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ALL-STAR
David Althaus, manager of events and promotions for John Deere Construction & Forestry Co., has held various positions in sales, marketing, and training that serve him well as he works to ensure the best possible experience for attendees.
anning the helm of an exhibit program for the construction and forestry division of an iconic company like Deere & Co. is an undertaking of Paul Bunyan proportions. A booth can be as big as an acre, showcase up to 36 pieces of multiton construction equipment and machinery, and feature 250 staffers. Not surprisingly, an exhibit of that size comes with its own set of challenges beyond coordinating marketing teams, stakeholders, advertising agencies, and external suppliers. That all seems manageable, until you add new corporate initiatives like a comprehensive social-media campaign and an outreach program designed to gather insight from customers across the nation, both of which need to be fully integrated into the exhibit program.

Fortunately, this tall order didn't faze David Althaus, manager of events and promotions for John Deere Construction & Forestry Co. A 24-year veteran of the company, Althaus has been in charge of the exhibit program since 2007, and in that time has overseen dozens of shows worldwide, including ConExpo-Con/Agg. The show, held every three years, isn't just the industry's pinnacle event; it's the platform through which Deere unveils its new machinery and launches its marketing campaign for the coming year. In other words, it's a make it or break it event that sets the tone for the three years leading up to the next show. It also pits Deere against its competitors, all of whom have the same objective: outdo the other guy.

Of course that's easier said than done, but the company has history on its side. John Deere Construction & Forestry had long ago pinpointed its unique selling proposition - it cares what customers think. And we're not talking lip service, either. Deere made a pledge to do whatever it takes to make customers satisfied via its 2008 campaign, dubbed "We're on it." "We basically told our customers that we weren't afraid to get our boots dirty to give them what they needed," Althaus says. "That's a mentality that goes back to when John Deere started the business 175 years ago. We're a company for the people, and our customers know that." The 2008 campaign was considered an admirable success, but Althaus and his team wanted to step it up for the next ConExpo-Con/Agg and put customers in the spotlight. So when it came time to plan for 2011, the group set its sights on one thing: building buzz to generate excitement.

The Big Reveal
To make sure no one missed the big reveal, John Deere Construction & Forestry Co. live streamed the event on UStream and later posted the entire video on YouTube, where it has received more than 16,900 views.



"New products and services are always rolled out at ConExpo with a huge splash but not much follow-up," says Shana Carr, Southwest division president at exhibit- and event-marketing firm MC˛. "So the challenge for the 2011 show was finding a way to resonate long term with the target audience rather than creating a one-off exhibit program that ends when the exhibit hall shuts down." The keys to achieving such longevity included a consistent social-media campaign and an unforgettable at-show reveal that would keep Deere's target audience invested and involved.

John Deere's Talk Show

In early summer 2009, Althaus organized a meeting among internal stakeholders, MC˛, and advertising/creative firms Gyro and McCullough Creative to hammer out the campaign's objectives. First, Deere wanted to stick to its key message, which was that it listened to its customers. Second, it sought to create more in-depth engagement before, during, and after the show. And third, it hoped to increase awareness of Deere products and services.

With the objectives carved in stone and everyone on board, the group moved to the next action item: creating a theme. "It was really important to build on the 'We're on it' message established in 2008," Althaus says. "The best way to do that was to turn the tables and let customers tell us what they wanted - literally - when it came to our 2012 line of machinery." Thus, the group eventually landed on the tagline "You're On," which has a double meaning they found particularly appealing. The simple phrase can mean, "challenge accepted" or "it's your turn." Both suited Deere, as it decided to solicit customers' opinions about its equipment, record it all, and let it play out on social-media sites and the biggest stage of all: ConExpo-Con/Agg.

To do that, however, Althaus et al would need to come up with an efficient way to collect those comments. Enter the Chatterbox, a 29-by-8.5-by-13-foot mobile recording studio built by Gyro and MC˛. Painted John Deere Construction & Forestry's signature yellow, the rectangular structure housed a greenroom and a separate soundproof room complete with multiple video cameras, microphones, and a touchscreen monitor on which questions would appear. Deere customers would step inside, follow the touchscreen prompts, and sound off about what they liked and didn't like about the company's heavy machinery and services, thus providing insight into the working man's psyche.

