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America’s Biggest Seed Company Wants to Turn Gardening Into Self-help

Burpee addresses the environmental, economic and health benefits of gardening, and proposes a “Resolution Garden” in its new branding.

America’s Biggest Seed Company Wants to Turn Gardening Into Self-help

One only needs to note the proliferation of Victory Gardens during World War II or the past year’s explosion of community plots to know that when economic times are tough, Americans head back to the garden. But today’s gardeners are also sowing seeds for weight-loss and environmentalism, according to legendary American seed company Burpee, the country’s oldest and largest seed purveyor. As Burpee CEO George Ball noted earlier this year, sales of Burpee seeds are up 15-20% in 2010, and consumers are not only turning the soil to save money: Ball says that people are looking to the garden for emotional and physical growth as well.

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Enter Connecticut-based designer Alexander Isley, whose firm was tasked with updating Burpee’s image for this new brand of consumer. Isley’s team worked with Burpee’s in-house marketing group, revamping the catalog and other communication pieces, as well as a new Web site that launched late last month. Isley says it was Ball’s passion about the spiritual aspects of garden that drove the redesign. “I think George sees gardening as a soulful experience,” he says. “Although he might not like me saying it that way.”

In fact, it was Ball’s idea to create the concept of Resolution Gardens, which could highlight various seed varieties along with specific features like losing weight, spending time with family, stress-reduction, fighting pollution, and getting exercise. “People like ordering collections, and he thought this would be a good way of assembling some varieties, held together by a narrative,” says Isley. For example, the nutritional benefits of certain plants, such as Blue Lake pole beans and Looseleaf Heatwave Blend lettuce, are on the packages; a poster for retail environments further hypes the program in a nostalgic, family-focused way.

Another challenge for the design was that Burpee, by virtue of its history and size, is actually known as the big corporate entity within this field. “A lot of gardeners are passionate, and may look upon larger companies, including Burpee, with suspicion,” says Isley. Adding handwritten elements–real handwriting, not a typeface–and illustration by Ross MacDonald helped to give Burpee a level of authenticity for picky gardeners, as did drawing out certain product lines, like heirlooms and organics which gardeners have come to equate with high quality.

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A redesigned Web site as well as email blasts have changed their messaging so they’re now focused on helping the Burpee gardener to achieve their personal goals, as well as harvest a bumper crop of Giant SuperSteak Hybrid tomatoes. For Isley, this dramatic shift represents an impressive move for a company as established as Burpee, which was founded in 1878. “Often, when a company is in trouble, only then to they consider looking to design to help address the issue,” says Isley. “Burpee was in another place, as an industry leader. But George Ball is a visionary, who wants to keep pushing ahead and doing a better job.”

About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.

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