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Crossing Borders with John Deere: Building a Brand Through Citizenship

By Ray Baird

John Deere, the world’s largest agricultural machinery company, is well-known in North America, Western Europe and other areas but it sees great opportunity around the world as the demand for food continues to grow in China, India, Brazil and Africa and other markets. But boosting brand awareness is a challenge in some of these countries as the company tries to attract top distributors, customers, and future talent. To help it build new relationships and grow business, it has launched a multi-country communications initiative using the purpose-driven corporate theme of “Committed to Those Linked to the Land” and a philanthropic theme of “Solutions for World Hunger” to speak to many audiences—from governments to small farmers. Bill Becker, Director, Brand Center of Excellence at John Deere, shared the company’s approach with BrandingBusiness before speaking at the Conference Board’s Corporate Image and Branding Conference in Houston today.

BrandingBusiness: You enjoy a lot of brand awareness and loyalty at home. What are the opportunities and the challenges you face in building the brand in emerging markets?

Becker: Being a brand person with John Deere for more than 30 years, I’ve been thrilled with the loyalty in the U.S. marketplace.  When people come to us and share terrific stories of how John Deere helped them be successful over generations it is really fulfilling. Some are so loyal they even sport tattoos of the John Deere logo on their backs or say they have decorated their house in green and yellow, it shows their loyalty to this brand. The reason people love us? We’ve helped them succeed.

Now as we continue to grow our global market presence we have included these platforms in our strategy. The world is going to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have produced in the last 10,000 years. With the standard of living getter better and with growth in emerging markets and in the middle class, the need for more, better food is there. Also, people are moving to cities faster than we ever imagined. So there is demand for our products in agriculture and construction. In China alone, big equipment is needed on state-run farms in Northern China while, right down the road, are smaller farms that require different mechanization.

But the competition is extremely good and well entrenched in these markets. We’re the new kid.


BrandingBusiness: For John Deere, building your brand starts with building trusted relationships on the ground. Tell us how that works.

Becker: We’ve been in a lot of these markets for a long time. We have a great dealership network that takes care of our customers. We select the best and support them with a suite of tools that few others just can’t match. We are bringing tech innovation to the fold that’s a way to differentiate John Deere above product and service.

John Deere brings a strong sense of how to do business in high-integrity way. We are very strong in terms of integrity. We operate every day around the world with compliance training. Some markets may still have a culture of bribing.  We don’t do that. Does that mean we lose business? Maybe. But that’s the way we do business.


BrandingBusiness:  Through your “Solutions for World Hunger,” John Deere supports projects in farmer training, value-chain enhancement, and water access and use as just a few examples. You are tying your brand to citizenship, a smart move. Tell us a bit more about how that works.

Becker: We are in the business of feeding the world and providing for infrastructure needs and helping our customers feed the world. We are turning that into a higher-purpose message and using it to support the business.

There are key messages we use and we turn the volume up or down based on who we are talking to. Our message of “feeding the world” is a very powerful motivator for our distributors, employees, and for governments.  Customers appreciate that message but most of all want us to help them be successful. So with them we make sure we do that but we let them know that they can feel confident that they are doing their part to feed 2 billion people.

In recruiting in Brazil, where we will help our customers build infrastructure for the 2016 Olympics and the World Cup, we say “the most important work you can do in your life is the work you can do right now with John Deere.” We’ve had great success. We’ve had people say, “We didn’t know John Deere was that global or innovative.”

We have a more aggregated campaign targeting all stakeholders in Brazil—customers, dealers, employees, communities and governments.  This “For Generations” campaign, which we rolled out last year, talks about how we are in this to help people and feed the world and how Brazil is in a unique position to benefit mankind. The customer message was more about productivity but we took that message and made it more higher purpose for other audiences. 

Companies need a strong understanding of customer needs but they also need to understand that, over time, brand and citizenship are going to become bigger. They need to look for ways to ensure what they’re doing is improving lives, not just offering another product.


Branding Business: John Deere was an early content marketer with The Furrow magazine, which it started publishing in 1985. Your global circulation is in the millions. Tell us how it is helping you build business overseas.

Becker: The Furrow is a tour de force combining strong horizontal global brand messages mixed nicely with dedicated content geared to segment and market, depending on the edition of the magazine.  It is available in scores of countries and languages around the world.

It has a strong history of being a good friend to the farmer in terms of information that is important for that farmer/business man or woman to make smart decisions on how they spend the resources.  Interestingly, our emerging markets love it.  They love the high level of knowledge that goes into it and the personalized flexibility of how the message is delivered to the customer.

The Furrow’s content is strong enough to make it a respected reading choice beyond customers to governments, NGOs and associations.  It has done much to help the success of our individual farmer and for the John Deere brand as a “thought leader” in the industry.