How to build a garden brand

We are used to companies selling us the dream of a happier life magically created through buying their branded products. But what about our beautiful public gardens?

Cheshire: local tourist board has achieved big impact by collectively marketing all the region’s gardens together - image: Cheshire Gardens
Cheshire: local tourist board has achieved big impact by collectively marketing all the region’s gardens together - image: Cheshire Gardens

Can gardens benefit from being brands? And how do you go about branding your garden if you have not already done so?

Blenheim Palace head of marketing Stephanie Hendley describes a brand as "an identity the public can link to your product or service". She is clear that gardens can be branded, although Blenheim has one brand for its house and its gardens. The property spends time on marketing the gardens to target audiences using the overall brand.

"To decide on our branding we held a number of workshops and surveyed our target audience for their opinions on our business. An external third-party brand agency then helped us create our story and identity," she explains.

Once it had its brand, Blenheim solidified it by drawing up a set of brand guidelines, which it uses and insists that partners follow. "This creates a constant delivery across all marketing channels and helps strengthen the brand," says Hendley. "We regularly survey and conduct research to understand what our target audience want to see from us and understand how their behaviours and expectations are changing. It is on the back of that we can develop our business and reflect on whether our brand needs to evolve too."

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew could be seen as an example of a garden that has built up a strong brand without really trying. Its world-famous collection, prestigious location and calibre of its scientists have ensured that Kew Gardens is a name known across the world.

However, Kew could do more to capitalise on this, according to director of marketing and commercial enterprises Sandra Bottrell. "At the moment all the marketing is event-specific," she points out. "We're moving towards what we might call brand marketing - it's about the whole offer rather than about something specific. A lot of people don't understand what a botanic garden is. They don't understand why it's not free to get in, like a park. We're charging for entry because this is a scientific organisation and this is a living collection, and this is very different to a park."

Lessons from museum sector

Bottrell, who previously worked at the Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Museums at Greenwich, says botanic gardens are closer to museums than other gardens and there is a lot to be learnt from the museum sector in terms of marketing.

"We're trying to give people a richer visitor experience. It's not just a question of getting the numbers in. What we want is for people to have an enjoyable day but to learn a bit while they are here and without realising that they are learning and that they care about it. We want the gardens to be a kind of living science so people experience the gardens as they go round and interpreting them the way that the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum would. That's the way we're starting to move towards."

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) director of horticulture and learning Kevin Reid credits the National Trust and English Heritage with particularly strong branding, but Mount Stewart in Scotland, Trentham and the Lost Gardens of Heligan in England also score highly. "We've got a strong brand," says Reid, so strong that the Edinburgh garden has moved four times over the past 350 years but is still recognised as the same garden. "We've got a brand that is very recognisable around the world, as could be the same for Kew. We also have a national brand - we're also branded within Scotland."

Part of having an effective brand is keeping your messaging simple. RBGE has four gardens with distinct characteristics, collections and management. Focus too much on their differences and RBGE risks diluting its brand identity. Reid says each site has its own brand that is marketed to the local area but the wider message, or corporate brand, is that RBGE is "one organisation in four locations, four plant collections in one".

He adds: "It's about getting across who we are, what we are and what we are about. It's about showing our mission, our vision and our conservation work. That's crucially important. What we do is we utilise our brand. People understand that they are all part of the RBGE family. People understand that we have high standards for botany, horticulture and the visitor experience. We have the individual collections and we market on that but you use a brand to say 'this is about quality'."

This is also the approach taken by the RHS. The society has one of the most recognisable brand identities in horticulture and it capitalises on this for its gardens. For RHS Wisely, Rosemoor, Hyde Hall and Harlow Carr "all four locations are very much branded as RHS gardens and as such we all use the same creative style to present a cohesive look and feel to our advertising campaigns", says a spokeswoman. "However, from a PR perspective we would then look to highlight the USPs of each garden."

Using the same logo and style for signage, leaflets and interpretation across all four sites is a key part of that, says Reid. "The logo becomes very visible. People recognise it. The branding is important. The customer journey stars online. From the outset we're getting that recognition for RBGE and our logo."

