Thoughts on branding, trademarks, and their effect on my choices

The past month was a highly educational one for me. For a while now, I have been part of a trio attempting to breathe new life into a quaint but tired little retail nursery. We are tasked with turning it into a showroom for garden design while still retaining the retail part. Both the nursery industry and retail are new to me, but my two collaborators are great teachers. Other than trying to understand our inherent neighborhood demographics, one of the big questions we are battling with is how to best distinguish ourselves from the pack – in other words, how to “create our brand” . Being a bit of a plant nerd, I know how I personally would like to pursue this, but my retail-savvy comrades tell me that it may not be that easy. Being an ever-learning hort-head, a blogger, as well as a soon-to-be Master Gardener, my particular outlook is rather far removed from that of the average customer. Of course my fellow re-vampers are right – and even though I understand that this is true, it is a fact I am struggling to accept. What we are doing is essentially walking a tightrope between the edgy and exhilarating, and the more common and mundane. During a recent plant expo, immediately followed by Far West (a large industry trade show) I gained  some insights into the branding and marketing side of the corporate nursery business, and I have to say it made me a little disillusioned.

The massive facilities of Bailey Nurseries, all decked out with the latest and greatest.

The massive facilities of Bailey Nurseries, all decked out with the latest and greatest.

A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to visit Bailey Nurseries along with my compadres. One of the guest speakers was the distinguished Dr. Michael Dirr, emeritus of the University of Georgia’s Dept. of Horticulture, and a very kind and friendly man. His talk was on his work of developing hardier, sturdier, more cold-and-disease tolerant shrubs – a worthy task indeed. He spoke of the millions of seedlings they had tried and failed with, before finally coming up with the ones that got the privilege to be put – in this case – the purple pot you’ll see at garden centers all over the world. Hybridizing is big, big business! Gazillions of dollars are spent on marketing the different trademarked plants in the different colored pots, to the world. (You know, blue for ‘Endless Summer’, purple for ‘First Edition’, white for ‘Proven Winners’, and so on…) Soon, the conversation turned to whether customers automatically go for the colored pots, or if they actually look at the plant inside it before they buy.

"Cautionary note: Is the industry selling colored pots or superior plants?"

“Cautionary note: Is the industry selling colored pots or superior plants?”

This is where it gets sticky. I know what I think. Personally, I couldn’t care less what color the pot is – it is what’s in it that matters. Granted, I’m spoiled. I live in Oregon where such a huge variety of plants thrive, and where interesting specialty nurseries are the norm rather than the exception. Perhaps if I lived in Massachusetts or Ohio where winters are harsh – maybe then I would be less prone to my usual experimentation and risk-taking, and instead make sure I bought the plant that had been developed and proven to withstand those kinds of conditions. You know, the one that might have earned its right to be plastered on all those full-page, glossy ads in all the magazines.

One of my favorites  - a dark-leaved Lagerstroemia with white flowers. So cool! I'd definitely go for content over pot color here! :)

One of my favorites – a dark-leaved Lagerstroemia with white flowers. So cool! I’d definitely go for content over pot color here! 🙂

As part of the discussion that ensued, Dani – the owner of a lovely local nursery brought up another great point; all those brand-defining, colored pots are non-recyclable.  Maybe it’s an Oregon thing, but for this very reason, it seemed most of us in the audience favored simple, black pots with printed brand names as opposed to dyed plastic destined for landfill. In addition, Dani said, she had seen no evidence of people choosing in ways where the pot color trumped the plant within. Black pots however, are decidedly less sexy, and the marketing manager for ‘First Editions’ promptly disagreed. According to their studies, she insisted, people absolutely go for the colored pots. (And, in her defense, she did say that they are working on finding ways to recycle more).

Plant displays at Bailey's

I had to ponder this a little. Here was one expert marketer, and one successful  nursery owner with radically opposing views on the matter. The best I could come up with is that branding by pot color is a box store phenomenon – at least here in the Pacific Northwest and other exceptional gardening climes where practically everything grows. I’m thinking of the colored pots as a kind of gateway drug to bait and switch non-gardeners into our obsession. All taken together, the Candy Man – i.e. those graphics, pretty banners, large, colorful tags, and coordinating pots present a lovely package, which would be hard to pass up if you didn’t know what else is out there. I think all that marketing collateral would look weirdly insular in a retail setting that focuses on plant diversity for the benefit of discerning gardeners – those who have switched up from the proverbial box of Crayolas to the infinite subtlety of watercolors. But – and I’ll give them this – they do look great in the meticulously scripted and formatted layout of a box store setting – which nowadays oftentimes is Ground Zero for budding gardeners.

