Before Joe Diffie released his hit song "John Deere Green" on his 1993 album "Honky Tonk Attitude," he approached Deere & Co. Why not back a song about Billy Bob, a farm boy who climbs a water tower and paints a heart in "John Deere Green" to win the hand of his high-school sweetheart, Charlene?
Deere said no, as it always does to the regular requests from country singers eager to cozy up to the John Deere audience. And it's not just country singers that get snubbed by the $17.6 billion Moline, Ill., company most famed for tractors but which also markets both residential and commercial-use products such as mowers, ATVs, backhoes, saws, combines and bulldozers.
Antithetical to today's brand-building mode de rigueur, any request for a paid product placement or branding/entertainment deal gets a resounding no. The point isn't that John Deere tends to be conservative. It most definitely is. It's just that "don't mess with a good thing," in many ways, sums up the brand-management strategy at Deere.
"We feel our brand is more powerful and positive than a lot of the associations we could join up with, whether it is an actor, sports figure or songwriter," said Bill Becker, a 33-year-veteran of the company and manager of corporate brand management. "The pop-culture attention will come and go and we tend to our knitting and don't pay a huge amount of attention to it. We know it's a cyclical thing."
"It's the anti-marketing marketing strategy," concluded author David Magee after spending an entire year with in-depth access to management on his newly released book "The John Deere Way."
"They move slow out of a fear of saturation. They are not real big on sticking their necks out there. They make very calculated moves."
That's not to say things aren't changing at Deere. You might call Deere's moves in recent years-an aggressive global strategy aimed at markets as far-reaching as China and Brazil and the decision to go into mass channels, including Home Depot in 2003 and Lowe's next year-the equivalent of a country-music crossover song.
Indeed, John Deere's roots might be the American farm, but wealthy baby boomers living in the exurbs are the next generation of Deere loyalists. "It's the market of the future, the large property owner with two to three acres to mow," said Mr. Becker.
And despite being more than 168 years old, the company's biggest era of growth has come in the last decade from international expansion-John Deere now sells its products in 160 countries. Revenue more than doubled to $17.6 billion last year, from sales of $7.7 billion in 1994.
The company spent $28.3 million on measured media in 2004, according to TNS Media Intelligence. (The Chicago office of Foote, Cone & Belding is the agency of record for the company's consumer division.)
The move into Home Depot alone helped John Deere gain more than 100,000 new customers and reach an audience long neglected by its mainly rural network of more than 2,500 dealers.
It was a move not taken lightly. But it was a necessary one, according to analyst Andrew Casey of Prudential Equity Group.
"The key point of the mass merchant channel access we see is that [John Deere] and its Big Box partners can more effectively compete against the mid-value lawn tractor category owner, which is Sears," Mr. Casey wrote in a recent report.
DEALING WITH DEALERS
Reflective of the Deere corporate culture was the way the move was done. Although Home Depot and Lowe's reportedly knocked on Deere's door for years, the answer was no until the company could find a way to keep dealers happy.
The compromise? Dealers get access to the same products and prices as the big boxes, but additionally, they get information on the customer at the mass channel, by acting as the service center for repairs and possibly even snagging future purchases.
But capitalizing on the enormous brand equity Deere enjoys is not going to be easy.
Author Mr. Magee explains the decentralized corporate structure means Deere lacks the nimble nature it needs to exploit its current popularity.
"This makes it hard to get sweeping new direction for a brand," Mr. Magee said. "Why couldn't Deere get to a day when you'll see a John Deere rake in my house, John Deere boots, John Deere leaf blowers?"
For now, the consumer division is the smallest, just $3.7 billion, compared to $9.7 billion in agricultural equipment.
"There's a desire to extend the brand and some are faulting them for not being more aggressive, but they need to preserve the brand as well," said Mark Koznarek, an analyst with FTN Midwest Research, based in Cleveland.