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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.