The beauty of the all-in-one studio was that it could be easily transported to construction sites, dealerships, and events across the country. However, its giant profile made it rather conspicuous, which would prove to be a challenge leading up to the convention. That's because Deere planned to keep the Chatterbox a secret until its unveiling alongside the company's 2012 line of products at ConExpo-Con/Agg, but Althaus and his crew needed to use customer footage captured via the mobile recording studio at the show. That meant the Chatterbox had to hit the road before ConExpo-Con/Agg opened - and no one could know about it. In fact, the mission was so covert that not many outside of Althaus' group even knew the Chatterbox existed.

Adding to the logistical logjam, the Chatterbox was made at a fabrication shop in Chicago, a city notorious for lake-effect snowstorms and frozen ground in the winter - two variables not conducive to active construction sites. So Althaus' team plotted a course for various job sites in sunny Florida, some 1,200 miles away. The team loaded up the Chatterbox, covered it with black fabric, and hit the road. At each site, the team unloaded the Chatterbox and invited workers inside to share their thoughts on how Deere could improve its products.

Luckily, the team didn't have to twist any arms, as people were intrigued by the new piece of Deere equipment and eager to get inside. After collecting videos of workers saying everything from "Don't ever assume you know what it takes to do my job" to "Emissions are a pain in the ass," it was time to head back to Deere headquarters in Moline, IL. The next time the Chatterbox would see the light of day, it would be at ConExpo-Con/Agg during a high-energy reveal that would put impress even the most jaded of lumberjacks.

Spreading the Word

With a slew of video testimonials in hand and about four weeks to go before ConExpo-Con/Agg, it was time to execute the pre-show marketing campaign via direct mailers, e-blasts, and social-media posts. Since the Chatterbox and the "You're on" tagline had to be kept under wraps until the show, Althaus and his team decided to treat it as they would any other new-product reveal that was shrouded in secrecy. Thus, they used the pre-show marketing tactics to pitch the mysterious Chatterbox as a revolutionary piece of equipment like nothing attendees had ever seen before.

The first hint that Deere was up to something came via a postcard that featured an image of the cloaked Chatterbox in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip, along with the text, "It'll be the talk of the town." The reverse side of the card contained the microsite URL and the provocative message: "The clock is ticking . As we're getting ready to unveil the most important piece of equipment we've ever produced. Be with us for the big reveal. This is one secret that won't stay in Vegas." Sent to nearly 10,000 people culled from the list of preregistered attendees (all of whom fit Deere's target demographic of dealers and end users) the mailer was intended as a teaser of sorts, giving away very little about the Chatterbox or what the company had in store for the show.

Deere followed the mailer with an e-blast that went to more than 20,000 people. The e-blast featured an image of The Strip on the horizon punctuated with a beam of bluish-white light. Text under the image read, "ConExpo. It's closer than you think." "The ConExpo crowd expects to see what's new, and we felt we could get them excited despite being extremely vague about what, exactly, we were planning to unveil at the show," Althaus says.

The e-blast also directed attendees to the company's show-specific microsite (events.deere.com/youreon), where another reveal was taking place. Beginning on Feb. 25 and happening every Friday until the show opened, Deere would reveal another section of its 37,698-square-foot exhibit. Called "Floor Plan Fridays," the tactic was another way to build buzz and get attendees engaged with the Deere brand early on. The weekly reveal was promoted via Twitter with messages that included the ConExpo-Con/Agg hashtag (#conexpoconagg) as well as a bit.ly link to that week's floor plan. A countdown to the show and the "big reveal," i.e., the moment the Chatterbox would be exposed, accompanied the floor plan each week, as well as Deere's booth number and additional information about the exhibit such as the type of machines on display. By the time the entire floor plan was uncovered, attendees had access to a booth tour, photos of the equipment being showcased, behind-the-scenes videos of the installation, and info about the educational sessions Deere was offering at the show.

While at the microsite, visitors could view a page called "The Reveal." The page featured the same image of the cloaked Chatterbox on The Strip from the mailer, but this time the text read, "It'll be the talk of the town. See it unveiled live on March 22nd at 10am PST at ConExpo-Con/Agg." So though the floor plan was revealed in all its glory before the show opened, Deere kept the Chatterbox a mystery up until the end. Fortunately, the gamble paid off.

It's Show Time

By the time the show opened, the Deere microsite had logged more than 40,000 unique visitors, so Althaus and his team knew the "You're On" message had been heard. And thanks to the site, attendees that had spent weeks reading tweets, picking up hints about the new piece of equipment, and checking Floor Plan Fridays made a beeline to the Deere exhibit to see what the "big reveal" was all about.

For those that hadn't made it to the microsite before the show, Deere continued its social-media onslaught with at-show tweets and Facebook posts featuring booth photos, links to the microsite, and updates about what was happening in the exhibit. "Though we used the pre-show marketing to target customers, we wanted to encourage everyone at the show to be present for the reveal," Althaus says.

