John Deere tractors and farming machinery have a reputation as being the best in their category. Founded in 1837, the iconic green and yellow brand is instantly recognizable even to those who have never set foot on a farm or a ranch. How did such a functional and perfunctory product earn such a prominent place in our collective culture?
On top of a quality product and world-class customer support, John Deere holds an important position in the history of content marketing. In 1895, John Deere launched one of the first recognized examples of branded media in the form of an agriculture interest magazine called The Furrow. The publication was distributed to farmers with informational articles on farming technology and strategy all aimed at increasing its audience’s productivity and profitability.
What lessons could insurance agents & brokers looking to establish their brand in the marketplace take from John Deere’s history of value-based content marketing?
#1 Understand Your Audience
The Furrow’s stated goal was to provide “practical information devoted to the interests of better farming.” The magazine is famous for not being a sales piece but a truly informational offering. In order to provide that level of valuable insight, the creators of the furrow first had to understand the people to whom they were speaking.
Farmers, like any niche, are unique. They have their own interests and stressors. They are focused on a certain type of current event, a certain aspect of business culture, a particular view of our modern system. The writers and producers of The Furrow have spent the last 123 years exploring the mindset of their clients and doing their best to tackle the questions farmers want answered most.
An agent looking to establish themselves as a thought-leader in a certain niche must think of their prospects and clients as an audience. It is important that agents and brokers take the time to understand the pain points, opportunities for gain, and recurring challenges that their audience faces.
There are many strategies for learning more about your audience’s needs. The simplest and most time-honored strategy is, of course, to simply ask them. Keeping the lines of communication open with your prospects and clients through interviews, phone calls, social posting, and even surveys can provide you with valuable insights into what topics they see as most important.
#2 Give Without Expectations
One of the most effective aspects of The Furrow’s presentation is the fact that it is not obviously branded as a John Deere publication. Even today, the only indication of the magazine’s source of the content is a small line of text at the very bottom of the home page that says “A John Deere Publication.”
By not covering the magazine with promotional pictures and material, The Furrow’s perceived value is not only increased, but the audience that receives it is drawn into a gift-giving relationship, which is the basis of relationship marketing.
Relationship marketing has its roots in the idea of a gift economy. This concept dates back to World War I when anthropologists observed a ceremonial exchange system conducted in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. The practice involved individuals from as many as 18 tribes embarking on long and treacherous canoe rides with the goal of exchanging armbands and necklaces with one another.
The exchange of gifts would proceed the bartering of other more vital items. Anthropologists who observed the exchange struggled to answer the question: “Why would men risk life and limb to travel across huge expanses of dangerous ocean to give away what appear to be worthless trinkets?”
The answer lies in a trait that Evolutionary Biologists refer to as Direct Reciprocity. It is a survival mechanism that allows two players in an evolutionary game to establish a long-term relationship when exchanging value, even if defecting from the relationship would be beneficial in the short term.
The ‘spirit of the gift’ is a desire that arises in an individual who receives a gift. They begin to search for ways to reciprocate the gift in an almost unconscious effort to keep the beneficial relationship alive and active.
Much like the trinkets exchanged by the tribesmen, The Furrow evokes a desire for reciprocity in its audience. John Deere’s minimally invasive branding of their magazine transformed it from a piece of marketing material into a valuable gift they share with the community whom with they want to do business.
Agencies and brokerages can use this very same strategy. When your business consistently provides their clients with value-laden gifts that positively affect the recipients well being, they too will evoke ‘the spirit of the gift’. Like John Deere does with The Furrow, the most valuable gift agents and brokers can give is insightful and instructive content.
#3 Invest in Communication Technology
Over the century and a quarter it has run, The Furrow has gone through many changes. It has kept pace with the technological advancements in communication that have shaped our world. John Deere never shied away from wading into new and sometimes costly technologies that allowed it to communicate at its maximum capacity.
In 1912 The Furrow was at its peak level of distribution, reaching an estimated 4 million readers. Rather than rest on its laurels, John Deere invested over $35,000 (the equivalent of over $900,000 today) in a two-color press, the height of printing technology at the time. The new machinery let them improve the quality of their offering and reach an even wider audience.
As we approach 2019, the rate at which communication technology is evolving can sometimes feel overwhelming. It is important that agents spend the time, effort, and money to stay current with communication technology and strategy.
Over the last decade, social media has become one of the most important avenues of engagement. Platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook offer an agents unparalleled access to their audience and give them the ability to deliver insight laden content directly to those who are most interested in it.
Our suite of marketing tools and content is a simple yet powerful way that agents and brokers can invest in their own communication capabilities. By using the best communication technology available, agents can improve the relationship with their audience and see the kind of success that has been a hallmark of John Deere’s business for almost two centuries.