by Sally Colby

Christmas tree growers who pay the required check off fees are interested in what the Christmas Tree Promotion Board (CTPB) is doing with those funds, so Marsha Gray, executive director of the board, delved into that topic.

Gray talked about last year’s referendum vote, which was 51 – 49 in support of the program. However, the Secretary of Agriculture said that margin was too close, and wanted another vote. A more recent vote, representing 900 voters, was 55 – 45 – an eight-point swing in one year. Despite active “yes” and “no” campaigns, Gray believes the result is due to people learning more about what the promotion board does and how it works for them.

“The USDA announced that the Christmas Tree Promotion referendum passed and the program will continue,” said Gray, adding that the recently approved budget includes $200,000 for research. “We want more growers to be aware of the program, to be proud of the program and keep using it.”

The most vital aspect of the promotion is the “It’s Christmas. Keep it Real” campaign, and Gray said the campaign is working. The board reviews results from previous years’ campaigns, determines how and where the best results were, then develops the campaign for the current year. Gray added that despite the board coming up with great ideas, their work with a professional ad agency has helped make much better use of resources.

One of the next promotion efforts will focus on retailers. “Wholesale growers can help retailers understand that it’s available to anyone selling Christmas trees in the U.S.,” said Gray. “We want the message shared and out there for everyone.”

Social media efforts traditionally start in late October and run through Christmas, but Gray said the board will be creating content to be used year-round. “That content might be Christmas tree-related, or may not be,” she said, “but we’ll always use the ‘Keep it Real’ messaging. We’re also going to create some posts about what you [growers] do the rest of the year. People are curious about what you do – share it.”

One of the things the CTPB discovered over the past couple of years is that the media is always looking for Christmas-related content. The problem is that whoever comes out with the first press release becomes what everyone else answers to the rest of the season. “When the American Christmas Tree Association, which represents artificial, comes out with their statement that they’re more environmentally beneficial, we spend our entire season answering that instead of framing what we want to talk about,” said Gray. “We’re going to create our own statistics – we’re not making them up. We’re going to do consumer surveys and ask the fun questions: who picks the Christmas tree, who has the final decision, what color lights, how long they keep the tree up.”

All survey questions were related to real trees, and the results kick-started the season. Other information will come from interviews asking people questions such as what color lights they prefer. “We’re going to use those videos and photos and share them along with press material,” said Gray. “They’re also going to create fun, snappy videos.” Gray encourages growers to follow the CTPB e-newsletter to track campaigns as they’re introduced.

Gray also addressed the ongoing issue with compliance with the check-off, which is required by federal order of growers who grow more than 500 trees. “We aren’t interested in being a police force, but we aren’t collecting the dollars we should be,” she said. “The board approved a plan to reach out to non-paying growers to get into compliance. We aren’t trying to penalize them – we want them in the program. We’re also trying to make it easier to pay the check-off.”

How does the promotion board identify Christmas tree customers, and how is that used to develop advertising efforts? “We’ve made a very specific choice to target Millennial moms and dads,” said Gray. “We don’t have a big budget, so we have to be very targeted in what we do. We need to talk about today’s and tomorrow’s customers. Moms are on Facebook, and they’re very influenced by their friends in their circle, so we think it’s a great opportunity to focus on social media.”

Gray noted that the CTPB is aware that they are representing all Christmas trees sold. “We can’t talk about just choose and cut, or retail,” she said. “We include everything, including box stores and Amazon. What we want is for every retail outlet to be the best it can be, and to sell the best tree it can sell. We can’t change what you do, but we have to be the best in every area. We need to start doing a better job for the entire industry. It isn’t going to be easy, but we are representing all, and we’re going to do a better job.”

One of the successful efforts last year was a contest for families to send photos of their real trees. “When we have a contest, we get to keep all the photos and use them,” said Gray. “We’re doing another contest this year. We’re going to do a better job to help you [growers] encourage your customers to be in that contest with a graphic you can print for your check-out stand, on Facebook and Instagram.”

Gray relayed the thoughts from someone from the marketing agency: “We help you keep that romantic vision. It’s beautiful to see that Christmas tree on top of a Suburban. Do you really think they want to show the box of a fake tree on a car? Our job is to keep that beautiful vision out there. We are still the story.”