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We’re just getting started at Proven Winners®!

Proven Winners® has celebrated its 25th year in business as the breakthrough brand and marketing force in the horticultural industry.  We asked Tom Smith to share his thoughts on how Proven Winners’ unique brand is poised to help growers and retailers now and in the future.

 

Tom and Sharon Smith
Sharon and Tom Smith

When Proven Winners debuted in 1992, many in the industry didn’t know what to make of it.  Sure, there were a few plant brands out there, but nothing like this organization.  It changed the rules by investing heavily in consumer marketing to draw customers and by actively encouraging higher retail pricing.  This changed everything. 

Even from the early days, there were doubters, says Tom Smith, president of Four Star Greenhouse.  “Some people thought we couldn’t make it when we brought out varieties like Calibrachoa and vegetative Angelonia,” he recalls.  “We could have developed them from seed like others, but we didn’t.  Those plants debuted well and have had strong sales and market share ever since.”

As a brand, Proven Winners has grown stronger each year and expanded its new variety introductions and improvements, marketing heavily via pull-through advertising to create demand, and encouraging homeowners to experience the joys of gardening.  These are key drivers of Proven Winners today, according to Smith.

Proven Winners works with breeders around the world and trials its own plants in a lengthy multi-year process to determine market viability.  But it also works with researchers across the country who test plants in real-life garden performance conditions. Consistently, these plants have won awards.  “We’re still the only brand out there with tons of garden performance awards through the years,” Smith says. 

Plants that perform

Smith explains that performance is the key.  “We want consumers to be successful at gardening.  If they buy plants that don’t last and become discouraged, they may not come back next year. Everything we do at Proven Winners is to help them be successful at gardening.”

Research isn’t limited to new varieties, he notes.  “What’s not as well known is how much effort and investment we put into improving existing varieties.  Many of these are already popular because they have performed so well for consumers, but we make them even better.  Most consumers don’t recognize the improvements, but they’ll see a difference in garden performance.” 

He gives a white petunia as an example.  “Many consumers and garden centers want a great performing white petunia, so they will appreciate the latest improved Supertunia® White.  But we didn’t have to do this.  Can they get a white petunia from seed?  Yes.  Will those look great on the bench?  Yes.  Will they perform well throughout the season?  Not so much. We want the performance.”

Improved varieties, although not as dramatic as new varieties, are critical to helping home gardeners succeed, Smith adds.  “We hear these are ‘just improvements’ at CAST, but what’s wrong with that?  Some of these are terrific improvements over the original, successful Proven Winners varieties.  For instance, Butterfly has been hugely successful for years as a generic.  But we improved it and expanded the series to include a deep, rich yellow version, a pale yellow variety and a white one.  All of these are selling well.”

Partnering with growers

As a Proven Winners member, Four Star Greenhouse has developed several initiatives to help growers grow more efficiently and save money at the same time, he says.  “We’ve worked hard to develop these programs that truly benefit growers of all sizes.  For instance, Supernova® liners give growers faster turns.  Our Benchrun collections of bestsellers help growers grow more efficiently.  Bundled combinations give them much more simplified ordering and production.”

After more than three years of testing, Four Star has just introduced the new 104 liners, which debuted in 2017 on specific, high-selling varieties.  Smith explains, “We know Proven Winners plants aren’t cheap because of the marketing fees, so we developed these new liners as a way to help growers keep their costs down.  It took a lot of planning to develop these.  Basically, there is zero difference for the grower between our 84 liner and the 104 liner, but with the 104, growers get more plants in the same size tray and a lower delivered cost than with last year’s 84 liners.”

The 2017 trial went well and Four Star is now offering them for 2018 in many more varieties.  “Growers love them because the plants get the same treatment and care with no extra crop time and excellent quality,” he points out.  “They told us they wanted more varieties!  We haven’t had a single negative comment.”

Partnering with garden retailers

Smith explains that Proven Winners takes the long-term view of its core market — independent garden centers.  “We want to help them be successful, because then we can both be more successful,” he says.  Proven Winners has established a panel of independent garden center retailers to discuss initiatives and develop mutually beneficial programs. “We’ve also added to our retail liaison staff and are getting a lot of traction.  The panel of retailers gives us really good feedback so that we can work with them more effectively.”

Season-long garden performance is an established Proven Winners strength, says Smith.  “Everything we do is to help gardeners be successful at gardening.”
Season-long garden performance is an established Proven Winners® strength, says Smith.  “Everything we do is to help gardeners be successful at gardening.”

 

He points out that Proven Winners as a brand is vertically integrated better than any others.  The goal is to help garden retailers differentiate themselves with their customers by establishing Proven Winners Store-within-a-Store areas, selling Proven Winners hard goods, and carrying a wider mix of Proven Winners products. 

 “We’re in it for the long run and don’t think consumers should have to hope for the best.  That’s why we offer our branded hard goods like fertilizers, soils and irrigation products.  Our soil is a better mix that includes products no one else carries, and that will help their customers succeed.  You can take a great plant, but if you put it in bad soil with poor fertilization, the consumer won’t be successful,” he explains.

Building new markets

Consistent investment in consumer marketing through the years has resulted in high consumer awareness of Proven Winners, as well as the value of plants in the modern lifestyle.  Like others in the horticultural industry, the Proven Winners organization is looking forward and focusing on developing new gardeners of the future.  Continuing efforts via provenwinners.com, traditional print and broadcast advertising, and social media keep Proven Winners top of mind. 

Tom and Sharon Smith
GOLDEN BUTTERFLY™ Argyranthemum is an example of how Proven Winners improved a best-selling variety to include additional colors.

Reaching younger gardeners means expanding social media strategically.  “There are so many ways Proven Winners does that,” says Smith.  “We have been quite successful in our partnership with Laura LeBoutillier of Garden Answer, who has millions of followers.”

Garden Answer trends across YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and the web, offering basic garden information, easy-to-follow videos and ideas for both beginners and experts.  Her videos have received 400 million views and she has considerable influence with her followers.  As a partner of Proven Winners, she brings awareness of the brand to this audience of new gardeners. “This is an example of building up a customer base for the future,” he notes. 

Opportunities to come

These efforts and others give Smith a positive view for the future of the industry and for Proven Winners going into 2018.  “There are areas where people don’t know Four Star or our Proven Winners products and programs, and we are looking forward to building new relationships with those garden centers.”

He notes that Proven Winners, like Four Star, takes the long view.  “We want our customers to succeed, so we scan by variety and combination on all sizes that sell to consumers at the retail level.  In our industry, it used to be ‘grow it, bench it and hope.’  Now, we have real sales data down to the variety, which helps growers select the most popular varieties and retailers to sell them.  We’re more than happy to share this data.”

Reflecting on Proven Winner’s tradition, Smith is proud of the work. “Proven Winners is not just a variety, but a brand that invests in research, builds markets, supports the industry and grows customers for tomorrow.  I can’t think of any other brand that does this.”