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Company: John Deere Agriculture and Turf (a division of Deere & Co.)
Event: New Product Launch and Dealer Strategic Review
Objectives: Accelerate company growth by demonstrating to dealers and sales professionals the advantages of John Deere's new technology solutions.
Strategy: Execute the largest new product introduction ever for John Deere.
Tactics: Create a dramatic and comprehensive event that conveys to attendees the significance of the products being launched. Parley the event into company growth by generating excitement, and with it buy-in, for the new products.
Results: Increased attendance by 22 percent and sales by 18 percent during the quarter following the launch. Received a 95-percent event-approval rating from dealers in a post-launch survey.
Creative/ Production Agency: See Our Solutions Inc., www.seeoursolutions.com
Budget: $10 million
hen you're working in the world's second oldest profession, it might be difficult to imagine honest-to-goodness innovation is even possible. After all, farmers have been honing their ability to coax every last bushel of crop from the land for millennia, and the promise that some newfangled gadget or machine can help them do it better, faster, and cheaper can only be regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Still, the last couple of centuries have seen a handful of inventions that rocketed agriculture forward, including the cast-steel plow invented by John Deere in his blacksmith shop in 1837. Since then, John Deere Agriculture and Turf (a division of Deere & Co.) has been part of the ongoing evolution of farming, the leaping-deer trademark an icon of the industry's march from animal to machine power.

In 2011, the division was preparing to roll out technology across its entire product line that promised to be as transformative to agriculture as tractors or irrigation. Called telematics, the innovation centers on wireless communication that allows machines and their operators to access real-time info while in the fields. That communication is capable of dramatically improving productivity and profitability by relaying to tractors pulling grain carts, for instance, which combines are ready for offloading, or linking side-by-side speeds so transfers can be made without pausing equipment or spilling crops. Branded through John Deere as JDLink, the technology can be bundled with other components of John Deere's FarmSight strategy, an agricultural communication superhighway that connects machines to owners, dealers, data, other machines, and agricultural consultants for optimized performance.

With the world's population at 7 billion and growing, the demand for the food, fiber, and fuel produced by John Deere's customers is expected to double within the next decade. The increase in those harvests will have to come from the same supply of land that exists today, making a farmer's ability to maximize productivity, resources, and crops crucial.

For the world of agriculture, this new offering of telematics-enabled agricultural equipment and the FarmSight services available with it would be revolutionary to say the least. But with everything in the industry claiming to be the best thing since sliced bread, John Deere executives knew it would take a jaw-dropping launch to convey just how game-changing the telematics tidal wave would be.

Because it had a history of drawing thousands of John Deere dealership personnel from around the country, the company's existing annual product introduction (traditionally staged in rotating cities around the Midwest) was the perfect platform for unveiling John Deere's innovative line. At the event, dealership owners and salespeople, along with various John Deere corporate employees, gather to peruse improvements or additions to product lines that range from lawn tractors to 45-foot-wide combines. But with new products breaking the mold on agriculture, John Deere decided it was time to break the mold on this semipredictable event and make it as colossal as the new technology it planned to debut.

Starting Over

Slated for August 2011 in Indianapolis, the New Product Launch and Dealer Strategic Review, themed Accelerating Growth, was to be the most important overture in the company's history. So John Deere and its creative firm, See Our Solutions Inc., tore up the script from past events. "The fervor of this introduction had to leave the indelible impression that what was being unveiled was really, really huge," says Tim Carstens, John Deere's marketing services manager. "Besides executing the largest ever product introduction for John Deere in the North American agricultural market, we needed to make clear the capabilities and value of our advanced integrated solutions."

The Big Reveal

John Deere created the illusion of a 3-D presentation on its 180-foot-wide stage using semitransparent scrim, an LED video wall, and theatrical effects. The scrim at the front of the stage seemed opaque when images were projected onto it, but became a translucent layer when the video wall in the rear and the 90-foot expanse of stage between them came to life. Choreographed farm equipment moved in time to lights, fog, and pyrotechnics, while imagery illuminated the scrim in the front and the video wall in the back for a multidimensional effect.

John Deere dealerships are independent businesses, and attendance at launches is voluntary and at the dealers' expense. To bring them to Indianapolis, John Deere pitched the event with a save-the-date e-mail and, following that, a more formal invitation, both promising a launch dealers would not soon forget, and making clear the magnitude of the product reveal. That tantalizing guarantee alone was enough to boost attendance to 6,400 attendees, an increase of 22 percent over the prior year.

