VIVA!-cious Innovation

June 11, 2002 - 11:30

The winner of the GPN/MasterTag Marketing Innovation Award shows us that plants sold in chain stores don’t have to become commodities when the brand is geared to not only sell itself, but differentiate both grower and retailer.

If you were an herb grower looking to start a marketing
program, it would probably feel natural to utilize practical use information on
your POP materials because herbs are something common to most
individuals’ everyday lives.They’re dashed into foods, their scents
emanate from our showers as we wash our hair, they are hung upside down from
our gardens for later use. There are shelves upon shelves of books available on
aromatherapy and holistic herb therapies, and scores of companies producing
herbal supplements claiming charlatan-like remedies that don’t yet have
FDA approval.

Herbs are much more a part of our lifestyle, in the way
their many uses and forms — and advertising — saturate our
quotidian lives, than gardening itself is. This lends itself well to the
effectiveness of an herb grower’s marketing program. Traditional
gardening, however, is arguably part of the lifestyle of only the segment of
the population that can either afford it, has the time for it, or both. For
those growers of annuals and perennials out there, that may just mean
you’ll have to be a little more creative. For those who succeed, GPN and
MasterTag will be watching you.

If you’ve been keeping up with our Marketing
Innovation Award Series, reading about the progenitor of this year’s
winning program after the May issue may make you believe we’ve got herb
fever. But we assure you that’s not the case; it just so happens that
some of the best marketing programs Á out there are targeted toward
herbs. While Colorado-based runner-up Welby Gardens categorizes their herb line
by hardiness, embellished with details on usage and historical information (see
the May issue of GPN for complete details), our winner, Altman Plants, has
capitalized on perhaps the most effective campaign any grower can use as a
framework for their marketing programs: lifestyle.

The VIVA! Diva and the beginning of an image

Four years ago, Deena Altman saw something that many before
her had seen, but envisioned it in a new way. She saw herbs planted in
nondescript pots with small, simple white stick labels. They were uninspiring
commodity, to say the least. Meanwhile, sales were skyrocketing for
herb-derived products — from herbal soaps to supplements — whose
glory and high prices were based on the marketing of the very herbs that went
virtually unnoticed in garden center pots.

“We felt that the herb category had a lot of potential
that was not being utilized. It seemed natural that the plants, if marketed
well, would also be popular with consumers. People would be willing to pay more
for a well-packaged herb that could be a gift or sit on their windowsill. An
herb with complete instructions both for care and use, as well as being
attractively packaged, would command more attention and have higher
value.”

Deena was on to something. She needed a name that would
effectively convey the wellness aspect that was rapidly becoming associated
with herbs, and came up with “VIVA!,” the Spanish verb that means
something akin to “live!” or “live on!” in English.
This name had recognition in the marketplace, but had never been associated
with herbs, so Altman plants trademarked it. “It’s a name that
resonates with the growing Latin market as well as the mainstream
market,” Deena explains.

Next was the image. She divided the herbs into
understandable, color-coded categories with attractive, upscale icons targeted
to the female gardener. “We are definitely trying to convey an upscale
look that is attractive to the female consumer, Deena says. “The colors
are muted, the icons are fun, detailed and whimsical. The palette of colors
feels like it is from the same family. The terra cotta plastic pot has a
matching print in a muted color so the whole package will fit into any kitchen
or house décor. We also have banners and bench talkers that repeat the
category icons and colors.”

Striking visuals are precisely the reason this program is
being honored as most innovative. “The packaging elements of pot and
label were coordinated to stand out at the retail level,” explains
MasterTag’s Joe Fox. “The labeling has unique visual appeal, from
the font style to the graphic representations on the tags. The other
significant, strong element is the comprehensive retail display, which includes
the display benches and coordinated, complete POP, for an organized, stylish
look that effectively sets these products apart from the ‘average’
plant offering.”

VIVA! Culinary herb tags are terra cotta, Tea herbs are
green, Health and Beauty are blue, Aromatics are golden, Pet herbs are aqua and
Scented Geraniums are lavender. The last two categories — Pet and Scented
Geraniums — were integrated in the second and fourth years Á of
the program, respectively. Each tag icon is cartoon-like and fun and features a
1- to 2-sentence description of the herb category or specific type of herb. The
backs of the tags discuss the herbs’ properties at more length, including
the habits and scents of the plants and their traditional uses. They also
provide the care information necessary for the consumer to get the most out of
their herbs.

