Tree care saw a boom in 2020 and 2021, with two primary things driving the industry: 1) Rough storm and fire seasons across the country, requiring all hands on deck for cleanup; and, 2) changing interests as people found themselves at home enjoying their backyards or out in nature more than before.
The need to care for trees has always been here – we know it, we live it every day. However, as the general public has been forced to slow down and reassess priorities since early 2020, topics such as climate change, sustainability and safety have risen to be top of mind, and this has influenced a change in buying decisions. More than ever, customers value authenticity, honesty and transparency, especially when making high-ticket purchasing decisions.
We touched base with TCIA’s 2021 Marketing Excellence Awards winners to hear about what they’ve done to capitalize on opportunities to leverage values, volunteerism, educational opportunities and hiring and retention programs as part of their marketing plans to establish authority, foster relationships and build trust.
Strong, values-based branding
Branding is the process a business undergoes to create a strong, positive perception in order to give meaning to its products or services and stand out in consumers’ minds. It’s an influential marketing tactic that, when done well, helps foster authentic, genuine connections with your audience. It’s more than a recognizable logo – it’s a holistic approach that walks the walk all the way from mission, through design elements and down to how employees and customers talk about the brand.
What do you stand for? If you haven’t already, get your mission and core values down on paper. Not sure what those are? Leveraging internal and external partners to get a better understanding of how your company is perceived is an important first step.
“We hired an agency to help with our rebranding efforts. The agency asked our leadership team, employees and existing customers for words they associated with us,” says Heather Dirksen, president of Arbor Masters Tree & Landscape, an accredited, 23-year TCIA member company headquartered in Shawnee, Kansas. “We were thrilled to learn that our customers and staff had a similar perception of our brand personality as hard working, careful, humble, approachable, social and fun. Today, we continue to be recognized that way, but also by our mission and core values; our tagline, ‘Trees trust us,’ and the high visibility of our blue trucks out in the community. These things resonate.”
As people become more conscious of their footprint on the planet, they want to partner with sustainable companies that support those same values. “Live your truth,” urges Jennifer McPhee, co-owner and “dreamweaver” of Harrison McPhee, Inc., an accredited, seven-year TCIA member operating from Millis, Massachusetts. Harrison McPhee purposely puts an emphasis on experiential marketing tactics that prominently put their core values on display.
“We’re in the business of making people happy, and we do that by caring for people’s trees and outdoor living spaces. We use tree care to establish a heightened awareness of arboriculture as a profession, discuss global, environmental stewardship and promote enjoyment of the outdoors.”
In 2020, Harrison McPhee used the pandemic as an opportunity to tout the benefits of spending time in nature to stay physically and mentally healthy. “We purchased copies of Forest Bathing, Your Brain on Nature and The Nature Fix to distribute to key clients, along with personalized evaluations of their heritage trees,” recalls McPhee. “This was a welcome and unexpected gift during an uncertain time. Our outreach enabled us to launch conversations about the connection between nature and health when people were especially receptive to that message.”
Giving back to the communities where you do business is a relatively easy and low-stakes tactic to include in your marketing strategy. Positive interactions with the public not only help your business become top of mind, they elevate the industry as a whole.
There are countless opportunities for every person in the tree care industry to volunteer their time and expertise, including, but certainly not limited to, sitting on committees and boards, participating in Arbor Day activities, holding educational sessions and supporting local events.
Research has shown that employees are positively impacted when their employers support their teams with opportunities to give back to their communities. “ACRT Services and our family of companies has always been, and will always be, about one thing: people. It’s about our employees, our customers and the communities our customers serve. A happy employee makes happy customers, and that naturally becomes a customer-focused strategy for us,” says Renee Bissett, director of marketing and communications for ACRT Services, Inc., a 36-year TCIA corporate member company located in Stow, Ohio.
“Our philosophy is to give back, and we strive to create opportunities for our employees that make ACRT Services a great place to work. One of these ways is by making volunteerism accessible. We do Arbor Day events, Saluting Branches – anything and everything. We have 20 to 30 employees on committees at the Utility Arborist Association and lots of folks sitting on tree boards and volunteering for the TREE Fund. We even have one team member who has participated in 13 Tour de Trees rides.”
You have knowledge and skills – are you leveraging those to establish yourself as a thought leader, educate your audience and build a foundation for trust?
“Our mission is to redefine the tree care experience, one relationship at a time. This is the guiding light for everything we do as a company,” says Mason Brandenberger, CTSP and president of Brandenberger Tree Care Professionals (Brandenberger TCP), a four-year TCIA member company located in Fort Wayne/Auburn, Indiana. This strong mission, paired with the company’s six primary core values, creates a lens through which decisions are made. To better serve their customers, Brandenberger TCP recognized they needed to create more awareness of how their customers’ needs can be met. To accomplish this goal, the team generated a number of informational resources. Two examples of this are what they call “The Power of Plant Health Care” and “A Property You Can Be Proud of for Generations to Come,” which they use as beneficial resources for their customers and then can be passed along to neighbors and friends to start the referral process.
When asked what recent marketing effort seems to be most effective for them, Brandenberger suggests it has been to develop and facilitate strong relationships. This goes beyond just their customers, extending to their team and the vendors they work closely with. “Relationship is the core of what Brandenberger TCP stands for, and, through building relationships, we have developed a business that functions primarily from referrals versus internal marketing efforts,” states Brandenberger. “The benefit of referrals is, when the customer calls, there is already trust built from their friend or family member having had a good experience with our company and enthusiastically passing along our name.”
