Your garden center may have the ingredients to succeed in 2017, but if nobody knows who you are or where to find you, then your efforts will fizzle. Rising above the noise to differentiate from the competition is critical to getting found by customers.

“Your image means more now than it ever has,” says Ben Regester, general manager at Gateway Garden Center in Delaware. “With social media taking over the way we communicate and the rate we dispense information, things happen at a much faster pace. An IGC needs to be visible and relevant to customers so it’s not left behind.”

Ben Regester General Manager, Gateway Garden Center
Katie Dubow Creative Director, Garden Media Group
Annie Stuart Marketing Manager, Weston Nurseries
Jennifer Youngquest Director of Marketing, English Gardens

In this fast-paced digital age, brand visibility is more important — and more challenging — than ever. Not only are there more channels to manage, but today’s customers expect more from each one.

“Our high-tech world has created multiple channels for customers to contact businesses and receive immediate responses,” says Katie Dubow, creative director at Garden Media Group, a public relations firm focused on the gardening industry. “If you’re not available, they’ll turn to someone else.” (Editor’s note: Read Dubow’s tips on branding for Millennials, “Green branding for Millennials” at http://bit.ly/2lomvxE.)

That means garden center marketers, who already wear multiple hats, must now do even more. Finding the time, budget and bandwidth to effectively maintain an omni-channel brand is challenging, “but there are definitely ways to work around that and make marketing easy to manage,” says Annie Stuart, marketing manager at Weston Nurseries in Massachusetts.

Follow these steps to boost your IGC’s brand visibility this year — without adding more stress to your busy schedule.

The first step in building a marketable brand is identifying your target customer.
COURTESY OF ENGLISH GARDENS

1. Define your brand

“The first step to visibility is identifying what your brand is,” says Jennifer Youngquest, director of marketing for English Gardens, which operates six garden centers and a landscape company in Michigan. “Customers are inundated with noise. To stand apart, it’s important that you have a secure idea of who your target market is and what you provide each customer. Why do customers need to come to you? How do you differentiate yourself?”

For help answering these questions, try filling out Hubspot’s free Customer Avatar Workbook at bit.ly/2kkiHjr to figure out your ideal prospect. The better you understand your audience and why they shop with you, Regester says, the more relevant you’ll be. Your differentiator might be personal service, product selection, plant knowledge or convenient location, but to rise above the noise, you have to dig deeper.

“There’s so much competition with larger box stores and even grocery stores carrying plants, so you can’t compete on price or just having unique things anymore,” Stuart says. “You have to set yourself apart with an experience and a story.”

Being a family-owned IGC doesn’t necessarily make you unique, as 90 percent of people surveyed in Garden Center’s 2016 State of the Industry Survey indicated they were family-owned. But telling stories about your history, your people and your customer experience makes you more relatable and helps build personal relationships that big box stores can’t.

“IGCs are at an advantage because you all have great stories to tell,” Dubow says. “Good stories create brand loyalty and emotional connections with customers. The trick to creating a good brand story is selling an experience. Airbnb doesn’t just rent rooms; they tell stories of renters traveling across the globe.”

For example, Gateway Garden Center identifies its brand by three core values that encompass its products and services: nature, nurture and knowledge. Weston Nurseries, likewise, leans on the depth of knowledge that comes from its history as one of the oldest garden centers in New England.

Part of defining your brand is determining how it will look. When Stuart redesigned Weston Nurseries’ website (www.westonnurseries.com) last March, she developed brand standards to give all their marketing materials consistency — “down to the color scheme and the fonts,” as well as boilerplate copy about the company and its products — so the in-store signage matches the website, which matches the email newsletters, and so on.

Stuart, who’s also Artist-in-Residence, named the brand colors Weston Green and Olga Mezitt Pink (which matches a rhododendron that Weston introduced with the same name, honoring president Peter Mezitt’s grandmother). This makes the colors part of a cohesive brand story that reflects Weston’s history.