The categories that Altman chose seemed to be the most
logical for defining herbs according to their use. This year, 72 different
herbs make up the entire VIVA! line; this number varies as Altman adds new
varieties and subtracts others that either don’t sell well or are
replaced by improved breeding. In order of profitability, the Culinary herbs
sell the most, followed by Tea, Aromatic, Heath and Beauty, and Pet. Scented
Geraniums were just introduced this year. Altman sells about $2 million of the
VIVA! Herbs line annually, with retail price points ranging from $1.47-1.99 for
a 4 1/4-inch pot, and up to $2.57 for a 1-quart pot.

Branding for the boxes

If you had to guess who Altman’s customers were based
on the image they convey, you might guess independent garden centers. But this
is where Welby Gardens, whose customers are exclusively independents, and
Altman Plants part ways: Altman’s primary customers are discount
merchandisers and home improvement stores. When they started the business 25
years ago, their wholesale business was with independent garden centers. The
business environment soon changed, however, and growth came from the large
chain stores that rapidly moved into California. “We made a conscious
decision early on to partner with these large companies and grow with them. At
first, and for many years, the discount marketplace concentrated on price and
value in the garden center to grow and establish their business. But in the
last five years or so the garden center business has been so well-established
by these retailers that they are now looking for more margin and
differentiation. It is this opportunity to create more value, and develop more
of a destination environment and excitement at the garden center, where a
company like ours can make a difference,” Deena says.

Making a difference, according to Altman, consists of
providing its customers with original and exciting programs that improve their
offerings to gardeners. It means they want their customers to look to them for
solutions and complete, effective marketing ideas as well as quality,
merchandising and fulfillment. It means establishing a good customer
relationship. Some growers might feel like their plants won’t be cared
for once they reach a big-box customer, but Altman Plants works with the
retailer by using their own merchandisers to help keep displays fresh.

Investing in their own marketing program has given Altman
both control and confidence. Deena believes that grower-level marketing
programs afford great advantages: “The grower can select the best
products for their region from all breeders and seed/plant distributors; the
grower is intimately involved in what it takes to set up bench space or racks
and the configuration of the trays for both growing and display in the retail
setting; the grower weighs what POP is cost-effective and realistic in the
retail environment and understands the constraints on cost to have volume
retails — products with real value for the price.”

Countering challenges

On the flipside, there are challenges, which Deena freely
admits. “It requires substantial resources to be allocated to develop
these programs,” she says. “From tagging, POP materials and pot
design, to researching plant variety lists, trialing plants, sourcing plant
inputs and establishing protocols for the programs.” Market penetration,
as a grower with a brand, can also be an issue. To develop a program that can
be distributed nationwide, it is best to grow it regionally. This is because
strong, regional growers understand their market, the appropriateness and
timing of the plants offered, and they also have fresh product that can be
delivered daily.

Knowing that regional growing would be the key to a
successful national retail program, Deena and her husband, Ken, as well as
friends in the industry, have developed a solution to the market penetration
problem. Their brainchild? Floragem, a network of growers that shares the
Altman Plants marketing program so member growers don’t have to develop
their own programs from scratch. “If you can distribute your costs over
more growers, then the costs of your plastics, promotional materials and
development are less because there’s more volume,” Deena explains.

Growers cannot produce VIVA! Herbs unless they belong to the
Floragem group; Altman is hoping to share ownership of this association with
other growers in the future. “The vision of Floragem is to have a
national network of growers. Right now, we are well-represented in the Western
United States with Seville Farms, Rocky Mountain Growers and Altman Plants.
This network will ultimately enable a national merchant to have programs they
can advertise nationally because the program will be available to them
nationally,” she added.

Any grower interested in becoming a part of Floragem and
growing VIVA! Herbs or one of the other programs (VIVA! Veggies, Garden Music
and Garden Discoveries) would most likely need to already be doing business
with large retail stores and would need to be able to merchandise the stores to
which they were providing product. For more information, contact Deena Altman
via the altmanplants.com Web site or call her direct at (760) 744-8191 ext.
140.

About The Author

Brandi D. Thomas is associate editor for GPN.

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