It’s a common complaint: fewer people are interested in gardening nowadays. While research suggests that people have trouble connecting with plants, many media brands are working to make live goods more accessible to consumers.
The Southern Living Plant Collection (SLPC) debuted in spring 2008, and Sunset magazine and HGTV have followed with their own collections. Each new collection strives to seduce more people into the garden, but is it working?
Regional Plant Collections Increase Customer Confidence
For southerners, and those that read Southern Living magazine, gardening has always been a big part of the overall lifestyle. The Southern Living team knew that the magazine’s readers were interested in getting their fingernails dirty; the plant collection was a
natural next step.
“Southern Living is a very strong brand name and lifestyle magazine, and gardening is a big component of what they do that appeals to the Southern lifestyle,” says Kip McConnell, director of Plant Development Services, the company tapped to bring the collection to market. “You would get these phone calls when Southern Living would write an article on a specific plant. The phones would start ringing off the hook. In the magazine, they would tell people to look for it, but there was a disconnect in that the mass producers hadn’t started growing it yet.”
Once Southern Living connected with Plant Development Services, the two teams worked to create a product line that would thrive in the southern parts of the country. Available at retail for the past two to two and a half years, the collection can be found in independent garden centers, Home Depot and Lowe’s stores across the U.S.
The important thing when bringing the line to market, however, was to maintain the high level of trust that the Southern Living brand earned with consumers over the years. This mentality also applied when Sunset magazine and Plant Development Services announced the Sunset Western Garden Collection for gardeners in the western regions of the U.S. in January 2012.
“People want a recognizable name, and Southern Living and Sunset have such a personal connection with their readers. Mothers and grandmothers grew up having it in the house. It’s part of the tradition for so many people. They recognize the brand name and say, ‘That’s the lifestyle I want to have,’” McConnell says. “Another power they have is that they are regional. People have a sense of ownership, whereas something national doesn’t have that. Southern Living can be trusted. Even bigger than knowing the name of the brand is knowing that they will be successful with what they buy. When consumers are confused, they don’t buy. When they see that name though, they have confidence. It brings them to a point where they are comfortable with their purchase.”
In the next phase of the process, the two collections will focus on expanding the collections’ product lines and creating an oasis in the landscape.
“What we’re trying to do now is continue to focus on great plants and the entire look that the plants have in the garden. There will be more annuals and perennials, and we want to show them how to use several of the plants to create a successful garden experience in the landscape and in containers,” says McConnell. “We will do this with articles in the magazine and signage at retail. This will give them that step-by-step or one, two, three. It will say, ‘Here’s the look, and here is how you create it.’”
HGTV Connects Consumers To The Gardening Lifestyle
Well-known for its expertise in all things home-related, HGTV recognized that the gardening aspect of the brand lacked a presence within the marketplace. In order to remedy this, the brand began looking for opportunities to provide plant-based solutions to consumers in the same way it offered home-based solutions. The collection’s soft launch began Mother’s Day weekend at garden centers around the country. The full launch of annuals is set for 2013, with lines of perennials and shrubs to follow.
“HGTV is very interested in products that sit in the home category because the brand is all about the home and anything that sits in the home space. They are also very focused on solution-based initiatives and helping consumers solve problems within their homes,” says Randy Hunter, CEO of Agricola Management Group, the company helping to ensure the success of the HGTV HOME Plant Collection with consumers.
Much like the SLPC and Sunset Western Garden Collection, HGTV wanted to give consumers the confidence to buy plants without worrying that they wouldn’t be up to the task of gardening, but even before that, HGTV surveyed consumers to confirm that those consumers felt HGTV had the right to enter the plant market. With consumer approval backing the initiative, HGTV moved forward with its plans. Devoted to finding the right plants for its consumers, the brand took more than two years to put the collection together.
“A fundamental difference in what we’re doing with HGTV over anyone else is that [the collection] centers around know-how. We start with know-how, and we deliver know-how in the voice of HGTV,” says Hunter, who also helped with the SLPC and Encore Azalea launches. “And in the landscape world, HGTV is the most trusted brand in home and gardening. We have research that supports that. We start at that intersection with the consumer and the consumer’s need for solution-based products, and we go back to the industry and find the best products that fit the personality of the brand. It’s not just about slapping a label on a product. It’s about providing a landscape solution to consumers and communicating that in the voice of a trusted and recognized source, HGTV.”
