As the manager of events marketing, Rachelle Thibert leads the planning and execution of Deere & Co.'s live events. She has been with the John Deere brand for 19 years in a variety of roles, including sales, marketing, and customer support across North America. Throughout her career, she has focused on enhancing various aspects of the entire brand experience, and her passion is helping put dealers in a position to enable customers to achieve their goals.
All living things need room to grow. Whether you're sowing a backyard garden or a 40-acre field, it's vital that seeds aren't planted too closely together. Otherwise your burgeoning crop will be too congested to thrive, resulting in a stunted harvest.
The same could be said of a crowded trade show exhibit, as Rachelle Thibert, manager of events marketing at John Deere, a Deere & Co. brand, can attest. Thibert supervises a team that is responsible for approximately 20 trade show appearances and events each year for John Deere's Agriculture and Turf division, a business segment that includes everything from the Moline, IL-based company's iconic green tractors to a vast assortment of tilling, seeding, spraying, and harvesting equipment. With a product line that large, it's easy to understand why the $29.74 billion brand would want to show it off. "Historically, our focus has been to bring as many parts and pieces of our portfolio to a show as possible," Thibert says. "We'd look at the exhibit's footprint and play Tetris with the equipment to see how much we could park in there while leaving 18 inches between things."
Three-part multimedia displays at the exhibit's two main entrances paralleled John Deere's advancements with a technology attendees could easily relate to: television.
This was especially true at Commodity Classic, a trade show and educational conference organized by four U.S. associations representing corn, soybean, wheat, and sorghum growers. Given the fact that the average attendee purchases more than $347,000 of agriculture equipment annually, Commodity Classic is a top-tier show on John Deere's exhibiting calendar. As such, the company's Commodity Classic exhibit was always chockablock with both massive and modestly sized machinery that would make any farmer weak in the knees.
Seeds of Change
While the agricultural eye candy was a reliable lure, Thibert took a step back at Commodity Classic 2017 and observed how attendees struggled to navigate the space amid a maze of machinery. She and her team also did some mystery shopping of the show floor and noted what they liked and didn't like in other exhibits and in their own. "It was a pretty long list of things we didn't like around what we were doing," Thibert says. "We were very myopically focused on what was important to us: We have new products. We need to educate you about our new products. Come listen to us. We have a lot of great stuff to say." John Deere's message, in effect, was that of a big brand proudly beating its chest and showing off its impressive wares. And although the company's objectives at Commodity Classic include engaging with current customers, answering their product- and service-related questions, and providing them with a bumper crop of information on how to optimize their farming operations, its cramped exhibit was simply too full to accommodate multiple deep-dive discussions or a presentation area. Instead, John Deere sponsored off-floor workshops and classes – a decision that helped meet attendees' educational needs but unfortunately removed them from the branded environment.
Anecdotal evidence and attendee-intercept surveys revealed another concern: Booth visitors weren't getting the information they needed about John Deere's Precision Ag technology, i.e., the software and hardware embedded in modern farm equipment that allows users to plant, tend, and harvest their crops more efficiently and collect bushels of data on their operations. "Managing technology and data is a growing need for farmers today, and we weren't truly representing this in the exhibit," Thibert says. The message John Deere needed to convey to its customers – that its technology platform was more robust and easier to use than ever – was getting lost amid the sea of green-colored metal.
Clearly, then, John Deere's exhibiting program needed a revamp, one that would provide space in which to engage with attendees and showcase the company's cutting-edge tech offerings. Adding to the exhibit's footprint wasn't the most desirable option, which meant Thibert and her team would need to make room by weeding out excess equipment. Reducing the number of shiny, new toys on the show floor was a difficult plan to sell to John Deere's various product marketers, but ambition met opportunity with the announcement of the location of Commodity Classic 2018: Anaheim, CA.
Wheat Versus Chaff
The Kitchen, a trio of sit-down conversation areas along the back wall of the exhibit, fostered deep-dive discussions in a homey environment familiar to many farmers.
Many exhibitors and attendees might jump at the chance to travel to sunny California for a trade show in February, but Thibert saw a budget-busting logistical nightmare. While California has a large agricultural industry, the four crops represented at Commodity Classic aren't a part of it. Ergo, much of the equipment that John Deere would normally exhibit wasn't in the state – or anywhere west of the Rocky Mountains, for that matter. "Much of our farm equipment is produced in the Midwest," Thibert says. "So we would need to pull equipment out of Illinois and Iowa, ship it to Anaheim – in February and on open trucks – and then have all of it cleaned once it arrived. Frankly, I didn't want the bill for all that."
As Thibert met with internal stakeholders to reach a consensus on what tractors and implements were must-haves for the 2018 show, Schoeneckers Inc. (dba BI Worldwide), the experiential-marketing agency tasked with overhauling John Deere's exhibit, started strategizing ways to address her other objectives. Items on BI Worldwide's to-do list included finding alternative ways to showcase John Deere's oversized equipment, creating a self-paced activation dedicated to educating attendees about the company's Precision Ag technologies, integrating customer-centric graphics and touchpoints, and designing a more open exhibit with designated areas for in-booth meetings. "It was time for us to prioritize the attendees and their experience over our stuff," Thibert says. "We had to reimagine and reinvent how we could support conversations on the topics that matter to them."
