Students At The University Of California, Davis, Are Eager To Learn About And Buy Flowers

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heiner lieth

Heiner Lieth, University of California, Davis

College students are interested in flowers and would buy them if they had access. As a professor at the University of California, Davis (UC-Davis), I have learned that most college students do not make any use of flowers. Even when a perfect occasion arises, most students have no idea how to use flowers to make the desired impact.

While there are students who do have an appreciation for flowers and how to use them, on our campus it is virtually impossible for them to obtain flowers. Even if students wanted to use cut flowers in some way, it is much easier for them to acquire balloons, chocolates or greeting cards. Is it then surprising that when these students graduate from college, many have never had any flowers in their hands and thus do not even think of using flowers when it comes to gift-giving or simply beautifying their own living space?

Much of my career at UC Davis has been devoted to teaching students how to grow ornamental plants in greenhouse and nursery production. Most recently, I have also been teaching students who are not in majors focused on plants. Over the years, I have noted that all students are excited when they have contact with flowers, even those students who are not focused on ornamental plants.

Realizing that there was student interest, I designed a course, “Flower Power: The Application of the Art and Science of the Beauty and Perfection of Flowers,” to teach college students how to use flowers to their advantage. At the same time, my plan was to expose students to the inner workings of international floriculture by showing them how flowers are grown domestically and in Europe, South America and Asia. They would learn how the industry is driven more by the genetic traits that are important for growers, rather than the ones that are important to consumers.

By going through the process of developing the course and then delivering it to college students, I have learned a number of things that the leaders and marketers of floriculture should know.

Flower Power – The College Course

I first offered the course as a freshman seminar at UC Davis. As such, it was intended for 15 students. However, the interest and demand was apparent at the first class meeting, where 40 students made their way into the classroom. In the years since, the interest level has been so strong that the course has evolved into a regular offering in the course catalog. The most amazing facet is the progression of enrollment numbers as word-of-mouth advertising has resulted in a near-doubling of enrollment each year. Last year, 180 students were enrolled; this spring there are 350. The enrollment is limited only by the number of seats in the room, certainly not by student interest.

The course delivers lectures, slide shows and virtual field trips from my own experiences. I give a few industry professionals the chance of coming to address the students. The students are exposed to flower breeding, ornamental production — both domestic and abroad — and various hot issues related to the floriculture industry. I try to give the students an unbiased picture of the global floriculture industry and markets. Basically, the good, the bad and the ugly; and, of course, the beautiful.

Students also learn how flowers, and particular flower colors, are used in society. Early in the course, each student receives a flowering potted plant with the assignment to:

  1. make some impact and
  2. write a short essay about the experience.

I have had to add a third component: “Do not let the plant die,” because it turns out that this aspect is not obvious to many students.

In prior years, all the flowering potted plants were grown by some of my student interns during the months before the course, from propagation material provided by plant companies. With the enrollment growth, I now accept donations from commercial firms (this year special thanks goes out to Rocket Farms in California).

The statements of impact generated by the students generally include typical experiences, but also a wide range of unexpected effects, some extremely joyous and exciting. One young man used the opportunity to endear himself to a potential mother-in-law, with a remarkably positive outcome. Some impacts have been sobering, like a young Asian student who gave a white pot mum to her ailing mother to try to cheer her up — if you don’t know why that is a problem, then you obviously need to take the course.

Most recently, I included workshops in the course in which the students were able to make their own flower arrangements for the first time in their lives. I hired a teaching assistant with flower-arranging experience (I am pretty inept at this art). My friends at California Pajarosa, Green Valley Floral, Mellano and Co., Sun Valley Group and Ocean Breeze International provided me with cut flowers, with lots of help from the California Cut Flower Commission. This year, it is still a mystery how we will get this to work with 350 students, but I will try. All of the students had a powerful experience in handling flowers and making arrangements and it has been clear from their reaction that this is a favorite element of the course.

What I Have Learned From The Students

The most important thing I have learned is that college students, in general, are very willing, even eager, to be consumers of flowers. I told the students that I would write this article for professionals in the floriculture industry. I asked the students to tell me what I should write. Here is a sample of what the students want marketers to know:

1. We need flower vendors to be on campus. How are we supposed to use flowers if we cannot get them? Many of us live in dorms and it is a challenge just to get groceries back to the room. Why not sell through the campus stores? Why not set up flower vending machines?

2. We students are indeed subject to “impulse buying,” but not on the way to class — only on the way back to the room or apartment. If there were affordable flowers available, they would sell.

3. We have some obvious financial limitations. Most students experience financial pressures, which makes buying flowers for ourselves a low priority. While we may not buy expensive flowers for ourselves, we do still spend money. We will still buy special things for others, particularly friends who might be in need of cheering up. For such occasions, it is not ideal to have only the cheapest flowers — we need access to something special.

4. In grocery stores near campus, there are features designed specifically for students – use those to also market flowers. After all, it makes much more sense to put flowers by the chips and pizza than by the ripening fruits and vegetables. It also makes sense to have the flowers near self-checkout counters, because students like to use those. You could also use those little refrigerators where stores currently just sell sodas.

5. Promote flowers on campus. Get flowers into campus events so they are more visible and in the hands of students.

6. Give us longer-lasting flowers — we want value and quality. Make sure there are always instructions with the flowers because most students have never had guidance on how to arrange and care for flowers.

7. Don’t get trapped in gender stereotypes. They do make for some obvious marketing opportunities (e.g., “How mad is she?”), but students are not so narrow and would respond to more diversified marketing.

8. Why do flowers have to be gifts, when it is just as important to have them in your environment? Dorms and apartments can be pretty dismal places, so some flowers would make a big difference.

My own perceptions on the subject include a few things the students did not tell me:

  • Students would be just as receptive to marketing about flowers as they are to the marketing for a variety of other things in daily life: shampoo, perfume, chocolates, clothes, cars, etc. Students are brand-conscious and would likely respond well to attempts to associate flower products (your brand) with important traits such as love, forgiveness and beauty. Note also that this clientele would appreciate it if they felt you were paying particular attention to them, rather than to the population in general. You don’t have to be subtle.
  • This particular age group is sensitive to the fact that they are not kids. Many older persons treat college students as kids (particularly the parents) but the reality on campus is that college students are responsible, intelligent adults, although perhaps not yet totally independent. If you treat them like kids in your advertisement, they will respond like kids and not buy flowers. If you treat them like adults, then they are just as likely to buy flowers as other adults.
  • Many of my students suffered (at least initially) from pretty absurd notions about the flower industry. For instance, most students are absolutely sure that cut flowers only last two days. Therefore, they initially see investments in flowers as absurd squandering of money. At the end of the course, nearly all write about how the flower arrangements they made (with fresh flowers direct from the grower) lasted two weeks longer than expected. Why is this such a shock to these students?
  • The industry is failing the flower consumers of tomorrow. If you don’t market to them (i.e., teach them about flowers) while they are students, can you really expect them to be your customers when they are independent adults?
Heiner Lieth is a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California, Davis.
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