How Scotts Miracle-Gro uses community gardens to grow neighborhoods, markets

You might not expect a fertilizer company to be a “purpose” brand. 

But for Scotts Miracle-Gro, it’s one of the keys to doing business.

Finding that purpose, according to Scotts Miracle-Gro executive vice president Jim King, is essential for all companies. “Companies that want to succeed, especially consumer-facing companies, need to put themselves out there like they never have before,” King said in a webcast with GreenBiz Group last week, “How community gardening can help grow employees, neighborhoods and markets.”

Today’s consumers reward companies that share their values and increasingly, those values revolve around social purpose, he said.

“I’ve never woken up, grabbed a cup of coffee, gone to a Lowe’s or Home Depot or Walmart, and bought a bunch of Scotts Miracle-Gro, because I said, ‘I need to have more lawn fertilizer sitting around the house,’” he explained. “People don’t buy a bag just to put their hands in it because they love dirt. It’s the act of fertilizing, of lawn care — it’s a form of self-expression that we enable.”

Connecting the product to the lifestyle is a crucial step in the connection between company and consumer. But it’s equally important that the process can’t end there.

Community initiatives and community building

That’s the reason Scotts Miracle-Gro launched one of its biggest corporate responsibility initiatives around community gardening almost a decade ago: to support 1,000 community gardens.

Community gardens are shared plots of land where neighbors can tend plants and share the crop. They provide many benefits to a community: fresh and healthy produce; more green space; air-purifying ecosystem services; safe public gathering spaces; and educational opportunities. However, starting them — not to mention continuing them — can be a challenge of expense and logistics.

Scotts Miracle-Gro began to step in as a supportive corporate partner, but as King described, the company had a lot to learn along the way.

At first, it focused on “large, well-funded, highly visible projects in major cities around the country, and there are several dozen of those,” he said. “But we also made about 100 grassroots grants to local organizations. That’s where we really had an immense amount of power.”

The company could see from the local-grantmaking and organizing events around it that that’s where the community engagement really occurred.

Specifically, the designs of some of these gardens directly addressed the specific, diverse needs of different communities: ones for communities with refugees, or community members with visual impairments, or for prisons and those recently released from incarceration.

Learning to take steps back and make the program less about Scotts Miracle-Gro and more about the communities that the gardens were in allowed the initiative to be far more impactful.

However, the corporate responsibility team still felt like it could do more.

“This program, while it was a source of pride for the company, it existed in a silo,” King said. “It was a corporate initiative — it did not integrate into how we did business.”

So the company decided on a new goal: connecting 10 million children to the benefits of gardens and greenspaces.

It became a much more values-driven campaign externally and a much more collaborative project internally.

Connecting with consumers through sustainability

Once the company began the program in different locations, people flocked to it, King noted.

And not only are the community members that Scotts Miracle-Gro was engaging with potential customers, but they are also potential brand ambassadors.

“You’ll be especially rewarded if you invite them to join your brand, not just buy your brand,” King said.

Consumers, especially millennials, want to understand the journeys of the companies they’re buying from. They want to feel comfortable knowing that the company they’re choosing is supporting what they care about and that often means their communities. Plus, millennials will bring others along.

“Millennials are the generation that is very influential to everyone else,” said Therese Caruso, managing director of global strategy and insights at Zeno Group, during the webcast.

For Scotts Miracle-Gro, they’re a key demographic. Caruso explained why — and it’s about sustainability. “The expansiveness of how they are defining home and their community is leading them to bring in brands and corporations in a very different way,” she said. “They’re holding everyone accountable for the Earth and what’s going on, and how they need to embrace this new world through the brands they are using.”

She sees two segments of the millennial demographic: the older ones who are starting families, and the younger ones who are still living on their own.

The elder millennials are moving to the suburbs and buying houses, but they’re doing things differently from older generations. “Guess what? These people don’t care about having the greenest lawn on the block — they want to have the healthiest lawn on the block,” John Sass, vice president of advertising at Scotts Miracle-Gro, said during the webcast. 

“Most millennials buy their first homes because they have a dog,” he added.

Millennials are thinking about companies in different ways — and companies need to think about them in a different way, too.

“It’s the right thing to do anyway,” King said.