But getting dealers to the event was just the first step. Once there, attendees would be essentially asked to change their way of thinking about agricultural equipment, and ultimately to make the significant investment of filling their dealerships with the new products. "It was imperative that we motivate dealers to embrace the John Deere FarmSight strategy as the pathway to deeper, more productive and profitable relationships with their customers," Carstens says.

"The strategy for accomplishing that objective had to be meticulously thought through," says Curt Reed, co-owner and executive producer at See Our Solutions. "This launch was introducing a record number of products, plus revolutionary technologies, and a new service offering through the John Deere FarmSight strategy, all in just three days. We needed a well-scripted plan that would engage dealers in the message and ultimately help them perceive the event and its content in a positive light."

To accommodate the number of expected attendees, John Deere scheduled four identical three-day launches over a two-week period in August and asked attendees to pick one. Each event was arranged to follow a schedule that began with a dramatic new-product reveal show, followed by time on the new-equipment display floor, indoor and outdoor classes, an exclusive session for dealership owners, and a follow-up survey.

"We had to capture their attention immediately with an exciting reveal, but given the sheer number of new products being introduced, the massive dimensions of those products, and the physical limitations of the venue, a traditional approach would not achieve the desired effect," Reed says.

With that in mind, Reed explored the concepts of a company that wrote the book on creativity: Cirque du Soleil. In the production "Delirium," the famous acrobatic performance company cleverly created a seemingly 3-D space on the stage without the expense of 3-D imaging equipment. Instead, the effect employed layered screens and scrims that, when lit, created the illusion of a dimensional space. As Reed remembered the ethereal dancers from the show he had seen years before, he wondered what it would look like if those dancers were replaced with John Deere tractors, and whether it was something his planning team could realistically execute.

It's Showtime

In the interest of protecting the reveal of its new products until just the right moment, John Deere set up a staging area in a downtown Indianapolis parking lot located several blocks from the convention center. The lot, which was shielded from public view, allowed machines to be delivered and set up away from prying eyes. In the wee hours before the event and under the cover of darkness, police shut down streets and managed traffic to allow this peculiar parade to traverse the blocks between the staging area and the venue. Once there, the machines were ushered inside via the "John Deere Door," a giant 20-by-20-foot opening many facilities need to have specially installed just to host a John Deere event. In fact, it was an expansion project, which included this extra-large opening, that allowed the Indianapolis Convention Center to finally welcome John Deere's annual launch event to the city.

The event had taken a year to plan, and it was finally showtime. With a significant investment in telematics technology, and a promise made to dealers that this would transform their business, there had never been a more high-stakes reveal for John Deere.

At the crescendo of the new-product reveal, three massive combines rolled onto the stage, their movements in perfect unison. Each dramatically raised and extended its auger to punctuate the final three notes of music, and with that the semitransparent scrim flew up to reveal a path to the adjacent show floor.
From the time the dealership owners and salespeople settled into the auditorium-style seating, they could tell something big was about to happen, if only because of the size of the display in front of them. Before the audience stretched a mammoth screen, 180 feet long by 24 feet deep, that required 10 integrated high-definition video projectors to fill. Unbeknownst to attendees, the screen was actually a seamless theatrical scrim material that appeared solid when an image was projected against it, but became translucent when the projectors were turned off. As the crowd filed in, marketing images for John Deere chased over the scrim like a giant slide show, giving the impression that the screen would be the backdrop for the presentation.

But an LED video wall as massive as the scrim was positioned 90 feet behind it, a secret kept under wraps during the opening minutes of the show thanks to darkness and a blackout liner hanging behind the scrim. The stage in between the scrim and the LED wall, also initially hidden from view, had some surprises of its own to offer attendees during the new-product reveal.

John Lagemann, John Deere vice president of sales and marketing, opened the event with passionate remarks about the importance of what dealers were about to see. "We are at a watershed moment in the ag industry," he told them. "Quite simply, the age of telematics has arrived."

And with that, the blackout liner opened and the intermediate stage came to life like a bizarre ballet, featuring farm implements whirling in graceful motions to music while stage lights danced against them in dramatic beams of color. Behind the machine choreography, the LED wall streamed images of expansive crop fields, sunsets, aerial videos of scenic farms, towns, rivers, and more. If anything could elicit a gasp from a crowd that thought it couldn't possibly get excited about another piece of agricultural equipment, this was it.

Group by group, new lines were unveiled by John Deere; some as petite as push mowers and some as massive as two-story-tall combines. Images flitted about on the LED wall and the scrim while the machines maneuvered and voice-overs extolled the dawning of telematics and the rollout of the John Deere FarmSight strategy. During some reveals, fountains of sparks erupted from pyrotechnics hidden on the stage; at other points, fog hissed across the expanse while shadowy machines moved in menacing precision.

