On The Heels Of Success

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Winners of the annual Greenhouse Grower Medal of Excellence for Marketing are chosen based on their contributions to the industry in developing and promoting new varieties. Frances Hopkins, president of Under A Foot Plant Co., is certainly a worthy winner. Her STEPABLES brand, which features more than 130 beautiful, low-growing varieties capable of handling foot traffic, keeps Hopkins on the constant hunt for new plants that fit the bill.

Last time Greenhouse Grower caught up with Hopkins (August 2004 cover story), she talked about branding being a “tricky thing – it’s marketing on steroids,” she said. “If we are to build a successful brand and be in the marketplace for the next 20 years, we must be correctly identifiable to the consumer. If we are not, the consumer’s attention and loyalty fade.”

Winning the Medal of Excellence affirms the STEPABLES brand is here to stay. Hopkins understands her market and knows how to make her brand both identifiable and in demand.

Before the awards presentation in July, she said, “We have clearly defined a path for our product. We merchandise our product. We support our product with helpful handouts and a dynamic Web site bursting with information to help the consumer’s creativity blossom. When the Good For Your Sole campaign was created, we put ourselves on the map with a signature phrase people can remember.”

Step By Step

Hopkins says her next step is to work on STEPABLES’ identity. Beginning in spring 2007, all the STEPABLES distributors will be selling the plants in purple pots. “This is truly the best step we can take on a national level to stand out,” Hopkins says.

Also in 2007, Hopkins plans to introduce seven new plants to the program, and even more in 2008.

“I can tell you to watch for STEPABLES to reach new heights in 2007 and 2008,” Hopkins says. “We have our new cross-promotional campaign called Creature Features with Green Piece Wire Art. The Creature Features campaign showcases adorable animal wire frames planted with our tough little plants. It is a fun and exciting new program. This gives the garden centers a new twist on topiaries, and it will certainly be great for year round sales in the garden center, as well as opening up a whole new area for holiday gift sales.”

Filling The Shoes

One of Hopkins’ concerns last time she spoke with GG was the lack of young people involved in the industry. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then, and Hopkins still worries about horticulture’s fate. She also notes the difficulty in becoming involved in the industry, saying she only realized it could become her profession when it “fell into (her) lap.”

“No horticulture schools came to my senior open house or college days. I had to find out about the horticultural field on my own,” she says. “I have seen many, many of my peers leaving this industry. I see very few young people coming up through the ranks to replace them. Until our industry takes up the charge to wear its heart on its sleeve, charge more for its product and be proud of it, and show the American public how much value we bring to their everyday landscapes, our numbers will continue to drop.”

Stepping Up

An advocate of programs like America In Bloom, Hopkins recommends getting involved in the community by donating plants, containers and labor to “spread the passion” of the industry.

“None of us are in this business because of the money. Horticulture is deep within in our souls. It seems to be the very essence of who we are. Getting out in the community to show what is in our hearts as an industry would change things,” she says. “You may motivate a young person for six months with money, but you will inspire him or her for a lifetime with passion.”

Hopkins says her children, now 13 and 10, love being involved in her work. Her son is especially drawn to the sales and marketing aspect of the business, while her daughter enjoys “nursery hopping.”

As for the future of STEPABLES, Hopkins says she will continue to pave the way to the future by knocking down old traditions. She plans to push for more kid gardening and create awareness about the industry and the beauty it creates. Inspiration is the key, and her goal is to inspire.

“I believe we have touched something within the consumer,” says Hopkins. “We have hit a chord deep inside that people can recognize and believe in. We are a good company. We put forth a good product and we reach out and touch consumers. We inspire them. We give our product heart. It is not lofty, or pretentious. Anyone can do this! When they have a victory, they share it with us online. When they have a problem, they give us a call. We are real to them. There is no big façade, no giant corporation with suits. We are just a small company willing to help them be great gardeners. I think that’s what keeps them coming back.”

Ann-Marie Vazzano was managing editor of American Fruit Grower magazine, a Meister publication.

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