The John Deere tractor is more than just a piece of farm equipment – it’s an icon that has come to symbolize qualities like innovation, quality, hard work and durability. For the people who depend on their John Deere equipment for their livelihood, the brand’s familiar green and yellow color scheme is like the team colors of a beloved alma mater, and that’s a connection that the company’s global licensing operations take very seriously.

According to the Toy Global Licensing Manager Betsy Yenner, the John Deere brand is one that means something to millions of people, and that means anything bearing the brand has to live up to the same principles. “What it really comes down to is that it’s a brand that people trust,” Yenner says. 

The John Deere brand, rated in the top 100 Best Global Brands in 2013 by Interbrand, has been involved in licensed products since 1946, when the first replica toy John Deere tractor was introduced by Ertl. The company started a division called John Deere Merchandise in the early 1970s that sourced John Deere-branded products such as bicycles, horseshoes and barbecue grills, which were sold through a special catalog. By the late 1970s and 1980s, John Deere was licensing products on a wider scale, with the company’s own executive team taking the time to approve all products. 

In 1995, the company’s licensing efforts entered a new era after an outside research firm suggested John Deere could better protect and promote its trademark and brand through a more centralized Trademark Administration group.  

This team was able to leverage licensed product activities thru improved processes and expanded management of various channels including selling not only to the Deere dealer channel but through other channels as well. Today, the company’s licensing division focuses on three core product areas: toys and children’s products, apparel and footwear, and lawn and garden products. 

‘Team John Deere’

As the stewards of the John Deere brand, the members of the company’s licensing department don’t believe it is their responsibility to move the brand into new product categories or seek out new customers that have no connection to John Deere equipment. Apparel Global Licensing Manager Kellye Haskin says their purpose is to serve the brand and the people who feel most strongly associated with it. 

“I think that our customers really do view us as ‘Team John Deere,’” she says. “They really want to wear our colors and they really want to see our trademark loud and proud.”

“We try to take it to a different plane where you have a more of an emotional connection,” Lawn, Garden & Garage Global Licensing Manager Dean Hamke says. “Our job is to create that emotional connection with the customer.”

That means that John Deere works with a relatively small number of licensees, with the vast majority of branded products coming from fewer than a dozen key licensees. Many of those licensees have been with Deere for more than 15 years, and Ertl in particular has been producing John Deere products consistently since its first toy tractor in 1945. “We long for things that have staying power,” Hamke says. 

As such, Deere has a very specific set of guidelines it follows when selecting a licensee to work with. Yenner says the company seeks out licensees with “world-class processes” in place that ensure a high-quality product as well as products that will be safe for customers to use. “When we’re looking for a licensing partner, we’re looking for experts in their field,” she adds.

Location is Key

Understanding the retail channels the company’s licensed products typically are found in is another component of a successful licensee, and Hamke says it’s one that the company believes is essential. That’s especially true considering that John Deere’s brand can be found in retail outlets outside of the usual stores.

Along with the company’s network of tractor and equipment dealers across the country, John Deere-branded products also can be found in farm and ranch stores. Although this particular channel doesn’t receive much attention from retail industry groups, Hamke says it’s an important one for the company that helps it maintain its connection with its target market.

“We feel like it’s a growing channel and one that is very easy for us to work with,” he says.

Careful Approach

Hamke says the company is very cognizant of its place in the market and doesn’t want to over-extend the brand. Expanding the brand into products and markets that don’t necessarily have that strong emotional connection to customers could damage it, and that connection is why John Deere remains a strong brand even in the face of the competition. For example, Yenner says, the entire toy industry has been down in recent years, but the John Deere brand has experienced double-digit growth during that same period. 

John Deere plans to stay the course with its licensing efforts in the near future, with any growth or expansion of the brand carefully controlled so as not to risk losing the emotional connection it has with its many fans. Hamke says the company saw big success this year with a line of themed products at Build-A-Bear Workshop, and he sees opportunities for growth in the children’s apparel sector. 

Regardless of where its opportunities in the future lie, Deere insists on a mutually beneficial relationship where we build strong connections with licensees to make products that reinforce the strong connections customers have with John Deere. “I’m only successful when the licensee is successful,” Hamke says. 

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