Happiness is chunky garden spaghetti sauce.

I came across a TED talk recently featuring the author Malcolm Gladwell. It was part of an online college course on ‘Happiness’ made available through iTunes University. So expecting something really insightful on the nature of happiness, I found myself watching something really insightful on the subject of spaghetti sauce.

For the next seventeen minutes I followed the story of Howard Moskovitz, a brand specialist who back in the 70’s revolutionized the way Prego helped consumers find happiness in chunky garden spaghetti sauce.

As Mr. Gladwell tells it, the story begins when Howard was hired by Pepsi to find just the right level of artificial sweetness in their new Diet Pepsi product. The goal: the perfect Diet Pepsi. So he went to work and he tested, and he tested and he tested. Target audiences were polled; Aspartame levels were measured down to the narrowest of percentages. The result? It was a toss up. No bell curve. No clear winner.

Then he had a major breakthrough.

What he discovered was that there was no one perfect diet Pepsi, but rather there were many perfect diet Pepsis. That’s plural Pepsi. This didn’t necessarily solve Pepsi’s problem, so they sent him packing. But Howard knew he was on to something. Something big. But no one believed him. This was until Howard met with the Campbell Soup Company. Campbells makes Prego spaghetti sauce. Good spaghetti sauce. They were stuck. Prego was a much better tasting spaghetti sauce than it’s main competitor, Ragu. Prego had better ingredients, was thicker, richer and tastier. With that said Prego was always a constant second to Ragu. They wanted to retool the recipe to create the perfect spaghetti sauce.

What Howard Moskovitz helped Prego realize was that, you guessed it, there was no one perfect spaghetti sauce. What he did find after crisscrossing the country, holding focus group after focus group, blind tasting after blind tasting, was that there was no one favorite. There were many favorites. Like many things in life, taste is subjective.  Some preferred a spicy sauce, others sweet, and still others liked their spaghetti sauce chunky.

This is why there are now 21 different Prego Italian sauces featured on the Prego website, including Chunky Garden. Of course what they realized is that there was a wider audience than they were serving. Consumers didn’t necessarily know they wanted 21 different varieties of spaghetti sauce until they tasted them; and when they did, Prego became the number one selling spaghetti sauce in the country.

Back to Malcolm Gladwell. So what is the key take away from that particular 2004 TED talk?

It helped me understand how plants are like spaghetti sauce. And, more importantly, how products like insecticides, fertilizers, shovels and rakes aren’t.  Believe me, you want to be in the business of (metaphorically speaking) selling spaghetti sauce. Success in retail is all about product turns, margins and cash flow. Plants turn, so plants win.

Just like any business you start with an understanding what your customers want and what your customers need… and knowing the difference. Let’s face it; people probably don’t need 21 different flavors of Prego, just as they might not need 100 different varieties of Hosta.

But, in the end they might want them.

What they want… and what they need. It is the difference between satisfying desire and solving a problem. There is a fundamental difference in stocking 40 different types of roses and stocking 40 different bags of fertilizers to feed those roses. One can make you money; the other… not so much. The former can excite the customer with the possibilities; the latter can confuse the customer with too many choices. Once again, plants win.

The good news is that the sale of plant material is what drives most successful garden centers. But within the green goods category, flowering plants – annuals, perennials, flowering trees and shrubs, even tropicals – are the ones that boost sales. This gets back to my core belief that people buy what’s blooming. ‘What’s In Flower Sells.’

Which leads us to the ‘law of Stella D’Oro’ – people buy what they see. Just like the Prego taste testers didn’t know what they wanted until they tasted it, people don’t always know the plant they want until they see it.

But who could tell that the plant that they were waiting their whole life for was the Stella D’Oro daylily. They may have decided they must have the Stella D’Oro daylily the first time they laid eyes on it, or maybe it was the fifth, or seventh; who could tell. Of course one thing that didn’t hurt it was the plant bloomed like crazy – and people like things in bloom. No other daylily bloomed like Stella. So that little yellow daylily became arguably the best selling daylily of all time.

It wasn’t long before Stella became the ‘chunky garden spaghetti sauce’ of plants. What followed was an explosion in the development of repeat blooming daylillies, which led to hydrangeas and Endless Summer. What did the two have in common? They flowered… prolifically; which begat the rush towards long blooming hydrangeas.

It also triggered what I like to call the Knock-Out syndrome.  It is a meme of sorts where certain plant sales rise dramatically. You see the more people buy Knock-Out roses, the more places it is planted; the more that are planted, the more that are seen. The more they are seen, the more people buy them, etc., etc. So when a plant shows up in countless home landscapes, towns, parks, and municipalities the demand can become exponential. The desire is based on experience.

But assuming that people feel the same way about fertilizers, dirt and hoses is just silly. What’s worse is when I visit a garden center with a fertilizer department that looks like the neighborhood supermarket’s cereal aisle. Where’s the spaghetti sauce? Oh yeah, tools, shovels, and bug-be-gone aren’t like spaghetti sauce. Once you come to terms with that you’ll buy less hard goods which means you’ll have more working capital for plants, which means more sales, more plants, more sales – Happiness!

There is a time to keep things simple, and there is a time to sell people what they really want. Plants in flower.

So guess what type of roses my wife wanted to plant along our walkway – Knock-Out roses. That is due in part to the fact that at the intersection of Main Street and Boulevard Avenue in West Hartford, CT you’ll find a mass planting of Knock-Out Roses and… wait for it… the Stella D’Oro daylily!

What has she asked me to plant this Spring? Stella D’Oro daylilies. But when she is happy, I’m happy too.