Consumer reports

Features - Marketing

Turns out, what you don’t know can hurt you.

March 8, 2016

Ember Waves Western Arborvitae

Some of the biggest brands in horticulture are pouring resources into uncovering the secrets of their consumers.

If you want to know more about your consumer, your first stop should be the U.S. Census. This free tool is the starting point for much of the consumer research that the top horticultural brands are using to make business decisions.

Little Ragu Sweet Bay

For instance, 14 percent of the U.S. population is more than 65 years old. They’re not doing as much gardening as they used to, and spending less on plants as a result. Twenty-three percent of the U.S. population is under 18. They can’t even vote yet, and they’re certainly not concerned with buying plant material. Representatives for three major brands spoke at last month’s Farwest Show about what they’re doing to reach the remaining 63 percent.

Understand your brand

The HGTV HOME Plant Collection’s brand is simple to decipher. “People who love HGTV are the target for our products,” says Randy Hunter, managing director and CEO of the HGTV HOME Plant Collection. HGTV is the No. 1 cable network with upscale women in the 25-54 age group. In fact, Hunter is also working to reach Millennials with the HGTV HOME Plant Collection brand. Hunter claims a 10 percent increase in that particular audience so far in 2015.

HGTV HOME Plant Collection benefits from associations with major influencers, like Dr. Allan Armitage and Nancy Fire. Fire is creative director and founder of Design Works International. She specializes in trend presentations, print/color direction, color palettes, and graphics. Hunter says her input is vital in the creation of combination mixes.

Two years ago, HGTV HOME Plant Collection began a private plant trialing program. Armitage was tapped as a member of the brand’s plant selection committee. He oversees the genetics evaluation processes for both annuals and perennials under consideration for the Plant Collection, taking into account performance evaluations from growers and consumer gardeners alike.

Plants that are selected for the HGTV HOME collection are tested for functionality: they must fit the retail space, and they must be easy for the grower and the consumer to have success. Hunter says HGTV HOME plant selections are not always the newest plants.

“There are 400-500 new plants introduced each year,” he says. “I don’t know how anyone keeps up with them.”

One key to their picks is finding plants that are not oversold in the market.

And what truly sets HGTV apart from other brands is the synergy with its big brother, the cable TV network. There are plenty of opportunities to take advantage of such a massive platform, and Hunter tries to utilize as many as possible. Incorporating design trends from HGTV experts is a major part of the company’s strategy.

“Understand your consumer and develop products they want,” Hunter says. “Then test and trial products for performance and function.”

From there, the marketing work truly kicks in. Engage with consumers where they consume media. Whether that is through trade magazines or consumer magazines, TV or digital ads, you need to let them know you exist – your brand depends on it.

Figuring out where, how and why consumers buy

Jonathan Pedersen, director of business development with Monrovia Nursery Co., recently took an in-depth look at those consumers. The California-based grower works with breeders and plant hunters around the world to acquire, trial and promote new plants. Monrovia wanted to learn more about what drives its business, so it began studying the demographics of consumers more closely, looking for clues to the purchasing puzzle and opportunities to reach beyond its typical consumer base.

Monrovia decided to cut back on its usual advertising efforts in 2014 and allocated that money in an unusual way: a consumer research survey dedicated to figuring out where, how and why consumers buy plants. The company picked six cities and gave 50 people in each city $300 to spend on plants. Then, they tracked the participants’ shopping activities, recording their observations in a stunning 6,000 hours of video.

When parsing the results of the 2014 study, Monrovia found several common threads across ethnic, age and geographic groups. The company used those common threads to separate the participants into these four categories.

Practical: These consumers comprise the largest group, representing about 45.9 percent of the surveyed shoppers, and they’re generally outcome-oriented and want plants that are easy to maintain.

Dedicated: This group represents about 25.8 percent of shoppers and is basically the lifeblood of the nursery industry. They are knowledge seekers who search for the new and unique. However, dedicated gardeners are more likely to buy smaller, less expensive plants and then cultivate them.

Zen: Representing about 15.8 percent of shoppers, this group tends to be younger and less price-conscious. They are more impulsive buyers and see gardening as a way to reconnect with the earth. They’re also more concerned about pollinators and neonicotinoid pesticides.

Apprehensive: This segment represents the 12.5 percent of consumers who are afraid of failure and don’t enjoy gardening but feel social pressure to have at least some ornamental plants.

“At Monrovia, we’ve been firmly in the Dedicated Gardener group for the last 20 years,” Pedersen says. “We want to reach out to the other groups.”

HGTV HOME Plant Collection provides trend profiles, common gardening issues and suggested solutions for prototypical HGTV consumers.

Well, except the Apprehensive gardeners, who Pedersen says are “not our target.”

The Zen Gardening group, in particular, has been a target due to its spending behavior and age. Dedicated Gardeners are mostly older than 45, whereas most categorized in the Zen Gardener group are younger than 40.

Monrovia is going after these other groups by looking at other distribution channels, new usage occasions, ways to stimulate demand, and by creating new claims and benefits. Pedersen says its mostly a matter of coming up with different ways to say the same thing. “One message does not fit all,” he says.

After poring through the weeks of video, the No. 1 takeaway is that plants were seen as too complicated. Shoppers were overwhelmed not only by garden center workers whose explanations, though well-meaning, went straight over the heads of the shoppers who were not looking for a horticulture lesson.

Monrovia is acting on this information by changing its tags and labels to rely more heavily on icons that describe plant features like watering and sun needs, instead of lengthy written descriptions.

The times, they are a-changin’

Marshall Dirks, director of marketing for Proven Winners, has been there since the beginning of the brand. One of his duties was naming all of the plants. He was PW’s second employee, so there was no one else to do it.

He browsed makeup counters and paint aisles, pulled all the tabs for red, blue and purple colors, writing down color names. That was how Proven Winners started naming its plants. Fortunately, Dirks says, the brand hired someone pretty quick to take that job.

The HGTV HOME Plant Collection display at Cultivate’15 highlights the brand’s connection with other HGTV products.

And there’s a good reason they picked a woman for the job.

Dirks says 83 percent of PW products are purchased by women. If women are the predominant buyer, it only makes sense that women are the predominant person with a voice in making that decision.

“For 15 years we’ve been asking them, ‘What’s the No.1 color?’ Every year I do this, and every year men always say red. I could walk into many greenhouses and retailers in June and see if a man was the predominant flower buyer or a female, because there’s a lot of red geraniums left over. And red petunias.”

Changing demographics have changed the way the company makes decisions. For example, Proven Winners’ business doubled since the brand began selling directly through its website. Assigning an appropriate value to its consumers’ voices is one way the brand aims to increase customer satisfaction.

Matt is managing editor of sister publication Nursery Management.