Sargent's solutions - the importance of your marketing strategy

Developing a detailed marketing strategy is essential for any horticultural business to meet the requirements of each season, Alan Sargent explains

Alan Sargent: Image HW
Alan Sargent: Image HW
I have had various general enquiries regarding promoting a business — how to set your company above your competitors and gain sales. I have covered some topics under other headings — "unique selling points", for example. But many questions fall in and around the broader subject of marketing.
Specialist profile
Let us examine the word "marketing", which is often combined with public relations in many people’s minds. Think of PR and marketing as a job title or specialist company profile and they are generally wedded together as a discipline. 
I have spent many years working with the marketing departments of various major companies, including 20 years as the public face of Bradstone, designing and building its catalogues, show gardens, television adverts, video presentations and a huge range of other marketing facets. 
I was responsible for some years in a similar role for Do it All, with spin-offs with Hozelock, Waterworks UK and others, working very closely with their marketing and PR companies, as well as being chairman of PR and marketing for BALI and the Association of Professional Landscapers. In my mind, I have always separated marketing from PR because although similar they are different subjects in many ways.
Marketing as a strategy
Whether you run a garden centre, nursery, landscape or other horticultural operation, you need to organise a well-thought-out, carefully budgeted and targeted strategy of promoting your business — not once a year but at least four times to meet the season’s requirements. 
Taking a small family-run garden centre/nursery as an example, to gain the staff’s backing it is always best to involve everybody in the strategy meeting, noting their comments and incorporating as many as possible to give them ownership of their ideas. You may decide to specialise in a particular type of plant for the spring, with all staff reading up on the subject and able to become expert on that particular species. Whatever your choice, it will always pay to train everyone.
Plan all promotions, including local parish magazines, garden clubs and other local societies, perhaps organising a late-opening evening with a barbecue for charity — anything to gain maximum local publicity.
Public relations
Staying with the same family-run centre, your advantage over a large multiple is your place in the community. You are a solid local business with roots in that society and anything you can do to nurture that special bond is to be encouraged. Presenting the local primary school with vegetable seeds is one way, but why not go further and offer to develop a vegetable plot in the school grounds and work with the children? 
One nursery took the local community spirit one step further, going to the nearest commuter railway station early one St George’s Day with red carnations fashioned into buttonhole decorations and presented them to city gents on their way to work. 
People were discreetly made aware of the provenance of the buttonholes and the nursery earned a great deal of kudos with a lot of well-heeled potential clients. The cost was a few hundred pounds, but as a PR exercise it was extremely good value for money.
It is this type of PR that remains in the public mind. You do not need to sponsor a racehorse or offer expensive trips to Paris to gain positive recognition. All you need to do is to fire the public imagination and find a cost-effective way to connect with your locals. 
The same logic is true for garden and landscape companies. While your business is not static in the same way as a garden centre, your locals remain in their static homes and ways to connect with the general public — your potential clients — in a positive manner will depend on your area. Inner-city or suburban businesses will need to look at their territory and identify the best options for a campaign. 
If you have a garden centre in your area, why not team up and offer practical demonstrations of your skills? Perhaps a session on laying paving, with products provided by the centre or donated by its suppliers. Even without using power tools, you should be able to show off your talents to a crowd of interested potential customers. So many people abandon projects once they discover that it is not as easy as they think.
Danger of overselling
No matter what title you give to your promotion — PR and/or marketing — you should be very careful to avoid overselling yourself. There are several high-profile instances where companies have offered promotions they were unable to keep. Just imagine, if you spent many thousands, taking a full-page back cover advertisement in a national newspaper extolling the virtues of your landscape company, offering the finest service in the land. If you could not cope with the number of enquiries, you will have many disgruntled people and bewildered staff, and would go out of business.
Obviously, most promotions would never create such problems, but you should balance your ability to cope with the expectations that you are promising.

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