PINE BLUFF — Five generations of Farrells have farmed near Pine Bluff since the mid-1800s and the last three generations have religiously purchased John Deere equipment from a dealer in Mount Horeb.
But Shawn and Mark Farrell broke with tradition a couple of years ago and bought an eight-wheel New Holland 9020 tractor to help with their grain operation at Shamrock Farms. It had an engine and transmission just as good as the comparable Deere, plus they said they got an offer from a dealer in Dodgeville that made it $40,000 cheaper than the $220,000 Deere tractor.
They should be thrilled with the purchase considering the tractor hasn't given them a lick of trouble. "But I don't like it. It's not a John Deere," said Shawn Farrell, who started to laugh and added, "And that's just stupid."
Most call it brand loyalty. Others look at how some farmers fill their barns with all green Deere, red Case IH or blue New Holland equipment and call it brand addiction. Whatever it's called, it's a symbol of farming just like the corn in fields or the cows in barns.
"The No. 1 thing people think of when they hear John Deere is the color green. But some people, like in the urban areas, don't understand the strength of the color green or red," said Barry Nelson, manager of media relations for John Deere. "Farm families grow up with these different brands and the color is important. It's what they identify with."
It doesn't appear to be changing with the times, either. A survey of 2,000 Midwest farmers by Farm Equipment magazine that was published in December 2010 showed that 64.6 percent describe themselves as brand loyal when they purchase tractors, field equipment or combines.
The technology boom hasn't changed their opinions. Just 18.2 percent of the respondents said they were slightly less or significantly less loyal than in 2005, while 26.3 percent said they were slightly more or significantly more loyal than in 2005.
Perhaps the most significant finding of the Farm Equipment survey were the reasons farmers were loyal. Better features and prices weren't high on the list because, despite the low offer the Farrells received, each manufacturer's tractors and equipment usually have very similar prices and modern-day specifications that can include GPS systems, wireless data transfer and machine synchronization. It's as close to an apples-to-apples situation as you're going to get.
Most respondents cited their relationships with the dealers and their comfort level with the equipment as the most important factors for their loyalty.
"It's about giving that customer that feeling that they are important to you and respect them and their operation, and you want to develop that relationship," said Kyle Russell, senior director of marketing for Racine-based Case IH.
John Deere has had a stranglehold in that area while building its reputation around the world as the most recognized name and color in agriculture. Among the survey respondents, 66.7 percent identified John Deere as their primary brand and 77.3 percent of those John Deere purchasers considered themselves brand loyal.
Case IH got 17.2 percent of the respondents to say it's their primary brand, but just 35.3 percent of them called themselves brand loyal.
Among the 9.1 percent of the respondents who identified New Holland as their primary brand, the survey said 44.4 percent of them were brand loyal.
Shawn and Mark Farrell both said their relationships with the sales, service and parts employees at Sloan Implement in Mount Horeb keep them coming back and buying John Deere equipment from them.
Mount Horeb has been home to a John Deere dealership for over 100 years. Dan McMahon has been the service manager for 37 years at the dealership that Sloan bought in 2007 and remembers how John Deere once had employees wear football-shaped pins that said "CFL" on them.
"It stood for 'Customers for life,'" said McMahon, who understands the concept, since he knows countless farmers like the Farrells who are loyal to the dealership and John Deere equipment.
"We're business partners," McMahon added. "We help the farmers make a living and they help us make a living."
John Deere's marketing approach has helped, too. It spends heavily in advertising and sells millions of its famous John Deere caps with the deer logo, toy tractors and T-shirts. Nelson said it even has 1.4 million Facebook fans who enjoy engaging with John Deere employees about their love of the brand.
Glen Wipperfurth, president of Cross Plains' Kalscheur Implement, which sells Case IH and New Holland tractors, believes that can make the difference for on-the-fence tractor buyers. He said, thanks to the Internet, some come in the door knowing more about the product lines than the salespeople.
Case IH's Russell agreed.
"Marketing plays a huge role in customer touchpoints," he said. "They see that logo they just purchased and they have that good, warm feeling that they made the right choice."
Rival ramps up
Case IH has made a significant investment in its marketing approach over the past three years, Russell said. Watch a football game on TV and you'll probably see an ad for a Case tractor. Head to the store and you'll find a Case cap next to the Deere caps. Its toy tractors are rivaling Deere's tractors, too.
"That's good to see," said Wipperfurth, who added it's still much more important for Kalscheur and Case IH to make sure its salespeople and field agents are engaged with their farmer customers.
"What we look forward to is bringing that Brand X customer from John Deere into the Case IH family," Russell said.
It's a tough assignment. It might be easier to get fans of the Green Bay Packers to start rooting for the Minnesota Vikings.
The Farrells won't drive the New Holland tractor if they can help it. They've already pushed it aside in their minds with the purchase of a similar John Deere tractor last year.
"I'm going to drive Deere," said Mark Farrell. "Let the help drive the New Holland."
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