May 9, 2002
The brand name for Canadian plants

By Rita Weerdenburg

Once they're planted in the nation's gardens, the shrubs, evergreens and perennials grown by Canada's wholesale nurseries pretty much all look the same. Flowering at their designated times of the year, showing off the texture of their foliage or, in the winter months, the unique characteristics of their bark, the many thousands of varieties now offered to the Canadian consumer are individual works of art and demonstrate the particular affinity that has developed between the grower and Mother Nature. Unlike the shovel used to plant them however, or the pruners used to prune them, what these plants don't bear is the name or logo of their originating grower.

     Even modern science makes this an unlikely scenario, and this generic aspect of plants has long since shaped the grower industry's ideas about plant sales and marketing. It was up to the grower to develop a relationship with their retail garden centre customers, but getting their product into the hands and gardens of the consumer was the sole responsibility of the retailer. All that has started to change.

     Perhaps this change is as a result of the strong resemblance between today's container growing operation and a manufacturing plant. Producing row upon row of virtually identical plants in ever-decreasing time frames, container growers have been forced to abandon their standard inventory lament that "we can't just flick the assembly line on switch." Perhaps they have been influenced by the increasing competitiveness of the retail industry and the garden centre sector's obvious need for support in the face of this competition. Perhaps this new attitude is an acknowledgement that modern business methods have changed the nature of the relationship between the grower and the retail garden centre.

     Whatever the reason, growers are becoming less and less inclined to make the marketing and sales of their plants the exclusive responsibility of the garden centre. Instead, they are taking on a more aggressive role for themselves. Across Canada, wholesale nursery growers are branding their plants with catchy, hopefully memorable names and promoting the sale of their plants at the retail level with the development of supporting point-of-purchase materials such as posters, catalogues and colourful labels.

     At its most sophisticated, plant branding is used to create markets for newly developed varieties of plant material. This requires aggressive, integrated marketing strategies that employ not just the required POP materials such as labels, posters, and display systems, but also full cooperation from the media, especially gardening and lifestyle magazines and the daily and weekly newspapers.

     The upside to a successful plant promotion program, says Rick Sorenson of Pride of Place Plants, a B.C.-based agency with a mandate to find and introduce new plants in countries around the world, is that the consumer will gladly pay more for a properly marketed new product. "Price isn't a factor," says Sorenson. "Many times I've stood in a retail garden centre and watched as consumers quickly buy up a new variety in a coloured pot with a nice label for $14.95, while they completely ignored similar plants on the next bench selling for $9.95, but without the added value."

     Sorenson admits that a new plant launch can be very expensive. The costs of professional looking, full colour marketing materials, press kits, mailings and more, quickly add up. The breeder or grower must also absorb the cost of having sufficient quantities of material available to meet the anticipated demand. And the fickle, unpredictable nature of today's consumer makes the whole process a huge gamble.

     "The grower or breeder needs to be very in touch with current consumer trends," agrees Sorenson.

     The other downside to the promotion of a new variety is that it can be very easy for the competition to reap the benefits of these very costly promotional efforts. This has led breeders to trademark plant names and grant growing privileges only to licensed growers. While understanding the resulting confusion this practice tends to generate, Sorenson sees no other practical solution. "Breeders need to be compensated for developing new varieties, and the agency, whether it's the breeder, the grower or an independent, needs to know they can recoup their promotional investment. Otherwise, we would certainly see a reduction in the number of new varieties introduced to the marketplace."

     The high cost of creating a marketplace demand for a single new product has made this practice much more suited to the higher density, more sophisticated European marketplace. Even there, the cost factor has led breeders to enter into creative, cost-sharing partnerships. On both sides of the ocean, growers interested in taking better control of the marketing of their products have instead opted to brand specific categories or even a complete line of nursery stock. And, where they once promoted their company's benefits such as quality, variety and service, today's growers are looking to differentiate themselves in the minds of their retail garden centre customers with the effectiveness of their own merchandising programs.

     With their relatively short pro¬≠duction cycle, a continuing market¬≠place popularity that apparently knows no bounds and even with their often-unattractive appearance during the peak sales season, perennial plants, often described as "a promise in a pot," are the obvious candidates for value-added marketing assistance. Valleybrook Perennials, with growing locations in B.C., Ontario and most recently, Maryland, was one of the first companies to fill this marketplace void with their trademarked line of Heritage Perennials. In their distinctive bright blue pots and dressed with colourful labels, Heritage Perennials are further supported with a fully integrated merchandising program, which includes display cards, banners and brochures. Eye-catching information stands, sometimes sporting matching blue umbrellas and a copy of the company's now very popular Perennial Gardening Guide are also available to retailers. More recently, Valleybrook have also developed a new line of sales benches.

     Brand recognition is further promoted through consumer magazine advertising with attractive ads bearing the company's distinctive logo and catchy "out of the blue" slogans. Valleybrook customers can also participate in a cooperative advertising program, offering reimbursements of up to 50 per cent for newspaper, magazine or television ads that promote Heritage Perennials in accordance with company guidelines, although "we are pretty flexible in that regard," says president John Schroeder. To date, the success of their programs have been measured only by the very positive feedback they receive at both consumer and trade shows, Schroeder says, adding that market research will be the next step to determine both effectiveness and future objectives.