After several rounds of negotiations, Thibert had a heavily truncated list of machinery to be shipped to California. Now it was time to see if John Deere's decluttered exhibit would take root and flourish.
Betting the Farm
Attendees stepping into John Deere's 150-by-100-foot exhibit at the Anaheim Convention Center immediately encountered a multimedia installation that articulated the brand's commitment to technology and innovation while paralleling these advancements with an everyday medium attendees could relate to: television. Two expansive entrances on the front corners of the stand featured 34-foot-long walls set at an angle to create a V-shaped path into the exhibit. Fab-ricated from aluminum truss and tensioned-fabric graphics, the walls were divided into panels designed to mimic living rooms from 1950, 1990, and 2018.
The 1950 panel, then, showed a mid-century living room with a retro freestanding TV. A small monitor mounted to the back of the graphic acted as the television screen and ran a video of John Deere's 4-cylinder tractor, which debuted in that decade. Text on the graphic panel read "Flat. Unclear. Limited." – words describing the relative humbleness of the era's broadcasting industry and farming equipment. The 1990 panel referenced the progress made in the ensuing decades with an updated living room, the words "Vivid. Sharp.
Six touchscreen-equipped kiosks in the centrally located Management Hub enabled attendees to learn more about John Deere's Precision Ag technologies.
Options.," and a video highlighting John Deere's initial developments in Precision Ag technology. Finally, the 2018 panel featured a modern living room, a flatscreen monitor displaying the latest John Deere equipment, and the text "Precise. Smart. Mobile. Come in and explore how technology can change the way you farm."
Stepping further into the exhibit, attendees found themselves immersed in an environment nearly as open and expansive as a field of seedling corn. "We ultimately cut the total amount of farm equipment on display by approximately 75 percent," Thibert says. "But this reduction came with a corresponding increase in product displays and technology." For example, instead of shipping its massive, 20-ton S-Series combine, John Deere sent just the control cab, which took up a mere 12-foot-square footprint and still gave attendees an experiential understanding of the equipment's features and creature comforts. And rather than cram the exhibit with a range of implements, i.e., the planting, seeding, and tillage equipment that is typically pulled by a tractor, Thibert and BI Worldwide found a space-saving digital alternative: 15-foot-wide video walls positioned behind two of the company's tractors that spotlighted a variety of farming accessories. Wide aisles and ample space between displays made it easy for attendees to navigate the exhibit and engage with staffers.
When these chats evolved into deeper discussions, staffers could usher attendees to The Kitchen, a trio of sit-down conversation areas along the back wall of the exhibit that featured skirted tables, pendant lights, and touchscreen monitors. "A lot of conversations in agricultural businesses happen around the kitchen table," Thibert says. "Our subject-matter experts would walk attendees to this space, sit down with them, and answer their questions in a comfortable setting that looked like where our customers live and work every day." Adding to the homespun aesthetic was large-format lifestyle imagery on the exhibit's side walls depicting rolling fields, farmsteads, and harvested crops – all of which reinforced John Deere's new customer-
Prior to Commodity Classic 2018, John Deere's exhibits were often cramped mazes filled with the brand's farming equipment.
The cornerstone of the exhibit was the 50-foot-diameter Management Hub, a circular arrangement of six double-sided kiosks at which attendees explored the newest advances in John Deere's Precision Ag technology and how to apply them to their operations. The inner-facing sides of the kiosks broke the tech-application process down to three steps: Collect, Analyze, and Use. A touchscreen monitor at each station walked attendees through how to optimize their farming practices using John Deere's integrated hardware and software via a series of interactive slides, demos, and videos. Users could either explore the content at their leisure or with the assistance and input of a staffer. If attendees' questions led to more in-depth conversations, high-top tables and stools in the center of the hub facilitated longer discussions. Meanwhile, the exteriors of the kiosks, which comprised aluminum frames and Sintra panels printed with additional lifestyle imagery, focused on how farmers can apply Precision Ag to each step of the crop-growing cycle.
By formulating an honest, customer-centric assessment of her exhibiting program, Thibert was able to effect improvements that were both concrete and anecdotal. Informal feedback from booth visitors revealed that they found the new exhibit comfortable, relatable, and conducive to conversations with staffers – descriptors that would hardly apply to John Deere's claustrophobic stands of the recent past. And in the weeks following Commodity Classic, Thibert got word from the company's dealer channels, i.e., the reps on the front line of equipment sales, that they were seeing a positive response to the recent repositioning.
If favorable hearsay is worthy of polite applause, then Thibert's reallocation of her exhibit-marketing budget deserves a standing ovation. Her decision to slash the amount of equipment brought to the show floor resulted in more than $250,000 in transportation-related savings, money that could then be devoted to more customer-oriented elements, such as the Management Hub. All-Star Awards judges praised Thibert's financial finesse. "Moving the focus from hunks of steel to palatable solutions that provide meaning to attendees shows real vision," one judge said. And since less equipment meant more space for in-booth discussions and educational experiences, Thibert was able to forego the sponsored off-floor workshops, which saved an additional $20,000. It just goes to show that while money may not grow on trees, giving your products, messaging, and in-booth engagements room in which to thrive can yield a lot of green.