Before joining RBGE, Reid was director of the University of Liverpool's Ness Botanic Garden, where he had experience of building a brand from scratch to give it its own identity apart from the university. "We were doing 45-50 weddings a year. When you're getting married the shield that you get on the top of your degree certificate is not the branding you want. We drew up a set of brand guidelines and built it around that."

Understanding what you have to offer your customers and what they want to hear about you is central to good branding. It may be easier if you have a big marketing budget but that does not mean you need one to turn your garden into a brand. "However big or small a business, having a brand identity builds and strengthens a business," says Hendley. When budgets are limited, she advises investing time in storytelling, supported by inspiring pictures. "The more interesting the story and content, the more engagement you will find on the more cost-effective channels to market, like press and digital," she explains.

Cluster marketing

Smaller gardens can also join a group brand, which gives them many of the benefits of a strong corporate brand without the expense of creating it, in what is known as cluster marketing.

In 2007 Cheshire Tourist Board decided to capitalise on nearby Liverpool being the 2008 city of culture. Staff thought about what Cheshire offered tourists and realised it has more gardens per head of population than anywhere else in the UK. "We felt that our gardens had a lot to offer visitors," says account manager Rebecca Wainwright.

"After we came up with the idea we went to a design agency. They came back with the messaging and the look. The thought behind it was to find one brand to suit all these gardens and link that to the destination. That's what they did." The brand was called "Cheshire Gardens of Distinction".

The gardens saw 346,778 more visitors in 2008 compared with 2005, the year against which Cheshire Marketing chose to benchmark. Visitor spend increased by £12.7m.

Wainwright adds: "We've had various tag lines and campaign messages - 2008 was the Cheshire Year of the Gardens. We moved on to 'Cheshire Gardens, Different Every Day', which focused on seasonality because the gardens were keen to show they were open all year round. This year we have 'Feel Good in Cheshire's Gardens' with a health and well-being theme.

"It was really successful. It raised the profile of Cheshire as a place to visit gardens. By collectively marketing all the gardens together it had a big impact. For smaller gardens this might be their only piece of marketing. For larger gardens it's really good to align themselves to others close by."

Cheshire Gardens of Distinction was launched with North West Development Agency funding. But following Government funding cuts it is now self-sustaining, with its 23 gardens paying a membership fee. Wainwright says the overall budget went down but all of the members decided to stay in the scheme.

Reid, then director of Wirral-based Ness, chaired the steering committee. "My experience was that it was really good to establish good working relationships and share information as partners rather than competitors. You tend to see the bigger picture." He says it made sense for larger gardens to link up with smaller ones that are local to them so visitors could be persuaded to visit two or more, and make a day or longer trip out of it. Cluster members have a widget on their websites that gives information about the other gardens, how to plan a stay and offers special rates with other local businesses.

"Rather than seeing each other as competition, by clubbing together with the other gardens we had a better offer. You create a much more attractive proposition for coach parties."

Comment - Establish your identity

Senior gardens consultant Alan Sargent uses the analogy of a second-hand car dealer when he is advising his clients on branding. "You don't just call yourself a second-hand car dealer, you call yourself an Italian car dealer or a hatchback specialist. You're still selling the same second-hand cars but you've got an identity," he explains.

"You've got to brand yourself differently to your competitors. You take whatever value you have - it might be an association with a poet or a particular plant - and you build your identity around that."

"The branding hook has to be a unique selling point about your garden but it is important to realise that it is not necessarily the best thing about your garden, just the most 'campaignable'. You've got to have a standalone identity, a niche market, a name. It can be the simplest of things. You've just got to find that one campaignable thing and market that."

The Lost Gardens of Heligan is a good example, he points out. "Lost Gardens - simple as that. It's got a name, it's got an image, a mystery about it. Tim Smit is a clever marketeer. He branded it properly and it works. The thing is you can only do it once. You can't have a 'Lost Gardens of Petworth'."

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