Proven Winners didn’t invent the idea of a plant brand. There have been many other good ones before and since. But few — if any — have been as influential.
The 2012 winner of Greenhouse Grower’s Medal of Excellence Industry Achievement Award has introduced groundbreaking new varieties and taken consumer marketing to never-before-seen heights. In the process, it has built one of the few truly successful national plant brands in the history of our industry.
Now in its 20th year, this company has succeeded with a laser-like focus on great plants and great marketing, coupled with an absolute conviction that the Proven Winners way is the best way to sell plants.
Take a look at two decades of results. It’s hard to argue that they’re wrong.
From A Single Plant To A Brand
The seeds of Proven Winners were planted in 1991. The Kientzler Company’s Garry Grueber had a unique plant from Australia — Scaevola ‘Blue Wonder’ — and was looking for help distributing it in the U.S. He found willing partners in John Rader and Evelyn Weidner of Weidner’s Gardens in Encinitas, Calif.
After a year of successful sales regionally, Rader, Weidner and Grueber realized there was potential for the variety on a bigger scale, but they would need partners to expand to national distribution.
Tom and Sharon Smith, owners of Four Star Greenhouses in Michigan, and Henry and Jeff Huntington of Pleasant View Gardens in New Hampshire agreed to help. Rader soon partnered with Jerry Church to buy the propagation business from Weidner’s Gardens and formed EuroAmerican Propagators as the third partner. Proven Winners was born.
Plants For The Consumer
From the beginning, the partners agreed the Proven Winners brand would have two cornerstone qualities to differentiate it in the market.
The first was great plants. The Proven Winners brand would sell only the best quality, unique varieties that would have high value for consumers. Annuals were the primary focus for the first ten-plus years. Canadian partners Nordic Nurseries, Ed Sobkowich Greenhouses and Dentooms Greenhouse were brought in later in the 1990s. Proven Winners ColorChoice Flowering Shrubs were added in partnership with Spring Meadow Nursery in 2004. Walters Gardens was brought on board in 2010 to provide a selection of premium perennials under the Proven Winners brand.
The list of unique new introductions under the Proven Winners banner — from Superbells to Supertunia to Diamond Frost to Snow Princess — is long and familiar. But for all of these lines, top garden performance quality was the top priority.
“The partners said, ‘We’re going to take the best plants available from plant breeders. We’re going to trial them for two to three years. And we’re going to introduce the best varieties as Proven Winners.’ That was the model,” says Proven Winners Director of Marketing Marshall Dirks.
Four Star, EuroAmerican, and Pleasant View have been leaders in developing new propagation techniques, implementing university research in areas such as quicker liner production and faster finishing times for growers. Plants are propagated from mother stock derived from aseptic tissue culture to offer the cleanest selections possible.
Even with this focus of providing the best possible starts for growers, plants are selected for the brand based on garden performance that consumers will respond to, instead of the more traditional grower-focused input traits.
According to Dirks, many breeders have been typically focused on grower performance: uniform series, blooming times and growth habits — compact growers that looked good at retail.
“The partners realized, ‘That’s nice, but that’s not our customer. Our customer is the gardener. We need to introduce vigorous plants that will make her feel successful when she grows them.’ That was the key,” he says.
Building A Market
Proven Winners’ second cornerstone quality was great marketing, specifically, great marketing that speaks directly to consumers.
“Our initial marketing was to the industry,” says Mark Broxon, Proven Winners executive director. “In 2001, as our sales reached a critical mass, true consumer marketing began. And once that began, we have kept our foot on the accelerator — which has also been good for the industry as a whole.”
To pay for consumer marketing, plants are sold with a marketing fee. Those dollars provide the resources needed to build awareness and create demand.
“People had collected royalties in the past, but no one had collected a marketing fee. That was unique to Proven Winners,” Dirks says.
The Proven Winners tag was an important innovation as well. The partners determined early on that a large, branded plant tag would accompany every Proven Winners plant.
“From the beginning it was our number-one form of POP,” Dirks says. “The tag was more than 6-inches tall, double the size of the typical tag at the time. It was groundbreaking.”
Those distinctive white containers were a significant development as well, making their first appearance in 2002. Containers were round rather than square to create a premium look and offered an eye-catching pop of white in a garden center full of other colors. Index printing was developed to allow the logo to go in the same place on the container every time, directly under the tag slot. The brand also took a lesson from grocery store shelves and created patented containers that spin in their trays to ensure the logo and the tag always face forward.
Influencing An Industry
From wonderful new varieties to groundbreaking marketing concepts, Proven Winners has built one of the most recognizable and respected brands in the market. Its annual roadshows educate growers and retailers on the brand’s genetics and how to best grow them. It works closely with retailers, offering certified training programs as well as detailed advice on store layout and merchandising.
But, in many ways, the company has made contributions that have benefitted the entire greenhouse industry.
“I think our biggest impact has been to make gardening a better experience for consumers while creating value for the industry,” Broxon says. “We work closely with growers and retailers, but it is the consumer that ultimately buys our plants from those growers and retailers.”
With today’s consumer more time-starved and overwhelmed with choices than ever before, making it easier for them with a known brand and better plants has been the right way to go, Broxon says.
“No other company trials plant varieties to the extent that we do — after breeders have already made their selections — to ensure that our plants provide the highest level of consumer performance. And our investment in consumer marketing benefits the entire industry by bringing consumers into garden centers not only to find Proven Winners plants, but to experience gardening in general. Gardening is a great lifestyle; we believe in this industry and want people to enjoy gardening — and be successful — which keeps them as customers for us all.”