Schwanke Shows Western Michiganders the Power of Flowers

Imagine an event that demonstrates the joy of working with, giving, and receiving flowers; draws attention to International Women’s Day; and raises money for local charities.

That’s the gist of the uBloom Flower Power Challenge, which kicks off the West Michigan Home and Garden Show tonight in Grand Rapids.

J Schwanke, AAF, AIFD, PFCI, founder of uBloom, spoke with Florist 2.0 this week about the fourth annual design competition and what florists can learn from it.

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F20: What inspired the Flower Power Challenge?

JS: Lane DeVries (owner of Sun Valley Farms in Arcata, California) is a good friend and I admired his efforts to make International Women’s Day a household name. I wanted to do my part to promote Women’s Day because what it stands for—love, honor and respect—is really great. It was important to me that consumers not see it as a contrived holiday, so I figured an event would be a good way to generate awareness. Given the timing of the West Michigan Home and Garden Show, it made sense to do something there. Also, organizers had told me they wanted to develop a program about flowers.

F20: How does it work? What are the rules?

JS: We’ve assembled five local celebrities—news anchors, radio hosts and an author—who all picked a charity to represent. I encouraged them to choose something hyper local rather than a national organization or a “disease of the month.” I just feel that the grand prize ($500) is especially meaningful for little guys. Also it makes this more of a community event. They’re competing on behalf of groups like a no-kill animal shelter, a food bank, even a group of runners who push kids in wheelchairs so they can participate in marathons and other races!

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Most of these celebrities have no design experience. Over the years, I’ve given contestants  lessons in advance, which have turned into radio and t.v. segments and news articles. Before the buzzer signals the start of the competition, I give them—and the audience—a little demonstration. I do a couple things wrong and a couple things right. They all receive the same materials and have five minutes to create their designs. While they work, my co-host, Catherine Behrendt (of “My West Michigan”) and I ham it up, offering commentary about the emerging designs.

F20: How do you pick a winner?

JS: Catherine and I narrow it down to our top two choices. Past winners, who are ineligible to compete again, are invited to watch and help judge. After we’ve narrowed it down to two designs, the crowd picks. We go with the one that receives the most applause. People come with noisemakers, cowbells, and air horns! When they’re howling, clapping, etc., it draws almost everyone at the show to the design area. It always ends up being a standing room only experience.

F20: Who provides the prize?

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JS: UBloom donates $500 to the winner’s charity and $100 to the other four contestants’. Their charities invoice us, so it’s completely tax-deductible. I’ve also found that the press we get more than makes up for the cost. I was blown away last year when I heard someone say, “the guy from uBloom is here.” My company’s name is known in the industry, but consumers usually just refer to me as “the flower guy.”

I also have several industry partners who make this possible with product donations: Esprit Miami, Eufloria Flowers, Resendiz Brothers, FernTrust Inc., and Sun Valley Farms. At the end of the competition, Lane distributes bouquets of tulips for Women’s Day. It’s amazing seeing women’s reactions when they get a free bouquet—as well as the guys who can’t wait to give their girlfriends, wives, mothers or daughters flowers.

F20: Let’s talk a bit about getting press. What are your tips?

JS: Whenever I travel for a show or presentation, I call the local t.v. stations and offer to show up with flowers. Every florist should do this. I guarantee you no one will ever turn you down. You might have to be at the station by 6 a.m.—but you’ll definitely get air time and people will wake up seeing you and your flowers!

I also like to go on radio stations. When you’re working with a medium that’s not visual, it’s really important to be animated. Use specific adjectives like “luxurious,” “elegant” and “fragrant” when you talk about flowers. They say more than “pretty” or “nice.” Describe colors and textures. Use an enthusiastic tone, so your passion shines through.

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Our celebrities also do a good job of generating press themselves. These people have a following in the community, as do the charities they choose to represent. They really help spread the word about the Flower Power Challenge. A past winner wrote an editorial for the newspaper talking about how the uBloom prize kept them afloat. This, in turn, got them more donations and cast us in a positive light in the community.

The winner of the Flower Power Challenge receives a flower crown. We stole a page from Ellen DeGeneres at the 2014 Oscars and take a group selfie, which always circulates pretty far on social media. The 2016 winner actually made it her profile picture on Facebook all year, which has been great publicity.

F20: What would you like industry players to take away from this experience?

JS: Anyone can replicate this, or do something similar. Every community has its own celebrities.

Every time I do the Flower Power Challenge, people in the audience come up to me and say, “I can’t wait to check out your shop.” I don’t have one. My mission is simply to get consumers interested in buying flowers. If florists do this in their own communities, I’m sure they’d get the same reactions. Design competitions are great for brand awareness. They’ll definitely get you business.