Serving up a good story

Departments - Straight Talk | Honest insights from an IGC expert

Give your brand a heaping dose of personality by going beyond your store’s history and letting customers see behind the scenes.

September 3, 2021

Inject some authenticity into your brand’s story by using podcasts, videos, classes or other marketing tools to get customers excited to shop with you.

When you run an independent garden center, it’s easy to slip into the thinking that all you are selling are plants, products and services. Sure, customers getting their hands on the stuff they need for their landscape or gardening hobby is, of course, a primary purpose of your existence. But when it comes down to your marketing and customer communications, what you are really selling is your story. What story are you telling right now with your marketing ... and do you think your customers really want to be a part of that story?

It’s the story of your brand we’re talking about here: a story that is made up of lots of other stories about people — you and the people who work for you. This is especially true if you are a family-owned business with a long history to prop you up. But even as a new business with no family ties, you’ll need to figure out how to write or tell good stories if you want to make meaningful customer connections. Good stories need good personalities.

Lead characters

Stories can be historical in nature, such as the specifics of your family’s business history — how and when they started the business and all the family members along the way who have kept it thriving. These are perfectly acceptable stories, but I’ll caution you that history for history’s sake is rarely interesting or compelling, and such stories don’t often have personality. It’s great that you and your family have been in business for 50+ years, but what does that really tell me about who you are, the personality of your people and operation, and what my experience will be like as a customer? Not much. Last I checked, I don’t see many customers getting emotionally invested in a brand just because it’s family-owned or has been in operation for a bazillion years. There’s certainly value to your business’ history, and it can make a great skeleton of a story. But you’re going to need to flesh out that skeleton with the personalities of the people and relationships that make up your business so customers can get to know your character.

I’m currently taking a short story creative writing course through UCLA Extension, where I’m also a horticulture instructor. We spend considerable time talking about character development. How do you enable your reader to get a sense of who your character is — their personality — and the context for their behavior when you only have a small amount of space and time? Just as you want to get to know the characters in your favorite stories and novels, your customer wants to get to know you. At least the “you” you create to communicate with them as a business. Several important writing tools that garden center marketing needs to include are tone, point of view and relationships.

Watch your tone

Tone is an important communication and character development tool in the written story. When we speak to one another in person, it’s easy to communicate most of the information we want another person to know or feel by how we speak — not just the words we use. In writing and marketing, it can be trickier to convey the right tone. Tone must be created by the story’s narrator with a clear point of view and specific word choices.

Too often the tone used in our industry is one of disinterest or disconnect. We just assume our customers know what they need to know to be a great customer for us. Even worse, we often slip into tones of condescension and impatience when they show that they don’t know what we expect them to know. We may not have malicious intentions, but we’re so focused on our plants, products and procedures that we can easily forget we need to build human relationships to be successful.

Your marketing tone should be authentic and resonate with your ideal target customers. If “fun” is your tone, then tell a fun story. If “sophistication” is your game, then your tone will of course be more polished. No matter your chosen tone, displaying actual human emotions such as empathy and compassion — or simply revealing those feelings and characteristics more openly in marketing and customer communications — can create a sturdy foundation for a wonderful brand story.

Who’s telling the story?

If you’re trying to bring a more authentic personality to your garden center, your choice of narrator is a powerful place to start. Who is currently doing your talking for you? Sometimes all you need to do to infuse your story with the right personality is to let someone else tell it from their point of view.

By that, I mean involving your employees to do some of the talking for you. Classes, videos, blogs and podcast interviews given from the employee point of view can imbue your brand story with a sense of personality and personal touch that resonates with your customers.

I love watching garden center videos that feature staff’s day-to-day activities and their favorite plants and products. By getting to know the staff, I get a much better sense of who the business “is” and how they operate (and whether I want to shop with them). Your plant selection may be stellar, but if your staff is anti-social or uninterested in my customer experience, I won’t bother shopping with you.

Now, if your staff videos show me a group of people who are free to be their authentic selves, share an enthusiastic passion for plants and express a genuine interest in customer success, then I’m in because that’s a fun story.

Can you relate?

Using relationships as context is a valuable tool for building characters in writing, as well as your brand. How do your business and your employees relate to one another and your customers? Showing your customers a bit of personality-rich, behind-the-scenes action, and sharing how employees work with one another is a powerful way to authentically communicate. The story of how your staff enjoys working for you and with one another will tell them a lot about what it’s like to spend money with you.

Who doesn’t want to be part of an exceptional story? Telling a great brand story for your garden center will always come down to people and relationships. Choosing the right narrator and tone will put the polish on your story’s personality … and payoff.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.