Floriculture Producers Answer the Call for Marketing Programs that Produce By Tom Cosgrove

When MasterTag teamed with GPN to launch the first annual Marketing Innovation Award program, nine growers were ready and waiting to dazzle the industry.

When MasterTag teamed with GPN to launch the first annual Marketing Innovation Award program, nine growers were ready and waiting to dazzle the industry.

When debating any topic as it relates to the floriculture industry, here’s a good rule of thumb: Don’t ever bet against growers.

This is certainly the case with marketing. We started hearing several years ago that growers were at the wrong end of the marketing learning curve, that the lack of a strong industry-wide marketing initiative could leave growers vulnerable in a marketplace where branding, advertising, promotional tie-ins and other components of marketing are on the ascent.

In truth, the concern was and is valid – to a point. Poll any assembled group of growers and the odds are slim that those with effective marketing programs will outnumber those who are still “thinking about it.” However, we also must bear in mind that the grower community is by its nature top-heavy with innovators. Traditionally, this innovative zeal has been channeled toward the production side; to compete in the market growers must constantly figure out how to grow crops more efficiently and at a lower cost. Extension agents, hort profs, and supplier reps never cease to be amazed by how quickly growers incorporate and “tinker” with the newest products and techniques.

But the forces of the marketplace began to shift roughly 10 years ago. The whys and wherefores of this shift have been the topic of countless books and articles. As for growers, it’s sufficient to say it was the right time to seriously question the wisdom of the “production-driven” approach to growing. The more far-sighted growers quickly (and without much ado) shifted gears, refocusing their talents and energy on the marketing side.

Needless to say, a grower-fueled marketing initiative did not spread through the industry like wildfire. But growers pay close attention to what their neighbors (and competitors) are doing. Around the mid-1990s (“seemingly overnight” in the eyes of some in the industry), growers from both coasts, as well as growers from Florida, Michigan and elsewhere in the “Heartland,” started rolling out branding and marketing programs of remarkable creativity and sophistication.

Although this grower-driven marketing initiative continues building momentum, it still remains largely “below the radar.” Many growers who would like to launch a marketing program are not aware of the numerous growers who already have been through the learning curve. Likewise, many growers are not aware of the resources and support available to them from a significant number of industry vendors, including breeders and propagators.

Recognition is its own award (but money’s also nice)

As a company whose business over the past 51 years has been supporting the floriculture industry in greengoods marketing, merchandising and labeling, Montague, Mich.-based MasterTag has a vested interest in raising marketing awareness within the grower community. Indeed, trends in the floriculture marketplace point to a day when grower-generated marketing initiatives will no longer be an option but a requirement for doing business with many key customers.

“Growers are receiving increasing pressure to assist in marketing and merchandising their plant products,” says Joe Fox, sales and marketing manager for MasterTag. “This is why everyone associated with MasterTag has felt for some time that we are obligated to communicate the importance of marketing to growers as well as to the entire industry.”

True to the company’s innovative approach to problem solving, MasterTag found its inspiration on the other side of the world, literally.

“While on a ‘study-tour’ of marketing and merchandising in Australia and New Zealand a couple years ago, we visited a company called PlantMark,” Fox explains. “The company is a wholesaler of nursery and color items in the Melbourne area. What intrigued us was the company’s annual ‘marketing innovation’ award program.”

The objectives of the PlantMark program were identical to those of MasterTag – to encourage innovation in marketing greengoods (at the grower level), and to promote the success story of the most innovative marketing programs. “Grower-initiated marketing and merchandising programs are fairly commonplace in Australia,” says Fox, who adds that Australian consumers purchase a significant amount of flowering plant material “green” (without buds or flowers).

Needless to say, packaging is very important in Australia, as are P.O.P, signage, tags, labeling and other promotional support. “In this sense, the Australian greengoods market may be the harbinger of things to come in North America,” says Fox.

The award program concept struck a chord with MasterTag. By inviting growers to submit entries, MasterTag could compile and promote actual case studies based on tangible marketing programs. By using a contest as a tie-in, MasterTag could stoke the competitive spirit of growers and attract the interest of the media. (GPN’s publisher, editor and sales manager agreed without hesitation to provide editorial support for the award program.)

