A cut flower-themed public television show that reaches an estimated 87 percent of the country is the winner of Floral Management’s 2019 Marketer of the Year honors. The award, sponsored by Design Master color tool, inc., recognizes excellence in marketing and comes with a cash prize of $5,000.
“J Schwanke’s Life in Bloom” debuted in April 2019 on 120 channels in 63 markets. While accepting the award on Sept. 20 during SAF Amelia Island 2019, J Schwanke, AAF, AIFD, PFCI, the show’s host and creator, acknowledged how much the program’s reach has expanded since that time, and he talked about what the effort means to the broader industry. “We are in 49 states [now], reaching 96 million households,” he said, noting the program’s particular popularity among millennials and children. “This show is not about me. This show is about the flowers you sell every day.”
The son of former Society of American Florists president Mel Schwanke, AAF, and his beloved wife, Joey, AAF, PFCI, Schwanke was born into the floral industry. (No kidding: Joey actually went into labor during an event at the Nebraska Florist Society Growers School.) Growing up, Schwanke worked in his family’s flower shop in Fremont, Nebraska, tagged along with his parents to industry events, listened to the buzz of industry news daily, and learned design techniques and best practices in the business from some of the industry’s top professionals.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing and public relations, Schwanke forged his own career, becoming one of the industry’s most sought-after design educators and presenters, a person who can break down complicated concepts and engage just about any audience. The founder of uBloom.com and the web broadcast series “Fun with Flowers and J” (and its predecessor “JTV”), Schwanke is the author of two highly regarded floral design and arrangement books — among many (many) other projects.
The thing about Schwanke that everybody who meets him immediately recognizes: The man is passionate (with a capital “P!”) about the floral industry. The cut flowers, plants and design, yes, but also the people behind these beautiful products — growers in California, Florida, Colombia or Kenya; importers; wholesalers; truck drivers; brick-and-mortar shop owners; event designers; the man in a bodega selling carnations at 3 a.m. to the sheepish twenty-something guy who needs to get out of the doghouse.
Following in the footsteps of his father, who was known to urge, “as an industry, we need to sell more flowers to more people more often,” Schwanke’s goal has always been straightforward: He wants more people to share in his deep, deep flower love, because it’s good for the industry (of course!) but also because, at the end of the day, Schwanke believes with all of his heart that daily encounters with blooms are just really, really good for the soul — everybody’s soul.
For all of Schwanke’s success sharing that message, in 2016, he was ready to take his storytelling skills to a larger platform. He might not have realized it at the time, but a serendipitous encounter at the Dallas Market Center was about to help him build that bigger stage through “J Schwanke’s Life in Bloom.”
A Chance Encounter, a Spark of Inspiration
While building his own brand and creative enterprises, Schwanke also has become a trusted partner for a plethora of likeminded, design-oriented businesses, including the Dallas Market Center, where, for more than a decade, he’s served as a design expert.
It was that role that brought him into contact in January 2016 with P. Allen Smith — the garden designer, lifestyle expert and host of several TV shows distributed by American Public Television.
Smith was scheduled to be a guest of the Market at that time, and organizers asked Schwanke to serve as a liaison, giving Smith a tour, introducing him to customers, vendors and other VIPs and making sure he was prepped for his appearances. The pair found they had plenty in common — “We were even born just five days apart,” Schwanke said with a laugh — and became fast friends.
Schwanke soon was appearing as a frequent guest on Smith’s shows, bringing with him not only his own deep knowledge of flowers, plants and design but also his industry connections, including growers and wholesalers who were happy to help supply beautiful blooms for the broadcasts.
“At a certain point, P. Allen looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’ve done so much for me, what can I do for you? How can I help you?’” Schwanke said. “And I said, ‘I’d really like my own TV show.”
Smith was more than happy to offer pointers and tips.
Indeed, Schwanke had long dreamed of a TV opportunity and, throughout his career, has been an adopter of new technology and new business ideas — he’s not exactly the type of person to wait for an opportunity to come his way. Instead, he creates them. He started hosting his web series in 2006 and also he founded his own production company, J Schwanke Productions.
In fact, several networks had approached Schwanke in the past about a reality show centered on turning around failing floral businesses — premises that revolved around Schwanke giving tough love to flaky owners and disgruntled staff. Another network suggested a wedding-themed reality program, in which Schwanke would present a bride with three proposals from three different florists.
Each option felt problematic or mean-spirited to Schwanke.
“Because we in this industry are passionate and creative, we can come off as a little crazy on our own. We don’t need any help with that,” Schwanke said. “I love this industry. I want to lift people up, not tear them down.”
A Dream Takes Flight
That sentiment helps explain why Smith’s model may have been so appealing. Public television offered a path to an educated audience, a path already made clear by luminaries such as Smith, Martha Stewart, and the painter Bob Ross, not to mention legends such as Julia Child (an influencer and lifestyle guru in her own right, before such terms existed).
“I also liked that, through public television, the storytelling and information we shared would be available to everyone,” Schwanke said.
Stats on public television supported Schwanke’s instincts. Industry research shows that PBS reaches 94 percent of all U.S. households and 41 percent of viewers hold a post-graduate degree.
The timing was right for other reasons, too. Schwanke’s deep ties to industry businesses made for a lengthy list of potential collaborators. Plus, he had a strong, educated instinct (and experience) about the kind of programming he wanted to do, and the kind that he thought would do well.
Through uBloom.com, for instance, Schwanke already had produced popular video projects, including “The California Grown Experience,” a 40-episode series that brought viewers to fields and greenhouses of Golden State growers, and “The Florida Fresh Foliage and Flower Tour,” which provided a look behind the operations at eight grower operations in the Sunshine State.
Schwanke huddled with his crew of nine people — including his longtime partner and chief collaborator, Kelly Blank, who serves as executive producer and art director; director of photography and camera one, Keith Golinski; and director and editor, Chris Randall — to brainstorm how to show the general public the work that goes into growing, transporting and designing with cut flowers, through visits to farms and shops, along with the many uses of flowers in everyday life and the health benefits flowers and plants provide.
More than anything, the uBloom team wanted to create a show that revealed the joy and good feelings nature can add to anybody’s life. And that’s when “J Schwanke’s Life in Bloom” began to really take shape.
Want to know more? Of course, you do!
Read the full story of how Schwanke and his team dreamed up the concept for the show and powered their way through obstacles to create this award-winning program in the October issue of Floral Management.
Mary Westbrook is the editor in chief of Floral Management magazine.