Tone deaf tips


As gaffes go, this one doesn't rate. It's not going to the front page of the Wall Street Journal, it's not going to move stock prices, and nobody's going to lose their jobs over it. But still, my first reaction when I saw it was "haven't they heard?"

This morning's email included the new Home Depot Garden Club newsletter. When I'm not in the office, I occasionally play outside, and they sometimes have good articles. So I gave it a quick look and came to a complete stop when I saw the lead article: "Start Your Fall Garden Now."

OK, it's just a newsletter, and maybe there's somewhere in North America where mid-August makes people think of fall (it must be a long way from here—it was 101° here yesterday). So they have an editorial calendar that says that August is the time to get customers thinking of planting. Typical retail calendar stuff—start selling before customers want it.

Haven't they heard?
The problem is, planting anything around here now is a really bad idea. We're having a drought. Crops are failing, farmers are selling cattle they can't feed, and homeowners are draining municipal water supplies in an attempt to keep their grass green. The news gives us regular updates on water usage restrictions and efforts to set up emergency water supplies. Putting new plants in the ground is not the recommended action in this situation.

I know, the drought isn't national. Texas has all too much water this summer, and the Northeast has had some big storms (a tornado in Vermont??). But the Southeast and the West are dry this summer.

The people at Home Depot probably know this, too. The company is based in Atlanta, and the entire state of Georgia has worse drought problems than ours:

Of Georgia's 159 counties, 104 are now classified as being in extreme drought, 38 in severe drought, 15 in moderate drought and two in mild drought.
Adjusting the message for weather
Gardening is tricky to do nationally. By the time the South is definitively finished with summer, the North is started to contemplate first frost. You could adjust schedules or content by region based on climate data, such as the USDA hardiness zones, but that might cause more trouble than it's worth. So you end up sending out a fall newsletter in the hottest part of the summer.

But exceptional drought—the most severe category— in a multi-state region makes a "plant now" message not just early but wrong. When it's this dry, something about HD's recommendations for water conservation would have been a better choice. It would have been relevant, potentially useful, and more likely to get me into the store.

A little situational awareness
There's only so much you can do about the weather, and it's approximately nothing. But you can use available information to tailor your marketing plans to your customers' situation. Stores liike HD do this when they put chainsaws and generators at the front of the store when a hurricane is expected. One indoor recreation company I talked to wanted to track forecasts so they could run radio ads in cities where rain was forecast.

The newsletter equivalent is to know where your customers are (you have ZIP codes, right?) and be aware of major trends or events that make your planned message inappropriate for part of your audience. The information is easily available online; the question is, will you use it to tailor your message to segments of your market with very different needs? Or would you rather try to sell sprinkler systems and car wash tools in cities that ban watering and car washing?



Tone-deaf indeed. But the bigger question for me is why anyone buys ANY plants from The Home Depot more than once. They're of poor quality and rarely seem to be treated well in the store so when you get them home, they're not ready to stand up to much. Message to THD from me: If you can't do Garden Center stuff well, don't bother.

I think I've had ok luck with some plants from HD, but it's really all price and convenience. If you're after quality, the locally owned nursery is the place to go.

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About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
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