Weston Nurseries’ marketing manager is also Artist-in-Residence, and she revamped signage to match the company’s brand colors.

2. Optimize your web presence

A well-designed, up-to-date website is the anchor of any brand today. But can consumers find yours?

First, you need to know what they’re searching for. Start with basic keyword research. Paid tools like Ahrefs and Buzz Sumo provide detailed data, but Regester suggests simply asking yourself what you would type into a search engine to find a garden center like yours.

“Spend some time googling your garden center, then google your competitors to figure out how you stack up, and then google general garden terms or products you sell to see if your garden center even shows up,” Youngquest says.

Weston Nurseries, Gateway and English Gardens are starting to explore search engine optimization (SEO) more this year. For example, Stuart is focusing on local keywords to target searchers within 20 miles of each store. Back-end website development and pay-per-click advertising require technical skills, so, “For things like that, it’s best to hire an expert,” Youngquest says.

Whether building a website or joining social networks, only tackle as much as you can handle. “It would be great if we could put all of our products on our website, but we don’t have the bandwidth to maintain that,” Youngquest says. “You don’t want events [listed online] that have expired. You don’t want the last post to be about Christmas trees. If you’re going to have a blog, make sure you have a strategy for adding new posts frequently to keep the content fresh.”

The most frequently visited pages on English Gardens’ website are locations, hours and weekly ads, so Youngquest stresses the importance of keeping that information up to date and easy to find.

To promote your website, start claiming brand pages and profiles on other platforms and directories. Google My Business (formerly Google+Local, which was previously Google Places) is a good place to start for increased exposure in local search results.

“Claim your presence wherever customers are leaving information about you,” Youngquest says, including social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and review sites like Yelp or Angie’s List. Google crawls these sites to determine your website’s credibility and ranking, so make sure your business name, address and phone number match your Google listing exactly. Then, you can start posting content that’s consistent with the brand identity you’ve developed.

3. Create catchy content

Consistently creating great content for blogs, newsletters and social media seems daunting when you think of all the places where you want to be visible. Take advantage of the slow winter season to plan content for the year ahead, Stuart suggests.

Not sure what to write about? “The calendar year of gardening tasks are your topics each month,” Stuart says. She marks down holidays, events and seasonal gardening reminders like when to plan grass seed, then builds content around those timely topics to inspire and educate customers, mixing in relevant promotions.

Gateway blends “informational and relational” content, Regester says. “We inform customers of sales but also share a story to connect on another level. In each piece, we try to make sure at least one of our (core values of nature, nurture and knowledge) relates to the message. We support nature by promoting native plants. We nurture relationships with customers by answering questions. We grow knowledge by providing educational opportunities.”

Dubow recommends the 60/30/10 rule: “60 percent of your content should inspire, 30 percent should educate and 10 percent should sell,” she says. “I get email after email with what’s in stock or on sale. That doesn’t inspire me! Emails should be filled with pretty pictures that entice the reader to take action.”

Weston Nurseries’ weekly email newsletters are packed with colorful photos of plants, flowers and gardening products to inspire readers, along with a list of upcoming events and educational workshops, followed by current sales specials.

Stuart says she spends about half her time each week gathering content for the email newsletters. She picks a piece of content from the archive of articles that staff have written over the years, and updates it as a fresh blog post with a new picture. She pulls excerpts from each post for the email newsletter, linking back to articles on the website. Then, she and her part-time marketing assistant pull blurbs from the newsletter to post on social media.

Instead of viewing each piece of content on each channel as another to-do on your never-ending list, plan ways to recycle and repurpose content across channels so you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.

But who’s actually going to write the content? Your marketing department might not have the time or skill-sets to do it all.

“Use your staff as a resource. You don’t know who’s working behind the register who can write you an article,” Stuart says. “If you don’t have time, pull from your staff, and give them incentives to do so. When I need content, I put the word out to the staff and offer store gift certificates if they give me an article or take some photos.”

Weston’s horticulturist uses the incentive to buy a new product to try at home, then writes about it and earns another gift card to buy another product to review — creating a cycle of content.

