Business is Blooming! Organic Bouquet Blossoms into New Territory
by Kathryn Schuett
Flowers smell all the sweeter when you know that the farmers growing them are not
exposed to toxic pesticides. Even the most sinfully decadent chocolate is redeemed when
you think about all the cacao workers that are ensured fair wages so they can provide for
their families. The softest sheets give you even more pleasant dreams
when you know that your purchase helped little girls in India
afford to go to school.
This is the thinking behind Organic Style, a new ecoluxury
website recently launched by Gerald Prolman,
the founder of the internet-based, eco-friendly flower
company, Organic Bouquet. Blending luxury with
ecological and social responsibility, he has created the ultimate feel-good experience.
This online boutique will offer conscientious consumers
a wide range of flowers and plants as well as
specialty foods, apparel, pet accessories and bed and bath products-all
of which are organic, fair trade, biodynamic and/or sustainable.
In 2007 alone, the mothership of this new online boutique, Organic Bouquet, saw over 55 percent growth and had hundreds of millions of impressions of the company's brand through TV, magazines and newspapers as well as numerous radio interviews. This included being voted Smart Money's number one best buy for Mother's Day and crowning the queen's float at the Rose Bowl Parade, as well as having Christina Aguilera present their six-foot-high "World's Tallest Roses" to Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show.
Currently, Prolman has over $100 million worth of sustainably grown flowers in the pipeline and he expects to sell over 20 million stems of roses alone by the end of this year. Much of this growth has happened through partnerships with non-profit organizations, expanded business-to-business wholesale efforts, as well as working with farmers to develop a strong supply chain.
Tapping into two major trends, eco-awareness and demand for quality, Prolman's latest launch, Organic Style, has a tremendous opportunity for growth as well. He is already in the process of acquiring several companies to join the Organic Style brand and has recently launched an online magazine to tell the story behind these socially and environmentally conscious products.
Creating Demand By Creating a Connection
Prolman was a leader in organic long before the eco-flower industry blossomed or "eco-luxury" was a buzzword. As a co-founder of Made In Nature, he was the first to create a brand identity for organic produce and helped convert over 20,000 acres of farmland to organic production.
"My job was two-fold. One, persuading growers to grow organically, and two, convincing buyers to pay the necessary price to justify farming costs," he said.
Prolman found that the best way to get buyers in the North American market to pay the appropriate price for the goods was to make a direct connection between the producers and the buyers.
"When buyers came to know the names of the growers, got to meet the families, see the fields and learn the real difference between sustainable agriculture and non-sustainable agriculture, it made the sale much easier," he said.
Prolman sold Made In Nature to Dole in the mid 90s, but wanted to continue his work of connecting organic farmers to buyers.
In deciding on his next endeavor, Prolman realized that within the organic industry, no one had stopped to smell-or sell-the roses. The $20-billion-per year U.S. floral market had been quite literally overlooked. "When I first brought up the idea of organic flowers, the response was often… 'but we don't eat flowers,'" Prolman said.
Once again he had to help buyers understand and connect with the products. "What a lot of people don't realize is that typically 50 to 1,000 times the amount of chemicals that are legally allowed on foods are used on flowers. It's astounding," Prolman said.
"Many natural food stores wave the green flag and promote their commitment to sustainability, however, often the first thing you see when you walk into the store is a floral department selling pesticide-laded flowers. In the past, supply was the issue but that is no longer the case."
Today, consumers and businesses are becoming more aware of the effect their purchases have on the world, a trend that Prolman is helping usher in.
Planting a Pathway to Organic
At the same time that he was creating demand, Prolman also had to develop supply. He spent a year going door to door talking to growers before he finally created his first partnership with Sun Valley out of California, who agreed to grow some tulips organically. After that he found some likeminded growers in Columbia and Ecuador who were already on the environmentally and/or socially enlightened path and started working to help them become organic certified.
Through working with these progressive growers, who were already doing things like providing medical care and schools for their workers' families, he realized the industry needed something that would not only put growers on a path to organic production, but that would also ensure social responsibility and high quality standards. He took this idea to Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), who has developed sustainability standards for the forestry industry, Starbucks and many others, and asked them to create a standard. Prolman put together a team of floral experts to help develop the standard with SCS and the result was "Veriflora." To introduce the program, Organic Bouquet organized the world's first symposium on sustainable horticulture, held in conjunction with the 2005 United Nations' World Environment Day in San Francisco.
"Veriflora recognizes that organic production methods are best practices, however, if a grower cannot meet these immediately, then they can develop a production plan that moves them incrementally toward organic in a defined timeframe," said Linda Brown, SCS's executive vice president.
Through Veriflora, Prolman is also ensuring that he has supply for the future by helping encourage growers to take the first step toward organic. "I figured, I'm never going to get this off the ground if I don't cause a pipeline of products to occur that can become organic over time," he said. His company is even helping fund the transition of some organic farms.
In the meantime, growers who are working toward organic can sell their products through Organic Bouquet under the Veriflora certification, or as "transitional," if they are following the organic-only path and have begun the three-year transitional process.
