When Jan Valentic took over as senior vice president of global marketing and growth platforms at gardening giant Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. two years ago, one of her first moves was to challenge the company's biggest brands and how they marketed online.
"Each brand had its own Web site and there was no connective tissue between them," she says. "The sites were organized around the way the company operated rather than around the way consumers thought about gardening or how they operated online." Valentic and the company's digital marketing agency, Resource Interactive, based in Columbus, Ohio, and near Scotts headquarters in Marysville, Ohio, crafted a complete overhaul of the corporate Web site - scotts.com - that put the brands off to the side and the customer in the center - literally.
Customers opening up the Web site see photos of brightly colored plants and flowering gardens rather than a laundry list of products. Instead of brochureware meant to drive visitors to individual brand sites, visitors now scroll across circles that shift from yellow to orange and click on them to "grow," "learn," "solve" and "connect," a popular section that incorporates expert advice with what Scotts calls the "gurus next door." In small print on the right-hand side of the home page are links to Scotts brands, including Round-Up, Ortho and Smith & Hawken.
The Customer is Always Right
Scotts' online overhaul is part of a marked shift in the way corporations operate and market online. Whether it's Skittles' recent shift that gives consumers complete control over its brand message or Scotts' move away from promoting its brands to promoting advice, marketers are testing their thinking about what corporate Web sites should do - and many are finding them wanting.
"Skittles is an extreme example of the debate going on," says Tom Beck, president of Enlighten, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based multimedia-marketing firm with expertise in corporate Web site development for Pulte Homes and Audi, a former client. "The broader debate is: Are we who we say we are as brands, or are we what our consumers say we are?"
The answer to that question naturally will be different for every brand. But Valentic knew she had to first listen to consumers before she could begin to create a Web site - or better yet a digital environment that could be expanded to mobile digital devices in the future - that would work for them even as it promoted the company's products.
"The way we used to think of consumers is that they 'had a disease' in their gardens or yards and they wanted us to help fix it," she says. "In fact, consumers didn't think that way. They think in terms of projects and they wanted to know when to do it, how do it, and what do I need to do it."
Valentic also had to shift how the company thought of gardening versus the way today's consumers view their backyards. One of Scotts best-known brands, Miracle-Gro, was born out of World War ii-era technology. "Science was this awesome thing and this blue powder, Miracle-Gro, could make your plants 12 times as big," Valentic explains.
Today's backyard gardeners aren't as interested in whether their lawn is greener or their vegetables are bigger than their neighbors' crop, Valentic says. Instead, gardening is becoming more of a respite or an indulgence - much the way cooking has been marketed in the past decade.
Under My Umbrella
Meeting the different and changing needs of today's consumers in a corporate Web site meant putting the brands together in a single place and adopting a far more friendly, but still authoritative, voice.
While seemingly simple, the strategy wasn't easy to execute, especially since Valentic had to make certain that the brands didn't feel subservient to the corporation. Valentic, who worked at Ford Motor Co. when it tried to put all its brands underneath a larger Ford corporate umbrella, was well aware of how brands and their managers dislike being put under an umbrella.
"It's always easier to be product driven. It's always easier for brands to operate separately," says Kelly Mooney, president and chief experience officer at Resource Interactive. But that doesn't mean that it is always better for the consumer or the brands.
Indeed, research showed that many consumers didn't even know Scotts owned brands such as Ortho and Smith & Hawken. Valentic saw that as an opportunity to create a Web site that was the trusted place for advice, insight and education on how to garden - a place where consumers could then pick and choose from among all of Scotts' brands - not just one.
Now when consumers look for advice, for instance, on low-maintenance yards they are as likely to get information from "Rambo9" as they are Scotts' master gardener Ashton Ritchie. They are as likely to have Osmocote, one of Scott's lesser-known brands, suggested to them as a solution as they are Miracle-Gro.
As the newly designed site has gained traction, Valentic says it is becoming the place where she can put a finger on the pulse of her consumers - something companies have hoped to gain from their corporate Web sites, but haven't necessarily achieved.
Valentic says the site receives about 250,000 visitors per week compared to the one million people per year that call into Scotts' toll-free number. "I look at what their issues are; I track that online data with the call-center issues," she says. The pulse-taking can lead to the redesigning of packaging or maybe putting more how-to videos on the site because of complaints and calls, she says.
The overhauled site is also more capable of adapting to the constantly changing ways in which people want to interact with digital information, Valentic adds, and that goes beyond the social networking that is all the rage right now. Consumers soon may want to send text messages to scotts.com about how to fix a gardening problem while they are in their garden, or to find out what works best to control the insects that they take a photo of and send to scotts.com via their mobile devices.
They may want to read product reviews while they are at their local garden store or follow a Twitter feed on gardening advice wherever they might be. Whatever it is, Valentic says Scotts has to be ready for what consumers want from them - even if it goes so far as to practically shop for them.
In the next two years, Valentic says it may become possible for consumers to create a shopping list for a gardening project at scotts.com. "Then you could send that list to your local Home Depot or Lowe's; they'll pick it and pack it and put it on your truck," she says.