If you have a digital presence, whether it is a website, email list or social-media accounts, content is already part of your marketing strategy. Are you using it effectively? If you’re not, your competitors probably are.
When you create great content, make it work for you. “The T in ACRT stands for training, so that mindset is a huge focus for us when it comes to educating not only our employees, but other folks in the industry,” explains Kevin Gamble, manager of marketing and communications for ACRT Services. “Content serves as the foundation of our marketing strategy. We believe our content has nine lives. One article can feed many different channels, including social, our website, producing a video or connecting with an industry publication. We’re working hard to maximize our content across the board to share information.”
SingleOps, a six-year TCIA corporate member company headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, leverages their customers to create field guides and reports for the industry. Hot tip: One resource is their annual Green Industry Economic Report, distributed every January. This report anonymously aggregates customer data from their software to provide industry benchmarks, including average job value, backlog timing, proposal rates and more. “We started doing this a few years ago, but it only started gaining traction recently, as people realized they can use this information to determine where their business stands and identify opportunities for growth,” says Ty Deemer, director of marketing. “The purpose is to engage with the content, but it also elevates the industry as a whole.”
Another resource they’ve created for prospects leverages current customers’ first-hand experience with SingleOps to address common questions and pain points. “We think it’s important to let our customers be our voice when we don’t think it’s our place to be the voice,” states Deemer. “We share this resource with prospects when, perhaps, they’re too busy to schedule a call with us. It allows them to reference it when they have the time and to get first-hand responses from real users rather than taking our word.”
Across the board, the companies interviewed for this article leverage subject-matter experts to create educational opportunities for their audiences.
SingleOps leverages networking and relationships to source guests to contribute to one arm of their content strategy: the Green Industry Perspectives podcast. “There’s a lot of information available about arboriculture and equipment, but there aren’t a ton of resources around the business side of running a tree care company, including how to grow or how to build a winning culture,” says Deemer. “We saw an opportunity to connect people with industry leaders they could trust and learn from, and have been fortunate to host guests who are well connected to the industry through TCIA, the ISA and tree-climbing competitions.” If you’re looking to tune into the Green Industry Perspectives podcast, Deemer recommends the episodes featuring international climbing champion Mark Chisholm and two episodes with TCIA board member Noel Boyer.
TCIA has also leaned into creating informative and educational podcasts highlighting the tree care industry, with guest speakers from various sectors of the tree care community. (podcast.tcia.org)
Podcasting presents a huge opportunity for the tree care industry, not only for education within the industry but also for the public. According to an article published by Forbes.com in February 2021, podcasts are growing in popularity with marketers for several reasons, including audience growth and a younger audience profile. The article states that listeners are a median age of 34, which is younger than broadcast radio and network television. Additionally, the percentage of monthly podcast listeners among those 12 to 34 years old has grown from 27% in 2017 to 49% in 2020.
Retention and recruiting programs
While boosting morale isn’t commonly considered a marketing tactic, it can be an important part of the employee-
recruitment and -retention processes. When employees are happy, they essentially function as living, breathing billboards for your business. The Marketing Excellence Awards winners had a few bright ideas for engaging employees.
When asked what has worked or not worked in regard to hiring and retaining quality employees, Brandenberger’s response was profound. “What we’ve found that does not work is hiring based solely on experience and skill level. Instead, we focus on character, integrity, honesty, work ethic and, most important, a culture fit. When we find that type of team member, the initial training process is much more intense, as they often have zero experience in our industry, but the long-term result is a committed and dedicated team member who is a good fit for our culture, both now and in the future. We want to hire people now who will lead our company 10 years from now. We’re focused more on that than just having hands to get jobs done this week. Combining that approach with compelling career opportunities and tons of growth potential for our team members gives them a reason to stay with us. Looking at things from a big-picture perspective is what has served us well when it comes to hiring and retaining all-star team members.”
One tactic Brandenberger TCP is using to keep their team members motivated and engaged is through job-hazard assessment. They’ve gamified it, allowing the crew to earn points for completing certain tasks and hold each other accountable for excellent safety and client care. They’re racking up points to earn a hot-tub installation at HQ.
Meanwhile, Arborwear has ramped up programs to support their customers’ hiring and retention efforts, filling a gap that became evident during the pandemic. “Arborwear’s mission is to outfit green-industry professionals with appropriate uniform solutions and protective workwear. Our uniform program was designed to support companies by providing wearables to ensure safety and enhance brands for teams,” says Heidi Baumgart, vice president of marketing and team development for Arborwear, a 23-year TCIA corporate member company based in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
“During the pandemic, our customers were able to hire more than ever due to layoffs in other industries, so we’ve met this need for uniform programs that build teams and support safety, whether it’s providing branded apparel, chain-saw protection, footwear or other wearables.”
When it comes to helping green-industry companies recognize their teams, Arborwear creates logistics and fulfillment programs for companies to access useful, custom tools and gifts for employee recognition.
“We have customers with great recognition and retention programs in place, and have had the opportunity to design various custom elements for programs for other companies,” states Baumgart. “As more companies ask for programs to recognize their teams for their hard work, we’ve gotten more creative with products and logos. A popular program is what we call a ‘hurricane kit.’ Customers buy these for crews after storm cleanups as a commemorative thank you.”
Establish your mission and vision, and write them down. Use these to influence every decision you make for the business and every interaction you have with your audiences. It’s important for you to “walk the walk” not only externally, but internally, so building an environment your crew is excited to be a part of will help build an authentic brand voice that resonates at every level. Finally, leverage the skills and expertise you and your crew have to create educational opportunities for your audience that foster relationships, establish authority and build trust as they consider high-ticket services such as tree care.