Every so often, a plant comes along that is a true game-changer, transforming its genus or even its category. The Knock Out rose from Conard-Pyle is one of those plants and is aptly named because it delivered a positive punch to the languishing rose industry. Its disease resistance and ease of growth encouraged a new generation of gardeners to try growing roses and brought back some experienced gardeners who had turned away from roses because of their high maintenance requirements.
Conard-Pyle is a deserving recipient of Greenhouse Grower’s Excellence in Marketing award, because while good genetics are a start, it also takes knowledgeable people to recognize a plant’s value and communicate it to the marketplace. Several key people at Conard-Pyle recognized Knock Out’s potential and knew how to differentiate it from other roses. The late Dick Hutton, chairman of the board of Conard-Pyle, his son Steve Hutton, president and CEO, and Jacques Ferare, vice president of license and new product development, were all involved in the very early stages of the development of Knock Out. Kyle McKean, director of marketing, who joined Conard-Pyle in 2008, created the brand look.
Quality + Luck = Success
Incredibly, this game-changing rose almost ended up in the dumpster. Developed by Bill Radler, a rosarian who breeds roses in his backyard and raises the seedlings under grow lights in his basement, the seedling that eventually became Knock Out was not at all impressive.
“Like any kind of business success, luck never plays a minor role,” says Steve Hutton. “The Knock Out story is no different.”
Radler agrees. When he was ready to plant the seedling that grew into Knock Out outdoors, it still hadn’t bloomed, and he was, to say the least, not impressed.
“I put Knock Out on the pile not to plant,” he says. I only had a couple of spots left. But the next day I decided I wanted to see what kind of bloom it would have, so I took it off the pile — it was the last one planted. And then when it started to bloom, it wouldn’t stop.”
Two rose producers were interested in Knock Out and Radler chose Conard-Pyle. “I know I chose the best company. I think it was intuition, really. I haven’t ever regretted choosing them.”
Jacques Ferare, who was new plant coordinator at Conard-Pyle at the time, says once Knock Out was tested in the field, its virtues, especially in terms of disease resistance, were obvious.
“Even in our research fields we had to spray the roses. Otherwise we wouldn’t see anything because of the black spot pressure we have in Pennsylvania,” Ferare says. “We saw right away we had something special. We knew it was unique — it was growing so well compared to the others. And the flower power too — all the things that are still true today.”
Hutton says the market was ripe for a truly disease-resistant, low-maintenance rose. Wider choices in flowering shrubs, perennials and annuals that didn’t require constant spraying appealed to an audience that had less and less time for gardening. According to Hutton, by the time Knock Out was introduced in 2000, rose sales were seriously declining, from a high in 1978 of 40 to 45 million units sold per year in the U.S. to less than 15 million.
In 1996 Knock Out was introduced into AARS trials as a shrub rose, and it quickly performed in the rest of the country as it had in Pennsylvania. It was introduced to the public in 2000 and was an AARS winner that same year.
“It was a standout,” Hutton says. “It was clear that we had something very special on our hands.”
He says careful thought was given to how to position this rose.
“We knew it would be the death of this variety to try to introduce it as the traditional floribunda that it was,” he says. It would be grown by the bare-root rose guys and be in among the roses, sold with roses at one time in the spring, and if it didn’t sell by Memorial Day, it would be thrown out.”
By positioning Knock Out as a shrub — and it did share the above average disease resistance and flowering capacity of a shrub rose — it could be grown in a container. The season would start earlier than the traditional rose season and continue through the fall.
“It could be grown by any nursery grower, many who didn’t grow roses,” Hutton says. “We wanted the widest grower spread possible and the widest degree of open mindedness possible about the uses and sales window of this variety. We didn’t want it stuck in a rose garden, because nobody had rose gardens. We wanted it integrated with other plants the way any flowering shrub would be.”
Marketing a Consumer-Friendly Rose
Since consumers and growers alike were skeptical of breeders’ unsupported claims of disease resistance, Hutton says they tread carefully when introducing Knock Out.
“We intentionally went very slowly and didn’t make any claims that would have been perceived as outlandish, because we knew that even if we told the truth, it would be perceived as the usual hype. We let the variety get its own legs for a couple of years,” Hutton says. “We started at the grower level, saying this is a rose you need to be growing. It will root from softwood cuttings — you don’t have to have a bare-root plant. It grows very quickly in containers, and you’re not going to have to worry about spraying it in the nursery like the other roses.”
As Knock Out started to benefit from word-of-mouth success, Hutton says they were able to let the rose tell its own story. By 2008 it had grown from a single variety to a family, with the introductions of Blushing Knock Out (2004), Pink Knock Out and Double Knock Out (2005), Rainbow Knock Out (2007 AARS winner), and Pink Double Knock Out and Sunny Knock Out in 2008. The sales numbers started growing very significantly.
Kyle McKean, began the work of creating Knock Out as a brand, developing a consistent look and marketing materials. “In 2008 we began to build a strategy on a yearly basis with a lot of print and online advertising, as well as partnerships with personalities such as P. Allen Smith,” she says.
“We continued to push Knock Out as a really easy, low-maintenance flowering shrub so consumers new to gardening or scared of gardening would know they could incorporate this plant into their gardens with little work and no spraying,” McKean says.
It was important to make the variety identifiable at the retail level, McKean says, so they picked a pot color — a distinctive chartreuse green. In 2010 it became mandatory for licensees to use the colored pot.
“A lot of people [at Conard-Pyle] weren’t on board with the color at first, but I said it has to be memorable. It has to stand out so people will notice it,” McKean says. Since 2010 when everything launched, the green has become the color everyone associates with Knock Out. It spoke to the brand and let customers know the plants they were buying were authentic.”
Hutton hopes Knock Out can continue to be a game-changer.“Our next desire is to have Knock Out become the gateway to growing other kinds of roses”, he says. “We want to use the long coattails of Knock Out to bring more people to the experience of growing roses.”