As the show neared its apex, three enormous combines rolled onto the stage in perfect symmetry, extending their augers in impeccable unison to punctuate the final three notes of the music. In that dramatic instant, the scrim flew up to reveal the path to the adjacent display floor. The audience sat stunned for an instant, then responded with hearty applause. It was, without a doubt, the most exciting agricultural equipment reveal any of them had ever seen.

John Deere used indoor and outdoor classrooms to introduce dealers to the new equipment. Presenters explained the FarmSight strategy that the company promised would revolutionize the agriculture industry.
Look, and Do Touch

The reveal featured 44 John Deere items on the 90,000-square-foot stage area. The adjoining show floor had an additional 130,400 square feet peppered with products. But with 75 different types of equipment to show, and all of it designed for agriculture and turf, organizers decided some of it would best be shown in the environment it was created for. To that end, Deere located 55 acres for outdoor classes about 22 miles away in Brownsburg, IN, that attendees would be bused to on days two and three of the gathering.

Back in the convention center, carving stations, buffet spreads, and dessert bars were sprinkled through an area that the crowd could wander in and out of as they perused displays, which had been segmented by product type around the venue. To augment the learning curve, John Deere invested in 19 product-specific videos filled with in-depth information that the reveal show didn't have time to explore. The videos looped on seven huge LED screens distributed throughout the product areas, allowing attendees to gather information even if that area's product experts were engaged with other customers.

The following day, indoor and outdoor classes presented dealers and their salespeople with a multitude of learning opportunities, featuring topics from sales tools to equipment specifications. Some indoor classes were outfitted with actual combine seats that had working controls and displays for a hands-on experience. Those looking for an even more tactile session could take the shuttle to the outdoor classroom area, where they could sit in a running combine for the duration of the class. And people wanting to operate a piece of new equipment could drive it around outdoor tracks designed to show the benefits of each product.

At the 55-acre outdoor area, John Deere displayed 100 tractors and 29 combines, as well as other large agricultural implements that dealers would need to see in action to truly appreciate. To allow attendees to stay longer, an enormous air-conditioned tent was added to the site to feed the crowd and give them some respite from the hot Indiana sunshine.

The event featured 20 classes in all, but the learning opportunities didn't stop there. John Deere created video recordings of each class and made them available on an intranet after the gathering ended. Dealers could access those classes for free and share them with personnel who could not attend the function in Indianapolis.

Feeling the Love

On a 55-acre tract of land, John Deere gave dealers hands-on time with 100 tractors, 29 combines, and an array of other agricultural equipment so they could experience the new line and its benefits firsthand.
According to the post-show survey, attendees were excited about the new offerings. The first indication of that was more than 1,600 of them completed the survey, nearly double the number from the previous year. Their responses indicated that John Deere had done right by its promise to dealers that the launch would be huge. Moreover, according to a Deere & Co. press release, Agriculture and Turf division sales increased by 18 percent during the quarter immediately following the launch. John Deere CEO Samuel Allen credits both innovative products and successful business plans for the record-setting year.

In the event surveys, 87 percent said they "agreed completely" that the event was well organized and prepared, a feather in the planning cap of the team that worked with Carstens and Reed. Corporate Event Awards judges agreed wholeheartedly. "I loved it," one judge said. "When the sparks flew, I felt like John Deere had just won 'American Idol.'"

A whopping 94 percent of attendees rated their experience as either excellent or very good. Of those, 50 percent called the experience excellent, compared to just 17 percent at John Deere's 2010 New Product Launch and Dealer Strategic Review in Cincinnati. Regarding the opening session specifically, 89 percent gave it a thumbs up, with 53 percent calling it excellent. That approval was nearly twice the 27 percent who gave the opening session similar ratings in 2010.

Judges praised the massive nature of the event, noting that planners had successfully closed the special-event loop by tying the excitement they generated back to the products they were marketing. "From the dramatic product reveal, to the classroom videos available to dealers, to the follow-up survey, John Deere covered an impressive number of bases to create, extend, and measure this event's success," one judge said.

Attendees felt the same way. "This was the best intro, front to back, that I have attended in 31 years," wrote one attendee in the comments field of his survey. "The word 'awesome' is greatly overused, but this event was truly awesome," wrote another.

Between survey responses and post-event sales, it was clear that John Deere had offered an event attendees valued, and had generated the buy-in it hoped for. The event's theme, Accelerating Growth, became a reality for John Deere thanks not only to its agricultural technology, but also to its ability to convey a message in a way that was engaging and comprehensive - and choreographed with dancing tractors. As one judge put it, "This sure ain't your daddy's tractor show." E

Cynthya Porter, staff writer; cporter@exhibitormagazine.com

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