Was John Deere the Early Father of Content Marketing? The Story

Was John Deere the First Proponent of Content Marketing? The Story that Started in 1895

by | Apr 12, 2017 | Content Marketing

Quick: what do you think of when you hear John Deere?

If you answered “big green tractors,” you’re on the same page as most people.

If you answered “content marketing genius,” you’re privy to a rare secret.

The truth is that John Deere was nearly as good at content marketing as it was at tractors, and marketers looking for some inspiration on how to make their marketing strategies better need only to look backward about 120 years.

We’re here on the Write Blog today, sharing everything you wanted to know about this intriguing story. Read on to learn more!

john deere

John Deere: The Marketing Prowess You Probably Didn’t Know About

John Deere is a well-known, household-name farming equipment company that was originally founded in 1837. While the brand was well known within its community in the years between the 1830’s-90’s, John Deere took a big step in the late 1890’s that ultimately defined the trajectory of the brand: it started a news magazine.

This news magazine was called The Furrow, and it was meant to cater to farmers with “practical information devoted to the interests of better farming.”

Here is one of the earliest recorded images of The Furrow back in the 1890s:

john deere the furrow

The look evolved throughout the years, reaching an incredible peak in 1912, with over 4 million consumers avidly reading its pages. It’s still being published today, reaching about 2 million readers worldwide, in an ultimate testament to the power of incredible content. 

Could this be the longest form of content marketing that’s been around? It very well could be.

The magazine was distributed to customers at no charge, and the only sign that it came from a John Deere dealer was a small inscription on the cover that recounted that the magazine had been sent “with compliments of your John Deere Dealer.”

With the exception of the small inscription, however, there was virtually no indication that John Deere published the magazine. The company ran no ads, and the articles included within the little magazine didn’t focus on John Deere’s products. Instead, they covered topics ranging from how best to address various farming challenges to trends in the agricultural community as a whole.

In 1912, at the peak of The Furrow’s subscriber quantity, John Deere actually purchased its first electric printing press to publish the successful magazine. It could print in two colors and publish 50,000 copies in eight hours: and back then, the cost amounted to what would be $850,000 in 2013 dollars. What an investment!

Look at the artwork on this edition:

the furrow

And the classic look of the 1960 spread:

furrow 1960

Here’s a look at a recent 2015 edition:


The magazine was a huge success and, today, it stands as one of the earliest and most durable examples of great content marketing. The Furrow still exists today and has since also been digitized into an e-version.

What John Deere Got Right

John Deere knew something very early on that many marketers are still struggling to learn: the best content is informative content.

Suggested Related Read on the Write Blog: Stop Selling, Start Helping

Even in the late 1890’s, customers didn’t want big, splashy advertisements and “listen to how great our company is” rhetoric. Instead, they wanted helpful information that would assist them in addressing their problems.

The Furrow focused entirely on editorial content meant to be informative and helpful. Pieces ranged from scientific breakdowns to funny editorial pieces about the difficulties of living a farmer’s life. Throughout the magazine, John Deere’s name was interspersed on a rare occasion, encouraging customers to build an association between the helpful, informative content and the John Deere brand itself.

Successful content today is no different than successful content back then.

Here are the top six things that John Deere got right in The Furrow:

  1. The content was engaging
  2. The content was valuable
  3. The content shared farming culture and information
  4. The content built brand loyalty
  5. The content positioned John Deere as a passionate, engaged brand
  6. The content developed relationships between farmers and John Deere

Today, marketers who want to increase the effectiveness of their content marketing need only to look back to The Furrow and take some lessons from John Deere.

10 Content Marketing Lessons You Can Learn From John Deere

Despite the fact that John Deere was founded more than one hundred years ago, the company’s first big content marketing move still has a lot to teach today’s modern marketers. Here are the top 10 lessons to take from The Furrow:

1. Address pain points

Before The Furrow hit the scene, farmers didn’t have an organized place to see their challenges, hopes, and community-specific knowledge reflected at them. What The Furrow got so right from the get-go is that it addressed farmers’ pain points.

By offering actionable information about how to cope with difficult farming situations and address various issues in the community, The Furrow proved it understood its audience. What’s more, it offered truly valuable information that increased the quality of their lives.

To bring this into your content, one of the most critical things you can do is address your customers’ pain points. While this requires a background of plenty of target audience research and exploration, learning to hone in on your readers’ difficulties is one of the most active steps you can take toward great content marketing.

2. Focus on informative content

The Furrow did something else that no magazine before it had done – it brought scientific, editorial content to consumers, and it didn’t try to sell them on anything in the process. While the magazine was published by John Deere, a casual passerby couldn’t have picked up on that, and this was one of the magazine’s greatest strengths.

By focusing first on informing consumers and leaving all of the sales pitches and product placement out of the equation, John Deere created a brand of trust, loyalty, and mutual benefit with its consumers.

3. Build a community

In addition to farming insights and instructional content, The Furrow also offered peer insights. By building a farming community that focused on the magazine itself, The Furrow managed to establish itself as a meeting place for information, advice, and relief from the stressors of everyday farm life.

