Plant labels are no longer a one-shot means of providing information. Adding QR codes takes the marketing tool to a whole new level.

A plant label is a little thing, but its value to the bottom line is enormous. Growers and retailers rely on the label to convey critical information that the plant itself does not display. How much water, and what kind of light? What’s the best type of soil? When does it bloom? That alluring hydrangea in a 1-gallon pot – how big will it get in one year? In five?

Gorgeous photos and clever copy tell a great story and help to sell the plant that can’t speak for itself. And while we’ve come a long way from wooden sticks and markers, the space that’s available on a small piece of plastic limits the amount of information that can be presented.

Wouldn’t it be great to expand that capability? That is, without increasing the size of the label? Enter new media.

Incorporating a QR tag into your plant label helps customers grab information on the go. John Henry’s new tags link directly to the company’s support site,

Extending the reach

It seems everyone and her cat is now on Facebook, Twitter, Flikr and several dozen more social media venues that not only connect like-minded folks, but serve as quick, at-your-fingertips sources of information. By the time you finish reading this sentence, many more sites will be launched, become popular and then fade or be adopted by millions as The Next Big Thing.

Plus, everyone and his dog now uses some variety of smartphone, and making a basic phone call is just about the last reason it’s used. (Let’s amend that: In the very near future, most everyone will be using a smartphone.) If your company’s URL is on the plant tag, a customer can easily access your site and read all about the plant in front of her – plus all the other gems you grow and perhaps a bit about the company itself.

Specific information helps customers decide on the spot.

Is that enough? Or is it too much? Neither. And both. What that gardener really wants to know is: Is this the plant for me? Right here, right now, tell me more about why I should buy this plant.

If your label includes a QR code (short for Quick Response), a simple snap of the smartphone’s camera will direct that customer to wherever you’d like it to lead. Popular overseas and rapidly gaining acceptance in the U.S., QR codes are graphic elements that resemble crossword puzzles, quilt squares or – to the younger crowd – two-dimensional, matrix bar codes. (A smartphone app is required, but easily downloaded for free.) Once the code is detected, or “snapped,” by the phone, the user gains instant access to a whole new world of … whatever you want to provide.

Smart use of smart technology

With a smartphone, an app and a QR code, information can be on your customer’s screen in whiplash speed. So it’s critical that it’s the right information. In this age of instant gratification and on-the-spot “knowledge,” users who take advantage of these apps expect targeted, specific information.

If, for example, the QR tag on a Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’ label directs the user to a your home page or to a dissertation on every hydrangea ever cultivated, you’ve probably lost that customer, at least for now. But if he or she is whisked to a page that gives specific information on ‘Tardiva’, with recommendations for companion plants, well … you’ve probably made a sale. At the very least, you’ve engaged the customer with colorful, perhaps entertaining but definitely pertinent info. Armed with that knowledge, she can make an informed decision; plus, she’ll remember your plant.

Accessed either through QR tags or the URL, BloomIQ supports sales by providing specific info as well as general gardening knowledge and advice.

Take it from a marketing pro who’s been “experimenting,” she says, with QR codes to test their effectiveness: The message must be targeted. As she travels around the country, PlantsNouveau principal Angela Treadwell-Palmer has snapped QR codes for all manner of merchandise just to see how the technology is being used. On The Weeding Gnome her blog for August is titled “QR Codes: Kiss of Death or Everlasting Hydrangea Love?” ( She writes, “For these codes to catch on, they must provide valuable information or some sort of entertainment. Here’s the problem … They don’t.”

Treadwell-Palmer continues, “Often, they direct you to a company home page or literature not necessarily related to the product you want to buy. You would never put a link on an advertisement that takes you to a website home page instead of a dedicated page for that product, right? Sadly, I see this in our industry all the time.”

It may sound like a lot of work, but Treadwell-Palmer suggests that if you incorporate a QR tag on your plant label, it should lead to a dedicated page for that item – and that item alone. In addition, she says, “You should also have a dedicated page for each QR code. Yes, that means two pages for each item you have a code for. Their regular page and their QR code page. Otherwise you can’t easily track how many people are scanning the code, and if you can’t track it – why waste the time?”