What also sets this collection apart is HGTV’s national reach.
“HGTV is a lifestyle brand, not just a television network or a magazine, and that’s a unique point of difference in bringing this whole product to market and how it came to market,” Hunter says. “Southern Living and Sunset are regional brands and great magazines, but today, in this market place, it has to be more connected than a magazine. It has to be a lifestyle brand.”
And consumers seem to be responding to the brand in the way that HGTV and Agricola had anticipated with stories of garden centers selling out in a single weekend. Speaking to the power of the brand, Sarah Hayes,
marketing manager for Agricola, says that The Dees’ Nursery & Florist in Oceanside, N.Y., had consumers taking plant material straight from the delivery truck when a shipment arrived during regular business hours.
The Branded Plant Collection Trend Is Not For Everyone
Although the trend of creating plant collections has proved successful thus far, both McConnell and Hunter agree that not everyone should jump on the branding bandwagon.
“There will be hits and misses. Just because people know the name doesn’t mean they will be successful with the plants,” McConnell says. “In our case, we are very diligent. We automatically have that trust, but we cannot take that for granted and put things on the market that are inferior. I think with some of the other collections, maybe the plants didn’t solve problems or weren’t successful where they were.”
When it comes to misses, Hunter highlights three reasons why some plant collections won’t make the cut: lack of traction between consumers and horticulture brands in general, the inability for most people to connect with the brands year-round and irrelevance within the category.
Citing research that indicates popular plant brands like Proven Winners and Monrovia have lower consumer brand awareness than a lifestyle brand like HGTV, Hunter says horticulture brands in general lack traction with consumers.
Even high-profile brands like Burpee, which has recently expanded from seeds into live goods, have not yet had a major impact on consumers in the garden market, he says.
“I think there was some early success with plants in the horticulture industry because there was no branding at all,” Hunter says.
The early success that Hunter refers to comes from what he calls single plant brands. The top four include Wave Petunia, Encore Azalea, Endless Summer Hydrangea and Knock Out Rose. Hunter maintains that because the market cannot support an abundance of single plant brands, the “umbrella brand” or collections act as a unification tool for the brand in the retail space.
“There is no way you can continue to support the proliferation of single plant brands in the retail environment. You’re going to walk into a garden center and have fifty different plant brands? That just can’t exist,” Hunter says. “That’s why the other brands have been moderately successful. I’d say Southern Living is more successful and we were able to get it off the ground because we knew consumer branding better than other people in horticulture. HGTV will go a step beyond that because it is a national brand. It has more brand awareness.”
As for the second reason, Hunter says most people do not garden year round, which means the plant collections remain untouched when consumers aren’t digging in the dirt.
“Consumers just don’t resonate with plant brands because it’s not a year-round product. They are not connected to the brand year round. They are connected to lifestyle brands in all of their life, not just in their plant life when they’re gardening,” Hunter says. “When you aren’t gardening you are still watching HGTV. If you’re not gardening, you’re still reading Southern Living, if you’re a subscriber. So you are connected to the brand in ways beyond just plants.”
And a connection between plants and a lifestyle brand need to make sense. Nike and Starbucks have brand awareness and resonate with customers year round too.Does that mean growers can anticipate branded plant collections from these companies as well? Not likely, Hunter says.
“They have to have relevance in the category. If they don’t, I don’t think they are going to connect with consumers. HGTV is a great example of that. It’s Home and Garden television, and plants are part of the home and your garden. It is a very easy transition for HGTV to do that. If ESPN decided they wanted to get into the plant world, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean that all brands are committed to licensing, and a brand alone can’t do it. It needs to be done through a licensing program in order to be successful. We’re not a company that’s sitting on this big mountain of genetics that we need to sell, so we go out and rent a brand to put our name on it to take it to market. It’s easy to put a label on something. That doesn’t make it successful long term, and there are plenty of examples of that out there.”