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Using direct response to market agricultural products and equipment has always been challenging. A condensed selling season decreases the ability to readily test direct response campaigns, and dealing with high-ticket items sold once a year leaves no room for missed opportunity. Now, on top of these hurdles, ag marketers have to deal with a decreasing farmer population, resulting in a shrinking customer base.

Nonetheless, direct response remains an integral part of many marketing campaigns. It continues to be a cost-effective strategy for increasing the return on a company's marketing investment. Furthermore, as its name implies, direct response provides that crucial opportunity to communicate directly with customers.

For example, two respected companies have successfully marketed their products using direct response. DuPont recently used a targeted television advertisement to solicit call-in responses for its Steadfast corn herbicide. In addition, John Deere used its proven direct mail/response formula to incite customers to upgrade to the new 5025 series utility tractor.


DuPont Crop Protection worked with its marketing communications agency McCormick Company to create and execute its 2004 marketing campaign for DuPont Steadfast corn herbicide. McCormick's challenge was to build on the success of the previous seasons' campaigns to create brand awareness. Cutting through the clutter of an already crowded corn herbicide market would require something innovative, even risky.

The industry's standard marketing mix for promoting corn herbicide -- a combination of radio, TV, print and direct mail -- wouldn't be altered. But the execution would.

This time, McCormick added a direct response component to its television ads. In one of the ads a scout master and his troop show up on a farmer's doorstep having mistaken his weedy corn field for a campground. The voice-over suggests farmers with similar weed problems "clear up the confusion" with the season-long grass protection of Steadfast.

Clever use of humor, to be sure, but in itself not unlike other herbicide commercials that use humor as an attention-getter. But then the camera pans to a roomful of operators in a Steadfast call center with the actor urging viewers to "call now for an exciting financing offer toward purchases of Steadfast."

"The combination of the two was different from what anybody else was doing in the market," says Evan Davies, management supervisor at McCormick's Kansas City office. "An offer to help buy the product brought a sense of urgency to the campaign."

DuPont was breaking new ground, and Davies and his team worried: Would farmers pick up the phone? Would those who called be among the target producers? After all, Davies says, television is broadcasting, not narrowcasting.

"We were taking a risk on a very small segment of the audience," he adds. "We knew it would be a small segment that would pick up the phone and carry on through to an actual sale."

The campaign needed to reach farmers with 250 or more acres of corn who lived within 50 miles of a chemical retail outlet that housed bulk units of the herbicide. Focusing on areas of the Corn Belt where growers could purchase Steadfast helped McCormick narrow the ad's scope.

"We knew where Steadfast was going to be sold, so we knew which dealers and areas around those dealers we wanted to support," he adds.

McCormick relied on partner company Datacore to assist in developing an extensive script to screen callers and staff the call center. Answers to the scripted questions helped determine if callers qualified to receive a follow-up packet of information.

The campaign, which ran during January 2004, yielded numerous calls and won DuPont and McCormick a 2005 Best of NAMA award in the direct/targeted advertising category.

"We were very surprised how effective this kind of tool could be in getting people to want to know more and were very pleased with the 'quality' of response," Davies says.

He emphasizes that the quality of calls received, rather than the quantity, determined the campaign's success. "If you get the wrong million people to call you back, the campaign wasn't really worth it. But if five people call you and they're all golden, that's success."


"Nothing runs like a Deere" may be John Deere's mantra, but one could also say no one knows how to run a direct response campaign like John Deere.

One of the oldest industrial companies in the United States, John Deere has had time to perfect its marketing technique. As a result, its direct response campaigns have become something of a science.

Creative copy. A targeted list. Timeliness. These are the ingredients for a successful campaign, according to Mike Gustafson, manager of creative advertising for the John Deere Marketing Center in Lenexa, Kan. John Deere employed this winning recipe to introduce its 5025 series utility tractor.

A high-end utility tractor, the 5025 features more horsepower, enhanced hydraulics and a quicker response than previous models. These time-saving ingredients gave rise to a direct mail/response campaign with a clever "Time Machine" theme and promise that the 5025 "saves you time at every turn."

In addition to using other media and brochures, John Deere targeted existing owners of its tractors in the 40- to 80-horsepower range with a three-part direct response mailer.

"We felt it was easier to upgrade current owners of a 5000, 5010 or 5020 series who were pretty well satisfied with their tractor," Gustafson explains. "There are so many new things to this tractor that it made more sense than targeting competitive owners."

To create a targeted distribution list, John Deere provided its 1,600 dealers in the United States and Canada with a list of customers who already owned a 5000 series tractor. Dealers then narrowed the list to include only the best candidates for an upgrade. As a result, 13,000 farmers were targeted by the campaign.

"Dealers are our ground-level intelligence, says Russell Walker, manager of direct communications at the center. "They're the best source of information about new and existing customers."

Using the simple rule of three, the campaign sent three mailings in three weeks. The first mailer -- an interest-building four-page postcard -- was dropped in late March 2005 to coincide with the start of planting season and with the tractor's availability at dealerships. The second mailer -- which built on the Time Machine concept and included a dollar coin premium -- stated: "Time is money. We'd like to offer a little of both." The final mailer -- a three-dimensional box -- contained a coupon. The recipients could redeem the coupon for a second premium, a free John Deere sports watch, if they requested a quote for, or demonstration of, a 5025 series tractor.

"We do an awful lot with premiums," Gustafson says. "We give somebody something for doing nothing. Then we give them more for doing something."

Gustafson is quick to add that simply giving stuff away isn't enough. "If it's usable, has value and connects to your campaign, then you've done your job," he says. "Premiums do well to elicit some kind of response, and you continue to win every time a grower wears the hat or uses the watch."

Although it's too soon to determine the response rate of John Deere's 5025 direct mail/response campaign, Gustafson says metrics for similar campaigns range from 3 percent to 20 percent. Even at the low end of the scale, direct mail/response is considered "a cost-effective medium that provides a good indication of return on investment."

Direct mail/response is not ideal for all of John Deere's audiences, however. The company reserves the majority of these campaigns for products targeted at traditional farmer clients. In its efforts to reach the lifestyle or hobby farmer niche, for example, John Deere has found direct mail/response becomes less useful. The reason? Distribution lists are inadequate. Much like a nondescript consumer group, members of the lifestyle market are difficult to track.

"A direct mail campaign is only as good as your list," Gustafson says. "Luckily, there aren't many farmers and ranchers out there the industry doesn't know about." AM

Rachel Plumb is a communications specialist with Winning Formula Communications.

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