Most importantly, by promoting the finalists and winner of the competition in the pages of GPN and at the OFA Short Course 2000, MasterTag would achieve its key goal of not telling but showing growers that, “Marketing and merchandising my products can positively impact my overall business goals.”

Among these business goals are:

• Development of stronger relationships with key retail customers

• An increase in new customers drawn through distinctive programs

• A clear differentiation of product offering

• Increased recognition as a leader in innovative merchandising and packaging

• Improved margins through expanded product range

• An increase in off-peak or “season extender” sales

“These goals are components of our overall intent, which is to show the direct relationship between a grower’s marketing effort and increased sales,” says Fox.

The Marketing Innovation Award program was first announced in the June 1999 issue of GPN. The program was (and is) open to any U.S. or Canadian wholesale grower involved in the production of plant material in commercial quantities. The deadline for submitting entries was December. The winner, chosen by an independent panel of judges, could choose between a Caribbean cruise for two (including $1,000 in spending money) or a cash prize of $7,000. The winner (along with selected finalists) would be featured in GPN. The thinking on the part of both MasterTag and GPN staff was that magazine coverage would provide growers with more insight into the improved profits, increased sales volume, customer gains and other tangible results of successful campaigns.

“We are delighted with the response we received in 1999, the first year of the program,” says Fox. “Eleven distinct programs were entered from nine companies. What I find particularly gratifying is that these were very high-caliber, creative marketing programs from smaller growers, medium-sized growers, and large growers. This only confirms what I have always believed – that size is no limitation when it comes to creating and applying an effective marketing program.”

A case in point is the program developed by Under A Foot Plant Co., a Salem, Ore.-based operation with a dozen employees. Its whimsical “Stepables” program, which earned Honorable Mention in the award program, combines high-profit, quick-finishing perennial groundcovers with appealing, high-impact merchandising materials featuring a “Happy Guy” and color-coded “footprints” that identify for consumers the amount of foot traffic a particular plant can withstand (light, moderate, and heavy).

Among the licensed distributors of Stepable plants are Skagit Gardens (Mt. Vernon, Wash.), Twixwood Nursery (Berrian Springs, Mich.) and Great Plant Co. (New Hartford, Conn.).

“This is a marketing program supported by colorful signage, cultural information, and Web site assistance that benefits all who join,” says Frances Hopkins, company president. “It’s playful, easy to produce, and motivational to retailers and consumers alike.”

Among the growers who submitted entries were a few with well-established pedigrees in the floricultural marketing arena. A case in point is EuroAmerican Propagators. The Bonsall, Calif.-based company entered P.O.P. and related materials designed to promote the company’s EuroSelect line. “We decided to participate in the Marketing Innovation Award program because we want to spread the message that innovative point-of-purchase materials are indispensable components of a successful brand-marketing program,” says Kerstin P. Oellet, marketing director for EuroAmerican Propagators. “Our goal is to create P.O.P. materials that are innovative, eye-catching and informative, but also user-friendly.”

Tough Call

The panel of independent judges convened in Atlanta during the Grower Expo last January to pick the winner. All were volunteers representing a wide experience base within the industry. (See sidebar for the list of judges.)

Representing the production sector was Mitch McDonald, owner of Broomfield, Colo.-based Chipsea Greenhouse. As a grower who has reaped the rewards of successful marketing with his Rocky Mountain Grown program (See “Chipsea’s Upgrade in Size, Automation, and Corporate Culture” in the July 1999 issue of GPN), McDonald was interested in seeing the caliber of entries the award program would attract. He was impressed.

“I think the entire process of evaluation was rewarding,” says McDonald. “I was able to view how other industry people perceive packaging and prep their products for the marketplace. In addition, I was heartened to see both high-cost and low-cost marketing plans that have been designed to effectively attract customers.”

McDonald adds that selecting the innovative marketer of the year for 1999 was exceedingly difficult. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and the profiles of finalists, which will appear in GPN through the course of this year, will bear out McDonald’s contention that each of the submitted marketing programs is a grower success story in its own right.

The winner will be announced in the June issue of GPN and honored at the OFA Short Course 2000 this July in Columbus, Ohio. Next month, GPN will feature the recipient of the Honorable Mention: Under A Foot Plant Co.

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Tom Cosgrove

Tom Cosgrove is editor of GPN.

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