Clear communication of lead times
    • Which variety and combination of plants consumers desire
    • No surprises — tell me if/when substitutions will be needed
2. Sell quality stuff

Quality products are essential and every person at a growing operation needs to understand that they play a central role in the success of a garden center.

  • Send me healthy plants
  • Prefer items that can be easily up-shifted (i.e. repotting into larger pot)
  • Plants that are tested to be compatible for the target climate
  • Help me find the right balance of “new”
  • Too much variety leads to consumer confusion
  • But, color variety can lead to easy sales
3. Help me help the consumer

Retailers believe increasing consumer confidence will drive traffic to garden centers. The level of consumer knowledge is low and every trip should remind the consumer that planting is easy for anyone to do.

“A garden center is a minefield of embarrassing moments for the consumer.” - Focus Group Retailer

How can growers contribute to consumer confidence?

  • Provide combination suggestions to consumer so that they aren’t left to their own devices.
  • Make planting easy by including easy-to-read labeling with individual plant requirements (e.g. light, watering, etc.) “We still have a lot of work to do with labeling.”
  • Developing combinations or assistance with combination shopping (e.g. mailbox planting or hummingbird gardens)
4. Help me sell the product

Packaging and signage are still a big concern for retailers. Retailers desire packaging that is standardized, simple to display, and not plastered with “advertisements.” Generally, retailers wanted support in building their brand.

  • Vendors should pre-price their plants and send SKU’s to retailers ahead of time
  • Vendors need to develop some type of tray packaging standardization (i.e. vendors adhere to an agreed-upon mix of packaging sizes/shapes)
  • Pot branding should be plain, with no obtrusive vendor advertisement or labeling
  • Plant tags should be:
    • The correct size for the pot (i.e. no small tags in large containers and vice versa)
    • Helpful, but not overloaded with information (i.e. sometimes tags “un-sell” products)
    • Show basic plant requirements and a picture (i.e. no need for long-winded verbiage)
IGCs are looking for a partner. They want growers to explain which variety and combination of plants that consumers desire.
5. Understand that my business has changed

The IGC retailer is a different business than ten years ago. Retailers have diversified into landscaping services and some have become event and promotion-focused to drive customer traffic. A true partner takes the time to learn our business and identifies ways to support this.

  • How can you support new services such as landscaping, garden coaching or at-home consulting)?
  • How can you integrate further into our unique market offerings or monthly promotions?

Admittedly, this focus group caused some heartburn. Heard more than once from our EAGL delegates:

  • “We try to be business partners but we can only get so far.”
  • “We’ve spent a lot of money on signage and no one uses it.”
  • “They just want the plants. I’m not convinced they really value the other stuff.”

Another important lesson in marketing is segmentation. Not every retailer is going to value what you do, or they may only value some of the things you do. That’s OK and you cannot change that.

The key to success is to segment your customer base and “work with the willing.” I guarantee that you can find a handful of retailers in your market area who want to grow their business or increase profitability and also see value in the items listed above. My advice to you: Focus your investments and resources, and do the math. Imagine how your bottom line would improve if you could grow sales or increase profitability with just a handful of customers. They are out there and waiting.