     Since then, many other growers of perennials have developed their own strategies. Mori Nurseries' (Niagara-on-the-Lake) more recent addition of perennials to their already extensive line of nursery stock was introduced to the marketplace as MoriStar perennials. Tags, posters and banners provide the retail garden centre customer with colourful point-of-purchase support. Also located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Epic Plant Company (formerly Park Perennials) is primarily a grower of perennials, serving both the mass merchandiser and independent retail garden centres on both sides of the border. Although the company has long supported the market's need for colourful and informative picture labels, they too have embarked upon a more definitive merchandising effort. "We took advantage of a necessary name change to resolve a trademark issue in the U.S. and used it as an opportunity to develop a whole new cooperative merchandising program," explains product development manager Mark Denee.

     Besides newly designed picture labels, the 'Epic Plants' line is further supported with the publication of The Epic Gardener, a biannual publication that provides the consumer with product-specific information, as well as more general gardening advice. A mail-back subscription card helps the Epic Plant Company monitor the effectiveness of their program and offers even further support to their garden centre customers.

     Epic Plants, as have most nurseries, offer free point-of-sale materials to their customers based on volume of sales, with additional materials being made available on a cost-recovery basis.

     John Langendoen, president of Willowbrook Nurseries, sees plant branding as being more than a creative marketing partnership with their garden centre customers. Primarily container growers of a large selection of ornamentals targeting the retail garden centre market, Willowbrook Nurseries was quick to capitalize on the huge marketplace south of the border that was made accessible by both their location and the low value of the Canadian dollar.

     "Even with the high demand and our attractive Canadian prices, Americans can still be reluctant to do business in what they see as a foreign country," says Langendoen, "but everyone can identify with Niagara Falls. The familiarity somehow provides a certain level of comfort."

     Willowbrook's use of their Pride of Niagara name is especially successful on the U.S. side of the border as a brand name to identify all plants grown by their nursery. Specific categories of plants are further promoted as 'Garden Pride' plants with tags, brochures and large laminated posters. As is the case for most growers that have opted to go the brand name route, Willowbrook's program has a built-in flexibility that allows them to expand their range of promoted categories to meet new marketplace demands, and of course, the company's promotional budget.

     A relatively new feature added to Willowbrook's promotional program are their pre-stocked sales racks. Featuring an assortment of perennials or vines, sales racks make it easy for the customer to order, as the selection of currently popular or in-flower inventory has been pre-selected by the grower. Already dressed with the necessary posters and labels, the plant racks are ready to provide the garden centre with immediate sales.

     Adapted from a merchandising strategy by European bulb growers seeking to increase market share, the plant rack idea has also been effectively used by Canadian growers servicing the mass merchandiser marketplace. To the box store manager, inexperienced in the ordering and merchandising of living plant material, pre-stocked racks put most of the decision-making process in the hands of the grower, explains Brookdale Treeland Nursery president Paul Olsen. "A manager of a box store is concerned about volume and inventory turns. He doesn't want to make decisions about how many hostas or primulas he needs to order for the spring season. It's up to the grower industry to know what the consumer wants and provide the product to the retailer in a ready-to-go format," he stresses. And even the mass merchandiser is concerned about product differentiation, says Olsen, whose company supplies perennials to a number of chains under different brand names such as President's Choice and Premium Plants, among others. "Ordering the right labels and the right quantity is a big expense," admits Olsen, "but colour sells and it's up to the producer to help the retailer sell their product, the same way a power tool manufacturer, for instance, provides sales support."

     Are the substantial extra costs of creating brand awareness worthwhile? John Langendoen echoes the feelings of most growers when he admits it is difficult to quantify the results of Willowbrook's merchandising programs. "There are so many factors that contribute to the bottom line and the most important ones, such as the weather and the economy, are even beyond our control," he says, adding that feedback from their predominately retail garden centre clientele has been very positive.

     Because much of their product reaches the garden centre marketplace through rewholesalers, Van Belle Nurseries (Matsqui, B.C.) has had only limited success with their own Growing Star label, says Grace Van Belle. "Our program might be more successful if we put more effort into it," she admits, "but we started to find that many of our customers didn't want a label identifying plants as our product." As licensed growers of many highly promoted trademarked new introductions, she can, however, testify to the value of these promotional programs. "There is a high demand for these new products," she confirms, "and they are definitely worth the extra licensing or royalty fees because they do command a higher price at the consumer level."

     As growers continue to determine what works and what doesn't in helping the retailer get their products into the hands and gardens of the Canadian consumer, we are almost certain to see more of the same innovative programs coming from the wholesale nursery industry. Fairly easy to predict is that more growers will follow the lead of nurseries such as Valleybrook and Epic Plants, which have already added an entirely new dimension to their programs with the creation of sophisticated, informative web sites as one more way of getting ever-changing information to the consumer. After that, the sky - and the cost - will be the only limits.