I should clarify here, that when I say “discerning gardeners”, I don’t mean to imply that these multi-million dollar branded plants wouldn’t be up to snuff. They are. In fact, they are veritable super-plants, bred to be practically fool-proof in any setting. But because they are so heavily marketed, and so ubiquitous (because just about everybody carries them), they tend to loose some of their appeal – especially to those who want their gardens to be “unusual” or “different”. Bred for ease, convenience, and resilience, even the most inexperienced are given the impression they can grow them. So in a way, these super-star plants become the lowest common denominators of gardens – the Shetland ponies of the plant world, and absolutely perfect for beginners.

I loved these red St John's Wort berries. So pretty!

I loved these red St John’s Wort berries. So pretty!

And, finally a fab looking lower growing hedge plant - Dystilium.

And, finally a fab looking, evergreen, lower growing hedge plant – Distylium.

Later, over lunch, a few of us somewhat rebellious plant nerds came up with a fun idea. Wouldn’t it be great if we could convince one outpost of a large chain store to humor us for a weekend by switching out all the colorful pots for regular black nursery pots – just to see if it really does make a difference in swaying purchaser preference? Maybe we could talk the producers of our local TV garden show ‘Garden Time’ into doing an undercover exposé on the matter? I for one, would be very interested to see if the results supported our hypothesis – or not. 🙂

All that aside – while I do have some severe reservations against the escalated homogenization of what is made available to the average gardening consumer, there really were some great new plants featured at the Expo, which no doubt will grace the shelves of most mainstream nurseries in a near future. I don’t mind the ubiquitously available trademarked plants per se, but I DO mind them elbowing themselves in at the full expense of variety and diversity. Per this great New York Times article“Our plant choices are mainly guided by what’s available in the nursery.” 

Dirr's thoughts on the future

Per the experts, what will be available in nurseries in the future, is stuff that will reflect this list.

So, friends – let this post be a reminder to continue to also seek out the small, independent growers whose only “brand” may be that they can be relied on to grow the unusual, or the hard-to-find, or heirloom, the quirky or exotic… the very thing that will make your garden special. Let’s celebrate the unique and adventurous, and let’s send grateful thoughts to them for their perseverance in the face of homogenized Behemoth adversity.

 

About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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12 Responses to Thoughts on branding, trademarks, and their effect on my choices

  1. Felicia says:

    I’m a generation X amateur gardener and I can honestly say pot color has little positive effect upon my plant purchases. In fact, I would even suggest it has a slightly negative effect. When I go grocery shopping I usually buy store brand products rather than name brand products because in most cases the product inside the package is the same or of comparable quality. I use this same shopping technique at plant nurseries. I know all plants in Monrovia pots are going to be twice as expensive as the same plant in a black pot two rows over. I buy the plant in the black pot.

    What I love about local, independent plant nurseries are the variety of plant products on offer as well as the display of plants in aesthetically beautiful compositions. This helps me envision how a plant can be used. Big box store displays leave me flat and often feel like the equivalent of one size fits all.

    • annamadeit says:

      I am totally with you on that, Felicia! You can get good deals at the box store, but the variety – with a few notable exceptions here and there – is a lot less intriguing. I’m new to actually working in this field, and am still trying to figure things out, but I too have this inherent aversion to being streamlined. (Yes, I am a Gen X-er too!) Thanks for stopping by my blog!

    • Felicia says:

      I admire your energy and willingness to work in an industry that is a super tough financial one. Sounds like Professor Dirr’s lecture will be a helpful one. He hails from UGA which is in Georgia which is where I’m at. I’m so glad you enjoyed my plush!

  2. I remember when a certain president was elected to a second term and I felt like I’d been sucker punched. How was this possible? Everyone I knew wanted him gone. Who the heck voted for him? I feel this is a similar situation. Everyone I know wants the cool plants, shops at independent nurseries and couldn’t care less what the pot looks like (and maybe even prefers black, it’s not going o distract from the plant!). We’re surrounded by plant fabulousness here in the PNW, I suppose it’s good to be reminded it’s not the same all across the country (just like our politics).

