Horticultural marketing expert Dr. Bridget Behe offers her advice and insight into the often-tricky topic of marketing plants in an increasingly competitive environment.

American Nurseryman: How can growers best identify their customers, or potential customers?

Professor Behe: (I’m framing the response to this question for a customer, which I interpret as a retail buyer, eventually, whether that is through a wholesaler or supplier).

Observation is a powerful tool. Growers can start by investigating the information they already have on their current customers. Who buys the most, and who buys the least? Who buys more profitable crops, and who price-shops for some of the less profitable crops? Who has been a customer for a long time, and who is a relatively new customer?

Look at their buying over time. Who has increased units/dollars with you, and who has declined? Who pays their bills on time, and who needs extended credit terms?

In these tough economic and highly competitive times, growers may need to grade their customers on the relative value to the firm, because not all customers equally contribute to the sales and profitability of a firm.

To look for new or potential customers, start with the infrequent or “small-scale” buyers. Is there something else you grow they might be interested in buying? Why are they not buying from you—and have you asked them? Who is geographically close to some of your better or longer term customers? Are there things you are growing that they might purchase, and have you asked them? It is much easier (as in it takes fewer resources and time) to convert a low-volume buyer to buy more than to convert a never-purchaser and make them a first-time buyer.

American Nurseryman: What should growers know about their customers? Demographics? Attitudes? How do they access such information?

Professor Behe: I believe that marketing is everyone’s job, not just the retailers. That mindset says that growers should know their wholesale customers, their retail customers, their landscape design/install customers, and the end-users, whether they are residential or commercial. That said, the more they know, the better they will be able to connect with that customer or end-user. For example, if a grower supplies a wholesaler who mainly sells to landscapers who maintained larger-scale managed communities, they may have an entirely different plant palette and distribution system compared to the grower who supplies a box store or multiple upscale retail garden centers.

Knowledge is power, still, and there isn’t much knowledge shared up and down the channel of distribution. The grower that does know its customers’ demographics and attitudes and purchase behavior will have a competitive edge over the grower that doesn’t. One of my favorite free tools to get a handle on consumer demographics is http://www.city-data.com. For free, you can enter any zip code and in the blink of an eye have a wealth of demographic data. Imagine how useful this type of analysis would be for the retail garden center! A grower could look like a real marketing hero by providing its customer with information about the end-user. Combine the demographics with information the retailer can provide to the grower about what sold out fast (containers, flower colors, sizes, etc.) and what sat on the shelf forever.

Those are simple but critical pieces of information to help craft a marketing plan for the next season.

American Nurseryman: What are landscape customers and end user customers asking for? How do growers access this info?

Professor Behe: They need to ask landscape companies and retailers about what sold and what trends they are seeing. Sharing information is a simple but competitive advantage for the grower. Finding a time that is better for the customer may not be easy, but is well-worth the effort. We don’t make time to ask the important questions. “Important” is viewed both from the grower’s perspective and the buyer’s perspective. Those conversations can mean the difference between a profitable season and an unprofitable one.

American Nurseryman: National marketing programs have come and gone; Grow Something seems to have taken root. How effective are such programs, and how is that success measured? Are regional programs more effective?

Professor Behe: Any program that brings positive attention to our industry and the products we produce is effective. How is success measured? That is a tough one. It is partly at the cash register, but not all increases or decreases in sales can be attributed to any one campaign or any one advertising method.

The industry’s goal, and that of individual firms, should be to sell products profitably. As one grower once told me, “It is simple multiplication. Number of units sold x profit on each unit.” We must not forget that. Selling more units and generating less total profitably is not good. We need to sell more profitably.

American Nurseryman: How does brand identification influence purchasing?

Professor Behe: Branding plays a role in nearly every other industry, so it should not come as a surprise that branding has a role in ours. Brands typically provide a promise to meet a certain expectation. How well that product meets the expectation (as realistic or unrealistic as it may be) will lead to brand loyalty and repeat purchases.

The influence of brands on purchasing in our industry has not been extensively investigated. There are a handful of studies that look at plant brands, but few in the published literature. Some colleagues and I are working on that very research question using eye-tracking technology. We hope to be able to explain who uses the brand logo on plant containers as a visual cue to help them make the purchase. We have some hypotheses right now, and funding from the Horticultural Research Institute (AmericanHort’s funding branch) and hope to have publishable results next fall.

American Nurseryman: How effective are individual, social media marketing programs?

Professor Behe: Their effectiveness varies by how well they are managed. Like any other program, the devil is in the details. Would a grower have a production program without a good plan that is well executed? The plan is great but if it isn’t executed well and adapted as the temperature and crop timing changes, the plan is worthless. Would some growers (and other plant sellers, for that matter) have a marketing plan that is well-executed? You bet. But the plan doesn’t insure success. The plan has to be well-implemented and adapted as the environment changes.

The same is true for a social media marketing program. The focus should be on the company being at the center of the conversation, not selling plants. “Social” means just that: facilitating a conversation among interested parties. The conversation needs to be sparked and nurtured. A good conversationalist knows how to ask good questions, and a good social media program has a good conversationalist at its epicenter. S/he knows when and how to ask good questions, get customers to respond, and then change the topic in a timely manner.

American Nurseryman: How can growers respond to consumers’ desire for sustainable, eco-friendly products?

Professor Behe: My colleagues and I have conducted some research on this topic. The market isn’t homogeneous, meaning there are lots of niches for lots of interests.

Firms should begin by being open and transparent. What are the sustainable or eco-friendly practices in which the firm is engaging? Has the company reduced the water, electric, fuel or pesticide bills, by how much or what percent?

People want to do business with responsible companies, not just buy products generated in a responsible manner. Lots of diverse preferences for container types, fertilizers and pest management. A company probably can’t afford to market all options, but market ones that work best for the company and tell customers why the firm made those choices.

American Nurseryman: In your opinion, in what area do growers most need to improve their marketing efforts?

Professor Behe: A rising tide lifts all boats. Anytime growers take an interest in marketing to its own customers or its customer’s customer, the odds of a profitable sale increase. The key to long-term success is a continued relationship with customers that deepens over time. The depth of understanding will help the grower understand how best to help customers while keeping the best interests and goals of the company as the uncompromising foundation.

Companies that know their core competencies (what they do best), know their capacity (what they can do), and combine that knowledge with a deep knowledge of their customer (and how that customer is changing over time due to internal and external demands) will likely be the ones that remain profitable into the next decade.

Dr. Bridget Behe is Professor of horticultural marketing in the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State University. She focuses on consumer and market research, and marketing and business management, and divides her time between teaching, research and Extension activities. She can be reached at behe@msu.edu.