In the last ten years, we’ve seen a boom in wellness and wellbeing, especially among young urban professionals whose lifestyles have become particularly busy and urbanised. At the forefront of this cultural shift is Patch – an online plant shop for city folk that is on a mission to bring the restorative powers of plants to a new generation. Figaro Digital spoke to Franky Athill, Head of Marketing at Patch, about how their fresh, digitally savvy approach to the horticultural industry has led to the young brand’s resounding success.
Patch have taken urban gardening to the internet, wrapped in a brand that feels uniquely relevant among its competitors, and the internet has responded in kind. But what has skyrocketed the start-up’s success is their implementation of a smart mix of digital marketing tactics, across a thoroughly thought out customer journey. Find out more about Patch’s refreshing mix of video, email, and social content.
FD: How has Patch evolved since its inception?
FA: Our CEO, Freddie Blackett, started Patch by selling outdoor potted plants to people with balconies. He took orders via email, sourced, delivered and potted up each order. It was a great way to get to know the plants and the customers, but of course it has changed and developed. We now receive hundreds of orders each day and have a team of over 30.
Targeting tower blocks with balconies worked well enough to get going over the summer of 2016, but we soon learnt that there was a greater unserved demand for indoor plants. Because the horticultural industry has focused on selling outdoor plants to people in rural or suburban areas, most people only think of gardens, balconies and window boxes when they consider buying plants. We found that, if presented in a new and refreshingly approachable way, a surprising number of people were interested in bringing plants into their homes and offices for the first time. In fact, 50 per cent of our customers haven’t ever bought plants before. We spend 90 per cent of our time indoors and the vast majority of the private space we own is indoors. Early on we realised that if we could effectively remove the barriers preventing the younger generations from buying indoor plants, it could be a big new category.
Most plants are bought in garden centres, which cater well for experienced gardeners that feel confident in their plant knowledge and seek new challenges. Young-ish people in cities, however, don’t tend to feel confident in their plant know-how. Most have avoided ‘plant parenthood’ because they see it as complicated and intimidating, while others have tried but failed – the guilt of these plant deaths haunting them. We found that if we were to share the right content, in the right places, and offer excellent support around how to look after plants, then we could unlock a new, underserved market.
FD: How has the way that customers now interact with brands online shaped your marketing strategy?
FA: The fact that we are a digital brand is really important as it helps us communicate with customers in ways that traditional garden centres typically don’t. The vast majority of plants in the UK are still sold offline and the leading brands have been very slow to build good ecommerce websites or do smart digital marketing. This has meant that we can cost effectively (compared to other categories) reach our target market through Google Ads, Google Shopping, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. The format of the content we create is driven by what works best on these channels and the creative is matched to the audiences’ level of intent to buy plants.
Sharing engaging educational content with our audience is key to their success as plant parents, and therefore to our Customer Lifetime Values. When we approached this problem, we found that search queries like ‘How to water a houseplant’ pulled up thousands of wordy blog posts and related books on Amazon, but no punchy video tutorial. As a result we’ve produced dozens of attractive ‘How To’ videos which are packaged into a ‘Houseplant Parenting Course’ for indoor plants and an ‘Urban Gardening Course’ for outdoor plants. We send the courses to all our email subscribers and customers, while they also soak up search traffic on Google and YouTube. We’re considering a Facebook Messenger version of the course too, because we expect it may take over from email for some of our customers.
When it comes to our brand, our customers want transparency and honesty. They want to get to know the people behind the brand, they want to know where the plants come from, and they want to see reviews from other customers before they buy anything. We try our best to speak in a down to earth way, to be irreverent and tidy but not over polished.
As more of the touchpoints between people and brands come online, the offline touchpoints offer greater opportunities to stand out. We don’t need to make a choice between online and offline. We’ve found the doorstep experience to be a valuable opportunity. Despite the added cost involved, in London, all Patch plants are delivered by our in-house delivery team. People compare our charming delivery drivers with that of Amazon or DHL and notice the difference. Something we started out of necessity, proved to offer us a remarkable point of differentiation. There’s differentiation to be found in doing the really hard things well. It’s hard work delivering the freshest plants in the UK – upstream and downstream – but we’ve chosen to invest in it because it delivers a better customer experience.