Chatter Matters
To prove just how well it listened to what its customers wanted, Deere plastered several of the suggestions gathered via the Chatterbox directly onto the pieces of equipment that the comments ultimately influenced. The tactic reinforced the "You're On" theme and created another layer of engagement.


And it worked. As a crowd of thousands gathered around the sheathed Chatterbox, which sat between two new pieces of construction equipment (the 944K Hybrid-Electric Nine-Yard Loader and the 460E 46-Ton ADT) that were also covered and making their debut at the show, a 12-by-33-foot LED display featured a digital clock that counted down to 10 a.m. The display also included the now famous image of the Chatterbox seen in the mailer and on the microsite.

When the clock hit zero, the image of the Chatterbox was replaced with text introducing the 944K, along with the comments the team had gathered at the work site in Florida. The no-holds-barred suggestions included comments like, "this thing has to last," "help us with tire wear," and "reduce emissions." Then, the graphics switched to a silhouette of the 944K and the words, "The revolutionary end product of thousands of hours of customer input. Each word documented. Each word studied. And transformed into this." With that, the mammoth machine was unveiled to roaring applause from the audience. The same dog-and-pony show took place for the 460E, and the crowd absolutely loved it.

The attention soon turned to the structure in the center. A hush fell over the crowd as they watched the screen: The video showed workers assembling a piece of machinery, welding and hammering away. Then, the mystery machinery was loaded up and transported to a construction site and unloaded in the middle of a dirt-laden lot. The video portrayed a group of men walking up to the Chatterbox and taking turns entering it, followed by testimonials that had been captured on site. When the video wrapped, the black fabric was pulled back to reveal Deere's Chatterbox. Two presenters climbed atop the structure, which doubled as a stage, and explained how the comments collected influenced the design of the 944K and the 460E. What's more, Deere had arranged for several of the men who had provided those comments to travel to the show, where they were welcomed on stage and personally thanked for their input.

As the presentation ended and attendees wandered throughout the exhibit, evidence of the "You're On" theme was everywhere. In addition to overhead graphics featuring the tagline, rhetorical questions were painted onto various components of the 36 machines on display. For example, "More durable teeth, easily replaced without a hammer?" appeared on the side of a backhoe bucket featuring new, easily replaceable teeth. Each question was followed by "You're On," as if to say "challenge accepted."

A more whimsical interpretation came by way of a 14-by-10-by-8-foot Suggestion Box. Oversized comment cards surrounded a 318D Skid Steer positioned inside the Plexiglas cube. Each card included a suggestion and a red "completed" stamp, as if Deere was saying, "We heard you, and we did something about it."

A social-media wall, equipment simulators, interactive product-info touchscreen kiosks, and a John Deere retail store rounded out the exhibit, but the real draw was the Chatterbox. Throughout the show, roughly 100 attendees took Deere up on its offer to wax poetic about its products.

To keep the conversation going after the show, Deere took to Twitter, Facebook, and its microsite, where it posted photos, shared videos, and updated fans and followers on how their comments were being incorporated into ongoing product development.

The Last Word

When all was said and done, Deere's Chatterbox and accompanying "You're On" campaign netted more than 100,000 unique visitors to the microsite, 22,000 new Facebook fans (added to its existing 400,000), 4,320 Twitter followers, and approximately 15,000 leads. The big reveal was streamed live via UStream and later uploaded to YouTube, where it received more than 16,900 views and is still racking up hits. What's more, the mystery-laden marketing plan enticed more than 50 percent of ConExpo-Con/Agg attendees in the North Hall to witness the live event.

As far as building buzz and engaging its dealers and customers, it's safe to say that Althaus and his team hit the nail on the head. In addition to the influx of social-media fans and followers (which now exceed 1 million), the "You're On" campaign garnered a prestigious pair of Chicago Addy Awards including the Judge's Citation of Excellence Award and the Gold Award for Top Sales Promotion, beating out campaigns from McDonald's, Allstate, and Miller Light. Althaus' efforts also earned accolades from All-Star Awards judges, one of whom said, "The amount of traffic and press from this event is really impressive. It's a comprehensive approach to ensuring the John Deere name is out there."

By involving stakeholders early on, sticking to objectives from the get go, and listening to customers, Althaus spearheaded a campaign that put Deere front and center at one of the world's largest shows. Now that's something worth talking about. E

Lena Valenty, managing editor; lvalenty@exhibitormagazine.com

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