What’s your approach?

You can do it yourself, and there are a number of resources available to help you get started: Google “QR code generator,” and you’ll be dazzled by the number of companies that help with creating your own QR code – for free. There are even YouTube clips that can walk you through the process. Better yet, enlist one of your younger, tech-savvy employees to tackle the project.

If you’re not familiar with QR tags, though, and you haven’t developed the digital content that would link to the tag, the prospect of creating and launching nifty new technological tools can be daunting. And that’s where the folks who create your labels can help. One company that’s adopted QR tags in a big way is The John Henry Co., Lansing, Mich. According to horticultural division marketing manager Brenda Vaughn, fully one-third of the company’s hort customers now incorporate QR tags on plant labels.

Backing up those tags – and making life just that much simpler for growers and retailers – is the supporting web site,

Here’s how it works: A customer chooses your plant from among the hundreds of selections on display. It’s a healthy, vigorous specimen, but she’s not exactly sure what it is, or what to do with it, or if it will work in her garden. She whips out her smartphone, snaps the QR tag on the plant label and voila! she’s directed to the BloomIQ page that’s dedicated to that plant (photo, page 20).

Once there, she sees a photo of the plant accompanied by a brief description. It’s a beautiful picture, and right below it is a row of smaller photos under the header “Companion Plants.” She can click any of these to find out what works well with the grass she’s considering.

To the right, there’s a list of “details,” so our customer can see at a glance that, say, northern sea oats is hardy in zones 3 to 8. That’s a good thing, because she gardens in Zone 6. She likes ornamental grass, but she wonders how big this one will get. Let’s see … it says 30 to 36 inches. Her yard has areas of full sun, dappled shade and deep shade, and this plant will tolerate part sun. So far, it looks like a keeper.

As she’s scanning the easy-to-grab information, she realizes her neighbor might like Chasmanthium, so she can hit the “share” button at the top of the details list and send her the page she’s viewing. If she’s convinced that this is the plant for her, she can even print a shopping list and pick up a few companions.

What’s your role in making this happen? John Henry takes care of it for you by providing the content you’d have to develop for each plant you’re marketing. But if you’d like to create your own pages, you can do that, too. “You can even change the link,” Vaughn explains, “so you can update the information without changing the QR tag.”

Other companies are eager to get you up to speed. If you work with MasterTag, for example, you’ll soon have built-in reference in the company’s new web site,, which was recently demo’d at OFA in Columbus and is scheduled to go live on Oct. 1. Your MasterTag QR tag can be linked directly to the new site, providing the shopper with the scoop on cultural requirements and other pertinent facts. Again, this takes the task of writing all that support material off your hands and provides the customer with the information she craves.

Say you’re a regional grower that sells to independent garden centers and you’d like the tag to refer to your own site – that’s an option, too. Joe Fox, sales and marketing director for MasterTag, says the company’s positioned to “help the grower/wholesaler put together its own site” to support QR tag marketing. “MasterTag’s been developing consumer care information for 50, 60 years now; we’ve got a lot of content and photos,” Fox says. “We’re also developing 30-second ‘help’ videos that will allow the consumer at retail to make a purchasing decision,” Fox continues.

Interest in QR codes among MasterTag’s customer is growing, but Fox cautions that the customer’s experience must be quick, positive and specific. “We need to address what the consumer needs while she’s standing at the shelf,” he explains. “Even if it’s something as basic as this: A customer is looking at the 4-inch flowering annuals, snaps the QR code and we give them a photo of the plant in a beautiful container arrangement on a deck. It’s a digital mannequin, and it can encourage them to buy with confidence.”

Is this technology going to become an industry standard? Perhaps, says Fox. “[QR tags] will be used more as long as we don’t disappoint the customer.”

Remember, to younger consumers, this technology is second nature. They’ve come to expect the latest information – right now. And as smartphones become more a standard tool than a novelty, providing this kind of new-tech touch will help keep you ahead of the curve.

Sally Benson is editorial director of American Nurseryman. She can be reached at