What’s more, our digital heritage doesn’t mean we won’t also open shops. We’ve tested popup shops and hope to open more of them at some point. Because we sell living things, the image on the product page will never look exactly like the item delivered. As a result, there will always be a decent chunk of the market that would prefer to head down to a shop to pick out their plants in person. Besides this, as an acquisition channel, the cost per impression of a shop sign on a busy high street may prove to be lower than what we get charged by Facebook – if we negotiate a good deal or share the space with a complementary brand.
FD: How important is it for Patch to experiment with digital media, technology, and different channels to boost engagement?
FA: At the start there were enough easy wins on the table for us to shoot from the hip, looking at what worked for other similar brands in setting up the basics. Now however, almost everything we do is run through a testing framework. Some low cost, high confidence changes are given a pass in the interest of moving quickly, but most decisions are given a hypothesis, MVP designed, data is collected, and results reviewed.
This is particularly important for us because, so far, our delivery area has been limited to London. Rather than reaching an addressable market of fifty million people, like most ecommerce brands in the UK, we can only reach four or five million. As a result, we have to create new content all the time to keep engagement high. We’ve worked quickly to find out which formats, topics and styles our audience would respond to.
We’re investing a lot in testing other online and offline channels to reach people that Facebook and Google don’t reach, discover more cost effective options, and safeguard our marketing mix from the unpredictable cost increases that can occur without warning on these beasts.
FD: How do you see the urban-gardening world transforming in the coming years?
FA: Plants make people happier, calmer and more relaxed. Plants are also beautiful and can start a conversation, whether this is via an Instagram post or in person when someone visits your home. The world’s urbanisation is only accelerating and people are now equipped to share things they are excited about fast and wide. As a result, I don’t doubt that the house plant and urban gardening trend will continue as we, and other brands that enter the space, work to remove the barriers to entry.
Currently, only a small fraction of plant sales are online and it seems obvious that this is where most of the growth will happen if you look at how direct to consumer brands have outpaced offline competitors in other markets.
However, unlike most ecommerce companies, what we sell can die. Besides being a complete waste of money, it is demoralising and emotionally draining to buy a plant, try to care for it, and watch it die. If people buy a plant for the first time and have this negative experience, they are unlikely to buy more plants in the future. So it’s an extremely important business objective, as well as a significant part of our mission, to make sure that people are equipped with the understanding and the knowledge to care for them.
We send all of our customers a free ten-day ‘Houseplant Parenting Course’ which they tend to find helpful and reassuring. Because of this content, they give us a license to communicate with them regularly through email, SMS and Facebook retargeting. The fact that what we sell is alive and fragile is a challenge, but also a huge opportunity.
In addition to this educational content, if our customers send in a picture of their sickly plant our team of Plant Doctors will try to diagnose the problem and suggest a cure. This is one of the ways in which we’re innovating to help people overcome their lack of confidence when it comes to plants. I think this type of semi-automated aftercare will become a lot more effective and commonplace.
While so far we’ve focused on catering for inexperienced urban gardeners, we will develop our offering in line with their experience, helping to develop each first-time purchase into a lifelong hobby.
FD: How has your experience developing a digital strategy for Mario Testino influenced your work at Patch?
FA: My role for Mario Testino was to set up his digital marketing from scratch, so it was a very entrepreneurial job within his agency. He’d seen that organic digital channels like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, were becoming really important amongst his contemporaries for attracting clients, as well as owning the relationship directly with an audience rather than working for dwindling magazine brands.
Testino is one of the world’s most successful image makers, he was instrumental in Burberry and Michael Kors’ success while I was working for him. I learnt a lot about design, the aspirational aesthetic and creating content that would work well in Instagram feeds without spending a lot of money.
FD: What do you think is the value of influencers for brands?
FA: Influencers can be very valuable, but they can also be a big waste of money. When I was working for Mario Testino I traded exposure on his channels, which taught me how to negotiate with influencers.
The biggest opportunity is in the mid-level influencer with around 50k followers. They have enough followers to drive a couple of sales a month, but not enough followers to quit their day job. As a result, they are keen to monetise their reach and will offer excellent CPMs. You need to aggregate lots of these mid-level influencers to unlock significant scale.
You can either go directly to influencers, through agencies, or via platforms. If you go through agencies it tends to be extremely expensive, as they just charge you what they think you’ll pay. If you go direct, your reach is limited because you have to build the database and relationships one by one. This is why the platforms are probably the future of influencer marketing. You set a brief and influencers offer you creative, reach and costs upfront, which you can compare on a transparent marketplace.