In your content, building a community is a critical step toward good marketing. If you can create a community around your brand voice, content, and material, you know you’ll always have a group to rely on. This, in turn, allows you to leverage the support of your community whenever you need it, which makes for better marketing and a more efficient content strategy.

4. Offer actionable content

One of the things The Furrow did beautifully was that it aimed to teach farmers to run better businesses. By providing tips on more efficient means of harvest and ways to circumvent various difficulties in the industry, The Furrow managed to provide valuable, actionable content to farmers who were hungry for useful information.

5. Be adaptable

Since The Furrow began its publishing debut more than one hundred years ago, it’s continued to adapt to the landscape around it. Today, The Furrow is available online, on social media, and in digital, tablet formats.

Despite the fact that the magazine has its roots in a very different time than we’re living in now, it’s continued to adapt according to the environment around it. This, in turn, has allowed it to be flexible and to continue delivering valuable content to consumers wherever they are at a given moment.

6. Find your niche and dominate it

The Furrow did beautifully at finding a niche with its consumers and dominating it at every turn. By consistently offering helpful, actionable, relevant advice on industry challenges, it managed to create a community of buzz and value around its content.

The other unique virtue of defining a niche is that doing so allows you to cater specifically to a unique group of people. Establishing a niche creates more targeted content, more practical value, and a stronger brand voice – all of which are ideal for ensuring that your content serves its ideal purpose.

7. Use your content to strengthen relationships

The Furrow built two communities – both internal and external. On one hand, the editorial content within the magazine strengthened the relationships of the farming community. On the other hand, however, it was ideal for strengthening the relationship between consumers and the John Deere brand.

By focusing on providing value for consumers first and integrating products much later, John Deere managed to use The Furrow to strengthen its relationships with customers.

8. Use your content to display your passion

Why should people read your content? Are you exceedingly passionate about your topic? Do you know something that nobody else does? What value can you offer? By using your content to display and find a home for your passion – be it farming or SEO – it’s easy to create a group of passionate, like-minded followers who want to engage with you.

With millions of pieces of content shared every day, the only way for content marketing to succeed in today’s environment is to be unique. Passionate content is unique content and using your platform to market things you truly connect with and care about is one of the best possible ways to improve your marketing instantly.

9. Be consistent

If there’s one thing The Furrow is, it’s consistent. With more than 120 years of publishing prowess, it’s easy to look at this magazine and understand the value of being predictable. While the magazine has always been niche-focused and specific, it’s also always showed up when it’s supposed to – providing value to readers on a regular and predictable basis.

This, in turn, helps build consumer trust in the magazine while also ensuring that The Furrow remains a helpful tool for boosting John Deere’s brand voice.

While The Furrow has been required to adapt to various distribution channels and consumer preferences over the years, it’s still a regular, predictable publication that serves readers well.

10. Use your content to establish yourself as the expert in your industry

When it came time to build a dynasty, John Deere didn’t use The Furrow to offer “10 Shocking Secrets of Today’s Biggest Celebrities.”

This wouldn’t have gotten the brand anywhere and, if this had been their approach, we wouldn’t still be talking about the magazine today. Instead, John Deere used its new content platform to tie back to the unique knowledge they were capable of distributing.

While even back in the 1800s there were plenty of expert farmers and ranchers, what The Furrow did well is that it compiled that expert knowledge all into one place. This, in turn, allowed them to showcase their brand while also building a community of dedicated and like-minded followers.

The 3 Commandments of Great Content Marketing

1. Value first

Through and through, it’s easy to see where John Deere used content as a vehicle for value rather than sales pitches. In fact, it’s arguable that putting the value of their content first was the key factor that allowed them to succeed to the level they have.

By avoiding pushing sales pitches onto their consumers, John Deere managed to create a unique, value-based magazine that didn’t alienate people or come off as overly sales-y. This, in turn, has contributed to their longevity.

2. Own the places you publish

While things like social media are fantastic, having a content distribution platform that is entirely in your control is a critical factor in success.

When John Deere began publishing The Furrow, it did two things right: first, it created an environment in which the publishing channel was also owned by the company, thus creating an atmosphere of freedom and authority.

Secondly, it allows John Deere to take full advantage of all of the data and relationships mined from said distribution platform. By cutting out the middleman and speaking directly to consumers, John Deere created a platform for strong content from the get-go.

3. Be the expert people want to talk to

Expertise is about a lot more than just knowledge. Expertise is also about approachability, friendliness, and accessibility. By distributing world-class information and tying it in with phrases like “your friendly John Deere dealer,” The Furrow managed to be all of these things at once. In content marketing, it’s critical to ensure that you’re approachable and authoritative since one can’t exist without the other.

John Deere – The Content Marketing Expert You Never Expected

John Deere is more than just big green tractors –the brand is also a powerhouse of content marketing know-how that dates back more than one hundred years. Today, it’s easy to see where John Deere’s magazine, The Furrow, went right with marketing.

By paying attention to the lessons the magazine has to offer, it’s easy to apply these tricks to your content marketing and boost its effectiveness today.

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