    • annamadeit says:

      Oh god, I remember that day… We had just moved back stateside. I was driving when I hear the news, and had to pull over to the side, because I couldn’t see for all the tears. I remember the feeling of complete despair and disbelief… But yes, I think it’s wise to not get too comfortable. The small independents get slighted. We put one order in from Monrovia this year (to get some citrus), and in order to fill their large minimum, we ended up ordering a bunch of other stuff too. We were so excited when the truck pulled up, but our excitement was quickly turned to disgust. Most all the plants we had paid a premium for were either broken, or covered in powdery mildew. And they have a no-return policy!!! Granted, we got credited for all the crappy stuff, but still… It smarted to know that our order was so unimportant to them that they let it out the door looking like that. Never again…

  3. Amy Campion says:

    I don’t get how the rise of branded plants is giving the consumer fewer choices. Isn’t it giving the consumer more choices? These breeding programs are releasing brand-new plants every year that both the novice gardener and the more experienced one can enjoy. I know I want one of those Midnight Moonlight crape myrtles!

    I think Monrovia’s Dan Hinkley Collection is interesting, too, and addresses your concerns in a compromising way–they introduce some unusual sorts of plants in a mass-market way. I’m not endorsing Monrovia necessarily, but I would love to see some of the other big nurseries carry a similar line, so we plant nerds can really get our fix.

    • annamadeit says:

      Oh, don’t get me wrong – they are awesome, versatile plants, but spending a day at FarWest made me feel that everyone is offering the same things, over and over and over again. You’d think at a trade show you would find the spectrum stretched to its limits, but it seemed like it was the other way around at FarWest. Per that NYT article, 47% of plant sales (in 2012) took place at box stores. That’s a huge chunk of the market, and by comparison, they carry very few non-branded plants. And, because of their purchasing power, that’s who the mega-growers aim to please – not the little independents and the plant nerds. So, perhaps its just me, but it feels as if this field (like so many others) is divided into an us and them kind of thing. Which ultimately affects small retailers’ opportunity to differentiate themselves. Mind you, I’m still working on trying to wrap my head around all this, and there are many aspects of the industry I still don’t understand. Perhaps I’m jumping to conclusions, and if so I will revise my stance as I get wiser, but for now, this is my feeling. That said, my problem is not the plants. Yes – that Moonlight Marvel is to die for. So is the Vertigo grass. I could go on, but you get the idea. I worry that the work of the smaller growers will drown in the heavily financed flood of marketed brand names as customers get increasingly trained to just see the brand. See my response to Loree’s comment to get an idea of what it’s like for us little ones to deal with Monrovia. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones to get completely rolled over.

  4. Kris P says:

    I don’t think branding and pot color has had any impact on my own buying, although I admit I can be swayed by the enthusiastic testimonials of plant growers and purchasers, either in nursery-sponsored presentations or on-line videos or blogs. Hearing about a plant’s history and attributes from someone familiar with it can be very persuasive; however, I can only be convinced by hyperbole a few times – if I have repeated bad experiences after falling for someone’s spiel, I become wary and the spiel itself becomes counterproductive when it comes to parting me from my money. I suspect that branding via pot color could have the same effect on plant buyers over time. Buying by pot color may be useful short-cut for the neophyte gardener (like buying a brand-name appliance is for a new homeowner) but, if the purchaser’s interest extends beyond slapping plants around the foundation of a new house, I don’t think he/she will be satisfied with limited choices – or products of inferior quality – for long.

    • annamadeit says:

      I guess I’m an omnivore (regardless of pot color), and sometimes I too fall for the hype. But for the most part, I just go for what I like, whether I’ve heard of it, or not. 🙂

  5. I think the black pots would work in Oregon because you have such a pervasive gardening culture. But here in VA, serious gardeners are rare and the masses love those colored pots. They’re part of the entire marketing package. I’d be really surprised if a big box store let you switch out the pots since keeping them in their original pots might be part of the sellers agreement.

  6. annamadeit says:

    You are right, Tammy – I hear branding is much bigger on the east coast than it is here, but then again you have more people on that side too. And that box store stint is totally just a dream – it would take a lot of rule-trampling to make that happen!

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