July, 2006 Speech to “Garden Writer’s Association”
Good Morning!It’s a privilege to speak to you.I was asked to tell you what I thought made a good story to attract new gardeners. Well, I’ll try.“The upward flame”—people want hope and promise. They really do. Especially gardeners. The public dislikes negativity, fighting, controversy—even though they may be attracted to it temporarily. They may receive a psychic reward from conflict—and this may sell magazines and newspapers—but it ultimately depresses gardeners, and that’s not a way to “bring in new recruits”, as your board of directors wants so badly for you to do. It’s not even an effective way to maintain existing gardeners. It just makes your publishers more money.The way to acquire new customers and new gardeners has never changed over the years—“honey attracts the bears”—not vinegar. Vinegar is for art, not for commerce.
Here’s a good example: Heronswood.
In fact, the recent cornucopia of media attention consisted of a little bit of honey, of which I will discuss in a moment, but in the end, and at the core, the media’s message was mostly bad, nasty vinegar. Message mega-distortion, i.e., “Hey, George, I heard you’ve bought Heronswood”. I heard this, either as a statement or a question, over a hundred times in the last three months. This is incredible, since we bought Heronswood six years ago. Where were the garden writers the day we bought it six years ago? This proves that there is a great deal of “noise” that is neither negative nor positive, and is ultimately of little interest or strength. Everyone can understand the local backlash, but you guys went overboard. It was on the AP wire and in The New York Times, USA Today, the business section of The Philadelphia Inquirer, and even an editorial in the Seattle PI. And it was a huge internet story. Yet, juicy gossip and wild exaggerations aside, none of the readers carried home a consistent message. That’s because, however seductive, a negative media message is, by definition, unclear.
A negative media message carries no weight and is not sustainable. It sells the papers, but does nothing to recruit new gardeners. It is good example of a “story failure”. Like eating too much pizza. Great psychic reward—but then you feel awful.
To some very small extent, I should thank the critics. The negative “doom and gloom” stories lit up our Heronswood sales phones and internet site like a Christmas tree, which was not the media’s intention, I can assure you. However, it created a buzz in the Seattle and Portland areas and, for a few weeks, raised the visibility of the brand to an extraordinarily high level. Too bad for us that garden writers didn’t pay any attention to the acquisition six years ago when we had a simpler story to tell. It is astonishing to note that there were only two articles in the entire local and national press about the 2000 purchase. On the other hand, after several dozen articles, we lost count of the number about the relocation of the nursery last spring. Dozens! However, I, for one, certainly think that heralding the Heronswood Nursery ownership change and expansion in 2000 was much more interesting to the new as well as non-gardener, than has been the hand-wringing about our 2006 move. The 2000 purchase was the real news, not the relocation, which was, as Adrian Higgins of The Washington Post pointed out, “inside baseball”.
Therefore, in all honesty, I cannot say that I am confident the recent sales increases at Heronswood will turn out to be sustainable, since it seems that many of the new customers are more curious than informed or knowledgeable. I hope I’m wrong. It’s almost as if they are rubber necking a car accident.
Many of the articles were also incorrect and confusing. Only one reporter came to talk to us, from a local weekly. The “desk jockeys” at the major papers phoned it in. Most were unfamiliar with the nursery. For example, they didn’t know that we were primarily a shade plant nursery (±80% of our products). (Burpee is the catalogue where we sell the overwhelming majority of our full sun perennials.) Heronswood means “woods where herons come”, as in trees, as in shade. Most gardeners understand this, but few garden writers do.
Furthermore—and this might sound strange—I would prefer not to sell such an unknowledgeable customer a rare and unusual Heronswood plant. I liken it to orchids. If you don’t know what you’re doing—how to grow the plant—the orchid probably won’t last more than a couple of weeks, and definitely not more than a month. A similar situation occurs with the more unusual shade perennials. Therefore, it is a disservice to sell the plant, and runs counter to your theme of attracting new gardeners. This may sound elitist, but is not. I want my customers—and your readers—to be successful and happy with their plants. Failure is not a selling point. Moreover, one could argue that it’s perverse. If they were animals rather than plants, it would indeed be cruel. In the case of most pets it would be illegal. For example, not caring for a dog or cat can get a person in big trouble in most states.
Do any of you garden writers need or want a new cause? Here it is: Plant cruelty. “Why did you kill that plant?” I’m only half joking. To provide some historical context, in Sir James Frazer’s book, The Golden Bough, he documents the medieval practice of torture and, in extreme cases, execution that resulted from the deliberate destruction of a tree in northern European villages. It was a serious theft. “The tree of life” is more than just a symbol. Towns, communities and even families were known by their trees. Even today, try cutting down or even tampering with a tree in Japan. It’s practically unheard of, and to get permission to do so requires great effort and a complicated legal process.
Everyone knows the anecdotal evidence of traditional societies’ views of dogs which is, in some cases such as China, extremely negative. But it’s not limited to the Far East. I had a consultant from Afghanistan visit me once, and he screamed and ran away from my dog, a lovable and skittish mutt from an abuse shelter. However, a tree is like a gift from the gods.
In conclusion, it’s only going to be a positive, upbeat, quirky, or helpful story—a fun, witty, humorous, or sexy story—that will be the honey to attract the new gardening bears. Think of jokes, or of reading a story to a child. If it’s no good, it doesn’t work. Common sense, right? And, please, use metaphors. I’m begging you. Better in your business to be a great writer who is an ok gardener, than a great gardener who is an ok writer.
Thank you very much.