“It gets the staff involved in our marketing, but it also gets people excited about the products,” Stuart says.

She also suggests leveraging vendors, who often “have fantastic content on their websites that they’re happy to let you use. If you don’t have time to write something original, share other great posts [that support] your branding,” she says, recommending one unique post (sharing your own content) to every four curated posts (sharing someone else’s).

4. Spread the news

It’s one thing to leverage your own content across your own channels, but strategic PR can get other blogs and news/media outlets to talk about your brand for you, amplifying your visibility to new audiences.

English Gardens sends out press releases about its free seminars and workshops, in addition to promoting them in email newsletters, sales circulars and social media. Its media list includes Detroit’s daily newspapers, local community papers, online newsletters and other websites that post local news and events including chambers of commerce.

Besides just listing events in local calendars, ask reporters for more coverage.

“We invite the media to our events and some of our training sessions, where vendors come in and give short presentations to our staff,” she says. “Garden writers will come and learn about new products, and hear it directly from the vendor. That has really helped us cement our relationships with the media.”

“Relationships are the essence of public relations,” Dubow says, so don’t be afraid to call a news outlet to identify the right reporter, or ask what kind of stories their readers are seeking. “You’ll start to learn what they value as newsworthy, instead of trying to guess. The key is always what’s in it for them, not for you. If it’s about self-promotion, your pitch will fall flat.”

IGCs have plenty of PR opportunities beyond events, like introducing a new plant or product category, opening new stores or achieving significant growth milestones. But news shouldn’t be all about you. Promote your community involvement, too, like partnerships with local organizations, donations to charity or contributions to public gardens.

“People want to support a business they feel good about,” Dubow says. “You’re probably already involved in the community, so make sure your customers know about it.”

At Weston Nurseries, Stuart says, “If we do public relations, it’s through action. We do a lot of public garden installations where we donate the plants. If you don’t have time to write a press release, plant a garden and put your sign by it. When people actually see how involved you are, that sets you apart from those larger, impersonal box stores.”

Once you develop relationships with local media, they might start calling you for input on topics related to gardening, or even submitted stories you write, which can accelerate your brand visibility.

“Position yourself as the local expert,” Youngquest says. “Most IGCs don’t think the information they have is worthwhile or newsworthy, but that’s not necessarily true. After a long winter, there’s a lot of things you can talk about to help people get ready for spring and cement yourself as an expert. Newspapers have skinny staffs, so if they don’t have a garden writer on staff, you could become the expert.”

With the right pitch, almost any gardening topic could be newsworthy.

“The key is tying it into national trends,” Dubow says. “Pitching composting stories was a huge success for us in 2016 because it was a national topic. Chickens and goats are still hot, as is miniature gardening. Hijack the news to tie it into what’s happening in-store.”

5. Measure, tweak, repeat

Measuring brand visibility can be elusive. You could survey customers to ask how they heard about you, but that gets harder to pinpoint as you put out more messages across more channels to capture their attention. Besides, if you’ve been around long enough — like English Gardens (founded in 1954) or Weston Nurseries (founded in 1923) — customers might not remember their first encounter.

“When we ask people that question, most people say, ‘I’ve always known you,’” Youngquest says.

Instead of measuring brand awareness, measure how people respond to your brand — whether that’s a Facebook comment, Instagram like, email open (or worse, unsubscribe) or, ultimately, sales. Individual email and social media platforms often offer analytic tools to better understand views, engagement and action. Paired with free Google Analytics on your website, these tools can provide important insights to help you measure, modify and improve your branding efforts online.

“I’m looking for the interactions and actual engagement, because that’s what people are really looking for,” Stuart says. “Get people to see you, then engage them with your merchandising, displays, signs, website, staff interactions, events and seminars, and all the information you can provide to reinforce your brand. It’s creating an experience that gets people coming back; that’s how you retain their loyalty.”

Brooke is a freelance writer living in Cleveland and a frequent contributor to Garden Center.