Commentary by Jonah Bloom

Integrated Marketing Lessons From the Tractor Supply Company

Branding Turnaround Boosts Farm Equipment Firm's Stock Value by 500%

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If you're a city not-very-slicker like me, Tractor Supply Co. probably isn't a name that springs to mind when you think of smart marketers. But TSC is quietly earning
Jonah Bloom, executive editor of Advertising Age.
a place alongside sexier beasts -- such as Nike or Apple -- as a great brand builder.

Before heaping too much praise on the Nashville-based outfit, I should note my interest in TSC was piqued by a bizarre media buy it made a few months ago. My friend Jim and I were watching a locally broadcast New York Mets game when a TSC ad appeared during the break. "Need anything for your tractor, Jonah?" quipped Jim. Certainly the ad's tagline, "What you need out here," didn't quite work in my concrete corner of Brooklyn, where the only vegetation is the ailing ficus in the window of the Flatbush Avenue thrift store.

Rare marketing misstep
But if that placement was a marketing misstep it was a rare one. The ads themselves, created by Carmichael Lynch, are engaging and effective, using TSC employees and stores as a backdrop, to reach the hobby farmers and rural lifestyle lovers the chain caters to. My favorite shows the staff turning stuff from the store into a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that then hoists a bemused cow into the air.

The spots encapsulate the sense of self-reliance that research showed to be a strong emotion among the company's out-of-town customers, and demonstrate product range without resorting to the kind of boring demos that consumers mentally TiVo.

Tractor Supply Company has aimed much of its savvy marketing at hobby farmers and rural lifestyle lovers.
Importantly, they battle commoditization by transcending price or specific item. Not bad for a company that was relying on black-and-white circulars with line drawings just seven years ago.

Valuing its employees
It is also telling that the spots feature the company's staff. Few organizations have as astute a view of their employees' value as TSC. It's reflected in the company's hiring policy, which Blake Fohl, vice president of ads and marketing, describes, simply, as "hiring our customers." It's reflected in the small -- but significant -- fact that the company refuses to refer to its "HQ" but rather as the "store support center." It's reflected in the 200-plus store visits made last year by TSC's CEO.

TSC places strong emphasis on employee communications, also aided by the agency. Every store manager gets a presentation twice a year, as well as weekly e-mails. Every new hire goes through a lengthy training process -- called Tractorization -- that includes a branding module, stressing that every action of every employee either adds to or detracts from the brand. Not that TSC is hiring know-nothing novices. Every single store has a farmer, rancher, welder and equine specialist on staff -- a commitment to the customer that any retailer could learn from, and a clever way for TSC to continue to differentiate itself from generalist competition such as Sears.

$1.4 billion in sales
The savvy staff policies and strong brand building seem to be working. In the last five years, its stock price has risen 500%. Since abandoning the line drawings in '97 TSC has doubled in size with sales reaching $1.4 billion last year. This year sales are expected to reach $1.7 billion. Last year it opened more than 90 stores with another 50 planned for this year. Same-store sales rose 9% last year.

And there's still huge upside. Research shows people continuing to move out of town; horse ownership is up; hobby-farms are multiplying. Studies show an increasing number of urbanites hanker after an earthier lifestyle. Perhaps there's hope for that ficus yet.

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