"Our goal is that by the end of 2009, 100 percent of all flowers sold on our commercial site are dually certified organic and Veriflora," Prolman said. In addition to this, Organic Bouquet now offers several varieties of Fair Trade certified roses, which are on track for a triple certification.
Today, several other major floral groups have become involved with Veriflora as well, which Prolman is very happy to see. "Our marketing efforts to promote the benefits of organic production have created heightened awareness of issues surrounding horticultural practices and have become a major factor driving an industry shift toward socially and environmentally responsible practices. It's a revolution in the floral trade," he said.
"Three years ago, the eco-flower market was barely on the public's radar, much in the same way organic milk was a huge question mark in 1994," said Prolman's publicist, Michael Straus of Straus Commun- ications, which specializes in sustainable companies.
Although the sustainable floral industry is growing, Prolman pointed out that the greatest challenge lies in the genuine commitment of retailers and consumers to proactively support growers who make the investment to transition their farms to fully organic systems. "We need to reward them by preferentially buying their flowers," he said.
Partnerships For Success
Cause Marketing Initiatives. Another key step Prolman took early on was to partner with non-profit organizations that support social, wildlife and environmental causes. Through this, he was able to promote his product to likeminded consumers and at the same time raise money for good causes. This idea was inspired 12 years ago when he received a gift from a vendor, a donation to a charity made in his name. Today, Organic Bouquet works with over 45 charitable organizations ranging from PETA and Amnesty International to The Breast Cancer Fund and Adopt-A-Minefield. They also recently introduced "Freedom," a rose named in honor of Rosa Parks, which benefits her foundation. This is the first in a series of "Champions of Humanity" bouquets, an initiative that Organic Bouquet developed to honor extraordinary people who have made the world a better place.
These organizations promote Organic Bouquet via websites, email blasts or in newsletters, and in exchange they get 10 percent of the sale. Through these partners, Organic Bouquet has access to 10 million customers on a monthly basis and has already raised over a quarter million dollars for charity. Incorporating this low cost marketing, Prolman can afford to pay growers a premium and still offer consumers prices that are competitive with conventional. "It is rewarding to build a business that donates money to good causes and supports sustainable farming with a product that brings joy," said Kristy Walker, vice president of cause marketing. "Truly, this business model is a win-win."
B2B Wholesale. Prolman is also working directly with several businesses, offering wholesale pricing and direct farm-to-retail shipping to those buying large orders through his microsite, www.ecoflowers.com. One of the most recent developments in this area is a partnership with Marriott Hotels. As the largest producer of weddings in the country, Marriott has been working on "greening" their operations and now offers eco-friendly floral arrangements for all events at their hotels. Organic Bouquet's wholesale products are also being sold in Kroger grocery stores throughout the Northwest and several spas and florists throughout the country.
Through all this, Prolman has created a new level of social and eco-awareness, while at the same time building a successful business. Looking at all this you would think business is in full bloom. The story, though, has just begun...
Organic Style: Selling a
Story…Not Just a
The expansion into organicstyle.com is the culmination of Prolman's life's work and the ultimate goal of what he originally set out to do when he started Organic Bouquet seven years ago. Acquired from Rodale, who used to publish a print magazine by the same name, Prolman developed the Organic Style brand to bring together a diverse group of socially and environmentally responsible producers, with more than just a product to sell, but an incredible story to tell. Once again, like with Made In Nature and Organic Bouquet, it's about building relationships between consumers and the producers they are supporting and giving a deeper value and purpose to the product.
Technically Advanced Storytelling. The Organic Style website is, of course, an integral part of communicating these stories and Prolman is taking full advantage of this tool. In phase two of their web launch, organicstyle.com is creating videos for each product sold, enabling shoppers to take a virtual tour of the place where the product is created and hear from the actual people who made it.
In addition, Organic Style has also hired a social marketing manager to create pages and groups on community sites like Facebook and develop channels on sites such as YouTube, where bloggers can download videos.
Organic Style Magazine. Through this new online publication (www.organicstylemag.com), Organic Style takes the creator-consumer connection to an even deeper level with in-depth featur es on topics such as organic cotton farming in India, wildlife conservation in Kenya and the work of Women for Women, an organization which helps victims of war. The magazine also features other conscientious companies with no ties to the online store such as vegan shoemaker, Beyond Skin.
For Organic Style, this magazine, which is being offered free of charge during the introductory period, offers a new realm of integrated marketing opportunities. For example, in the premier issue, a feature about eco roses in Ecuador includes a video of the farm, as well as a link that allows readers to purchase that farmer's roses via the digital catalog included in the magazine. While Organic Style Magazine has not started to offer advertising to outside vendors, they do plan on making this opportunity available to likeminded companies in the future.
Prolman believes that the magazine has the potential to not only become an important means to generate sales via organicstyle.com, but to also help enhance retention of customers and position Organic Style as a leading voice in the eco-lifestyle market.
This is a role that Prolman doesn't take lightly. Whether he's bringing together socially and environmentally conscious consumers and producers, or making sure flowers are wrapped in biodegradable film-it's about making a difference. "If each person changed one thing for the positive all at once, I think the world would spin in a whole new direction. And, that's what we need to do at this time, we need to turn things around," Prolman said.