John Armato is a senior partner and creative strategist with Fleishman Hillard, one of the world’s largest public relations firms. He’s currently working with the Real Christmas Tree Board (RCTB) to help Christmas tree growers become better spokespersons for their trees.

The RCTB is a national research and promotion program appointed by the USDA Secretary and comprises Christmas tree producers from across the nation. Its mission is to share the benefits of fresh Christmas trees with consumers through promotion, public relations and education while engaging in research to better serve both customers and growers.

“In your daily work and especially throughout this season,” said Armato, “you’re going to have a multitude of opportunities to advocate for real Christmas trees. And if you’re speaking on behalf of your business or the industry, you’re essentially a spokesperson. You may not be on TV or giving interviews to newspapers, but your message is just as critical in meetings, at conferences and in coffee shops. All good spokespeople have one thing in common: They don’t leave their message to chance. They are intentional about what they say and how they say it.”

Armato pointed to three key aspects of effective messaging:

Keep it Brief

Christmas tree growers know a lot about Christmas trees, but they shouldn’t let that strength become a weakness. “You might have 23 things you want to say, but that’s not going to serve you well. Keep your messaging to three or four things,” he advised.

Armato cited a 1968 study conducted at the University of Indiana identifying the length of the average soundbite in the evening news during elections. “Today we have more ways of spreading information than ever. Now we have Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, but our research shows that we’ve had a contraction of the available attention span and the length of the opportunity you have to get your message across – it’s now seven seconds.”

Back in 1968, the ideal soundbite was 43 seconds long.

Be Selective & Strategic

“Good messages are not packed with everything you know and everything you could say,” Armato said. When you keep your message brief, it’ll be easier to remember, but it’s just as important to make sure you choose only those things you want people to remember.

“These days, because of social media repeat … you want people to be able to be your ambassador on your behalf. To amplify what you have to say as well,” he explained. “A part of the art of this is identifying those unique, specific handful of things that you want to be a part of other people’s conversations about real Christmas trees as well as your conversations.”

Don’t Forget You’re Human – Make it Conversational

Amato cautioned growers, “We don’t want to sound like the Pentagon spokesperson. We don’t want to sound like a corporation. We don’t want to sound like an industry.”

He emphasized the importance of sounding like real people, hardworking farmers and growers who believe in their work and believe in their trees.

Over the years Armato has learned there are several themes that have consistently tested well with consumers considering buying a real Christmas tree. “These are the three primary messages we’re recommending for this year,” he explained.

The first message is about joy. People switch to real Christmas trees because they’re a joy to see and smell. The percentage of people who say they wish they’d switched to real trees sooner is up compared to previous years – 84% of people in the RCTB survey noted as much. It was 78% in 2022. And 95% of those who plan on getting a tree this year say that they believe the scent of a real Christmas tree brings joy to others.

“What I love about this stat, first of all, it’s a huge number,” Armato said. “That scent is a compelling factor for people. It’s such a distinguishing characteristic that the artificial industry doesn’t get to claim.”

Additionally, 77% of all survey respondents said nothing can replicate the smell of a real Christmas tree in their home.

The second message is that real trees are available and the responsible choice. Armato advised growers to preempt concerns about shortages that tend to come up year after year.

“We want to squelch that because there may be individual retailers or individual places that sell out earlier than others. But as a whole, we have trees to serve everybody who wants one,” he said. “We’ve never run out of trees!”

Real Christmas trees are grown to be harvested, just like pumpkins for Halloween or vegetables for dinner. Growers should remind potential customers that there’s no harm in taking them home.

“As we’ve observed in the association over the years, there is a contingent of people who, in the interests of environmentalism, might have some concerns, or think erroneously, that we’re just chopping down trees in the forests, which is not the case,” Armato said. “We’re not exhausting the planet’s resources. We can help them understand why real Christmas trees are a responsible choice by reframing it for them. You don’t complain about your lettuce being harvested, right? It’s the same thing. It’s grown as a crop for a purpose.”

The third message is a call to action. “The call to action is rooted in some new data of ours this year,” Armato said, “and it’s a fascinating data set. Twenty percent of those who are planning to buy real Christmas trees will be doing so for the first time this year.”

He advised the industry on how best to help these consumers: “We want to encourage people to try unique shapes, varieties of species, et cetera, unique to your region or retailer. We know that demand is high for trees that are traditionally regarded as favorites, and we want to encourage people to branch out.”

With each harvest, growers should encourage people to explore the many varieties, shapes and sizes that all real Christmas trees have to offer.

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by Enrico Villamaino