Metrolina Announces First Winner Of Its Plant Of The Year Contest

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Metrolina's test garden, which was open to the industry for judging in the summer of 2012.

Metrolina Greenhouses is asking consumers what they want in a plant, rather than just trying to guess. In its first-ever Plant of the Year competition, 15 plant breeders were asked to submit their best plants, which were then evaluated by a panel of 56 average garden consumers across the United States. The plants were subject to a range of growing conditions and environments.

The 2013 Plant of the Year winner is  Petunia ‘Supertunia Vista Bubblegum’ from Proven Winners.

Learning And Confirming Industry Suspicions

Since August 2011, Metrolina has been surveying a group of home garden panelists. This group is comprised of average gardeners representing the most significant plant consumer demographics. From this home garden panel, Metrolina has collected a wide array of consumer market data, including seasonal color preference, shopping habits and more. In 2012, the Metrolina marketing team determined that the year’s survey questions would be focused on “learn and confirm,” so they could challenge the assumptions made about the consumer and gather data to confirm or refute any industry myths about the consumer.

Finding Panelists

Metrolina uses the third-party service Insight Express to find panelists from across the country. The only screening question for acceptable panelists is whether the person has bought a live plant in the past year from a big box retailer. This helps to limit the survey only to current consumers, which keeps it relevant to the market.

The marketing team has discovered it is best to find a fresh set of panelists quarterly. Most panelists, Gernatt says, participate out of intrinsic desire to give back, but after a while, responses start to dwindle with the same panelists. By switching out previous panelists for the same number of new ones, Metrolina maintains a consistent sample size representing their target demographics. Panelists are 80 percent female and 20 percent male, and exactly half of them are 50 years old or older. Insight Express locates the panelists and acts as liaison between Metrolina and the panel. The plant breeder investors help fund this service, can submit their own unique questions, and have access to the resulting data.

After the decision to learn and confirm, the Metrolina marketing team sent their  their panelists a selection of plants and asked them to pick their favorite after two months. In order to get the ball rolling, Metrolina approached their investors, a group of plant breeders who have access to Metrolina’s survey data for a set fee, and requested plant submissions for the trial.
“Instead of us judging plants, we decided to let America judge them,” says Holly Gernatt, a member of the Metrolina marketing team. “We felt we had a good selection in our panel of what America is and wants.”

Consumers, Industry Pick The Same Winners

Metrolina surveyed their panel and determined which panelists would like to participate in a home trial. Of the respondents who indicated their interest, Metrolina chose 56 of the panelists representing all regions of the United States to grow and select a 2013 Plant of the Year. Fifteen plant breeders submitted plants for the trial, and these plants were started and shipped in 1-pint containers to the panelists, who were told to grow the plants as they would any other. After two months, they were to choose their favorite, take a picture and submit their results with comments by July 1, 2012.

No stipulations for judging were given because from past survey data Metrolina knew that simply knowing the consumers’ favorite spoke loudly enough.

“To horticulturists, a successful flower means thriving, floriferous and hardy,” Gernatt says. “But the consumer wants something that just looks good.”
At the same time, Metrolina planted the 15 submissions in its own trial garden for industry evaluation. The company also held an industry open house in June at its Huntersville, N.C., trial garden. All industry and trade attendees were given one flag in order to mark their favorites from the 15 submissions. As panelist results rolled in, 50 percent of the industry votes were combined with 50 percent of the panelists’ votes, resulting in first, second, and third place winners.

“Interestingly enough, if we weighted the panelists votes 100 percent or the industry votes 100 percent, we got the same results, validating our findings and surprising us that we were all on the same page,” Gernatt says.

The Results Are In

The first-place winner was Petunia ‘Supertunia Vista Bubblegum’ from Proven Winners. In second place was Rudbeckia ‘Tiger Eye Gold’ from Syngenta-Goldsmith, and Zinnia ‘Profusion Yellow’ from Sakata took third place. The most compelling facet of Metrolina’s Plant of the Year competition, however, was that it gave gardeners and average consumers from across the country the opportunity to provide feedback to breeders, who submitted what they thought would be their most successful garden plant.

“We wanted to know what America thought was the best plant, not what the industry thought was the best plant,” Gernatt says. “Now that we have this powerful information, I think we’re beginning to realize how much impact the consumer’s insight should have on how we market plants. We definitely think the industry sees the value in this because retailers are asking for data behind plant choices, and this is one avenue to get that data,” Gernatt says.

Metrolina now sees this event as an opportunitiy to get new feedback on plants each year.

“We are definitely doing this again, and we’re hoping it goes national,” Gernatt says. “We figure if we promote plants that were chosen by everyday consumers that could be your neighbor or friend, the likelihood that you’ll be able to grow it successfully, and like it too, is huge.”

The Importance Of Data And Marketing

Metrolina is already working on promoting its new program. For the 2013 winner, Metrolina has created a Plant of the Year logo to be included on all Petunia ‘Supertunia Vista Bubblegum’ plant tags. Only the first place winner will have this special logo.

As Metrolina moves forward with determining a new survey focus for the 2013 year, Gernatt says the operation is pleased with how much value its market data created. GG

Lauren Tuski (LTuski@gmail.com) is a horticulture professional focusing on new trends in communicating with gardening consumers. She is an employee of Wojo's Greenhouse in Ortonville, Mich.

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