By Ally Marotti
CHICAGO — Sixty miles west of Chicago, Kim Kuipers and her husband have been selling real Christmas trees for 15 years, but when people decide on artificial ones, she gets it.
“They’re beautiful, they’re handy, they pop up like an umbrella with the lights already on them,” said Kuipers, owner of Kuipers Family Farm in Maple Park, Illinois. “So (real trees are) a tough sell.”
The Kuipers, along with other Christmas tree farmers around the country, hope a new national campaign will help sway customers toward the cut-down variety purchased in a lot, store or farm and bring stability to an industry that has had some rough patches.
The campaign’s tagline? “It’s Christmas. Keep it real.”
“The reality is that there has been some loss in market share, if you will, to the artificial tree,” said Tim O’Connor, executive director of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board, a U.S. Department of Agriculture promotion and research program that manages the campaign. “(Farmers) want to fight that, they want to get in the battle and win customers back.”
The effort is akin to the “Got Milk?” campaign, but you won’t see any commercials or giant billboards of celebrities like Angelina Jolie or Britney Spears, who sported milk mustaches, standing next to trees. The campaign is aimed largely at millennials, who get much of their news through social media, so most of what consumers see will be online.
There are Pinterest posts and a Facebook page, and materials for tree farms to download and share. Farms also received posters and stickers of the logo — a star-topped tree encircled by the tag line.
Kuipers Family Farm put a sticker on both doors to its gift shop. It’s also on the farm’s Facebook page, mixed in with announcements for train rides and Santa visits, and at the bottom of its email blasts.
The campaign, by New York-based ad agency Concept Farm, launched Nov. 15 with a more than 2-minute video montage of scenes showing families picking out and decorating trees, cute dogs playing beneath the trees and couples kissing under the mistletoe, with real trees as the backdrop.
It touts the traditions built around buying a real tree — something that Kuipers said their 230-acre farm has promoted for years.
“That’s what we sell,” she said. “We sell the experience.”
The campaign is funded by an assessment on producers and importers of fresh-cut Christmas trees. Those that sell more than 500 trees a year pay 15 cents per tree sold. The promotion board collected $1.8 million last year, $1.25 million of which is going toward the “Keep It Real” campaign, O’Connor said.
So far, consumers still purchase more real Christmas trees than artificial ones each year, but the artificial trees can last for many holiday seasons. According to a survey conducted by the National Christmas Tree Association, U.S. consumers bought 25.9 million real trees last year, compared with 12.5 million artificial ones.
According to consumer research from the Christmas Tree Promotion Board, real trees are barely beating artificial trees out for spots in the living room. Thirty-one percent of Christmas tree buyers typically have a real tree, while 30 percent have an artificial one, according to the research. Twenty-five percent of consumers go back and forth, and the rest don’t have a tree every year.
For growers, problems come when people buy fewer trees or a different type becomes popular and farmers can’t keep up, O’Connor said. Like other agricultural commodities, Christmas trees go through cycles. Demand may be high one year, so farmers expand production and plant more seedlings. But during dips in demand, Christmas tree farmers can’t respond as nimbly as say, soybean or corn farmers, because it takes 8 to 10 years for trees to grow.
There’s also the fight against Mother Nature. Young trees are vulnerable to cold and drought, and a deadly year for seedlings could mean a year or more with too few trees of a height adequate for living rooms.
The hard part is knowing what type of tree will be popular in a decade, said Karen Williams, owner of Williams Tree Farm in Rockton, Illinois, just south of the Wisconsin border.
“Scotch pine used to be the most in-demand tree, now it’s hard to even get seedlings,” she said. “It’s a very fluid business.”
Williams, who put “Keep It Real” decals in windows and displays throughout her farm, said the campaign will educate and remind customers that trees are crops and there are environmental benefits, such as consuming carbon dioxide.
That local, environmental aspect of the campaign is aiming to get millennials — the same generation wooed by locally grown food — to latch on to buying real trees before they establish other traditions. It’s important to attract that age group now, as baby boomers move into assisted living facilities and let their tree-buying traditions fall to the wayside, O’Connor said.
Medford, Wisconsin-based L&M Tree and Wreath rents five lots in the Chicago area and two in Wisconsin to sell its trees during the holiday season. Owner Doug Handel isn’t using any of the “Keep It Real” materials because the campaign launched too close to the start of his selling season.
“People are creatures of habit,” Handel said. “They bought a tree there last year, they’re coming back this year.”
But he’s seen the rough patches tree farmers go through, and what happens when demand shrinks on one type of tree after farmers bet heavily on it. The first step to stability is bringing in customers.
“You’ve got to get them there first,” Handel said. “It’s supply and demand.”