Alan Sargent considers what actions a small garden construction and maintenance business can take to make itself stand out from the crowd

Alan Sargent - image: HW
Alan Sargent - image: HW

I run a small garden construction and maintenance business. I think I am capable, but how do I set myself apart from local competitors?

You need to develop a unique selling point (USP), which is ad man speak for a marketing device. You should examine your own and your company's strongest assets and write them down as a foundation for your thought process. You may then begin a marketing campaign based around your strengths and the local possibilities. These will obviously vary according to your locale and region — and your target clients.

A USP need not necessarily be a horticultural or landscaping skill and it is difficult to think of any one firm that has developed a marketing strategy based solely of its physical talents. Perhaps a near example would be Andy Wiggins of Hayward Landscapes, Canterbury, who advertises his speciality as mazes and labyrinths. Because Andy does these so well and there is a limited market place, no other company challenges his supremacy.

If you think that you would have a problem with trying to attract attention to your firm via the specialist subject route, you will need to capture the public's imagination in other ways. You may develop an image, based on something with which you are very comfortable. You will not succeed with your campaign unless you come over as genuine and passionate about your venture.

An example of this image may take on a practical angle. Here I am thinking of Seale Nurseries, the specialist rose grower of Seale, near Farnham in Surrey. Its sales aid is a 1952 Bedford lorry, beautifully maintained and presented, which serves as both a backdrop and product display for its roses at various public gardening shows. The sight of beautiful plants presented in such an attractive way draws the crowds to its stand. It is a very practical USP that only enhances the company's high-quality produce.

Special equipment

Last month, the Gardeners Guild ran a competition to find which one piece of equipment the members felt would give them and their business a USP in their area — and the reasons for their choice. The competition was won by Andrew Bentley of the Winchester Gardener.

He nominated an Austrian scythe and gave his USP as no noise, no pollution, no fuel costs and little in the way of maintenance, plus it gave him the opportunity to market his services as eco-friendly and the green option, with no vibration problems and a good way to keep fit.

It also offers the chance to enter the scything contests that are held annually, sometimes scythe versus strimmer, in both speed and quality trials. Andrew certainly chose a winning USP with his scythe. Perhaps even a change of company name to "The Scythist" — another marketing opportunity.

A garden designer used to travel hundreds of miles around the country on a 1,000cc Kawasaki GTR as his chosen mode of transport. It became his USP because he was never late for appointments, not being held up by traffic, plus the client never forgot his visits.

This was around 1990 and he became the first motorcycle owner to have a mobile phone fitted to his bike — difficult to imagine now, but the phone cost more than £6,000 — which attracted national press plus publicity from Cellnet (the provider) and Motorola (the manufacturer) as well as a commission to design and build the Cellnet garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

All of the above examples have one thing in common — they are not gimmicks. Each USP has a sound basis in marketing. They are all real opportunities to attract attention from an increasingly jaded public.

You may feel that you do not have the necessary panache to present yourself or your company in such a way to the public. In order to promote yourself, you cannot be shy. Perhaps you may feel more comfortable as a team, with a garden designer getting together with a contractor, offering a specialist subject — for example, seaside gardening or maybe gardening on chalk, something to suit your area.

You will still have to work out your strengths, and begin to develop your strategy. In this case, why not write a series of articles, of say 500 words, and present them to your local newspaper, offering to write more features if they agree to publish them. Find a suitable/appropriate name for your joint venture, perhaps simply your names or even a nom de plume. I think I would choose "Saltline" for the seaside and maybe "The Chalk Gardeners" — it does not matter if you become typecast as long as you get the work.

Learn all you can

Having chosen your specialist subject, really learn all you possibly can about the science and nature, flora and fauna, soil mechanics and perhaps even the politics — especially in an area of outstanding natural beauty or a regional park — that will influence your approach to the written side of the venture.

Give talks and presentations at local garden society annual general meetings and take a small stand at local fetes and village shows. You will be surprised just how much work will come from such a USP.

Do not forget that your USP/marketing strategy venture will only be a part of your business. You will still carry on with other projects as usual, only now you will have a lot more credibility with your existing clients —and by the way, yes, I was the motorcyclist.

Email your questions to: alan.sargent@haymarket.com

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant with 40 years’ experience as a designer, contractor and head gardener. His latest book, The Landscaper’s Survival Manual, is now available from www.alansargent.co.uk.


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