Though he sells seed for Pioneer Hi-Bred, one of the best-known brand names in agriculture, veteran farmer Ivan Gruetzmacher of New London, WI, isn't so sure about the value of brand loyalty anymore.

“Today's farmer has less allegiance to brands than he used to. If the product does not perform and the relationship with the company representative is not the greatest, he will switch to a different brand. Years ago, our fathers were dyed-in-the-wool co-op, Farm Bureau or NFO members, and they kept going back to those organizations. It was difficult to change them. Farmers today rely on the old sharp pencil, not a brand, to keep them in business.”

Although plenty of farmers would agree with Gruetzmacher's assessment of agricultural brands, there also are those who say brands are more important than ever. In fact, a recent online survey conducted by Farm Industry News indicates that most farmers do rely on brands to help them make their buying decisions, even in a new era where sharp pencils have given way to Pentium-powered spreadsheets. That might explain why companies that have stood the test of time continue to spend millions to protect and polish their corporate identities.

Whether you are loyal to a particular brand or not, one thing is certain: For companies that sell seed, tractors, herbicides or farm tires, the road to brand loyalty can be a long and winding one.

Garst — Here, gone and back again. It was one of the most common questions asked about the seed industry in the early 1990s: “Whatever happened to Garst?” To farmers who weren't active Garst customers or didn't make it their business to track seed company mergers, it seemed the Garst name, one of the longest-standing icons in agriculture, had simply vanished like a favorite old farm cat. True, there was some closure when everyone figured out that Garst, along with Super Crost, had merged to become part of ICI Seeds. But it wasn't the same. People just plain liked saying the name “Garst.” It rolled off the tongue like “gosh!” “garsh!” or some other exclamation of amazement.

Fortunately for Garst lovers, the divestiture of ICI into Zeneca just four years later required another name change. The first year under the Zeneca umbrella it was ICI/Garst (1995); then in 1996 the “reintroduction” of the Garst brand included new colors and a new blue/green Garst logo.

Changing a company name twice in five years seemed to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that brands are built through consistency. Yet according to Garst public relations manager Jeff Lacina, the transition from Garst to ICI and back again was remarkably smooth. “During the merger, we needed a new name because of the very strong sales cultures in both Garst and Super Crost. Most of the people in each company agreed that ICI Seeds would be the best name to facilitate the transition in 1991. Later, when it was time to transition back from ICI to Garst, the change was very easy. The Garst name had tremendous value, and returning it to the seed business was a positive factor for our sales force, employees and our customers.

“Garst has focused on being a technology company,” Lacina continues. “It was an easy sell to our sales force and loyal customers. It was a bigger challenge reintroducing ‘Garst’ to non-customers and the seed industry. We had to say Garst is back and THIS is who we are. Today, Garst takes its ‘modern science, traditional values’ tag line to heart and to the field. We're still about farmers selling seed to farmers.”

Lacina says the Garst philosophy has recently paid off in renewed customer loyalty. “Customers are really seeing the value in Garst's diverse genetics. And when Garst found itself in the middle of the StarLink issues this past year, our customers supported us and we supported them. We made sure they were aware of the situation, from testing the product to communicating in the field.”

Deere — Local loyalty goes global. Like many farmers, Robert Cole, who farms near Fayette, IA, says absence does not make the heart grow fonder when it comes to farm equipment dealers. “I wouldn't say I bleed green, but I'm pretty much a John Deere man because we have a good local dealer,” Cole says. “I do look at other brands, but it's harder than it used to be. We used to have a Case IH dealer 10 miles away, but they moved out. I have to go 40 miles just to find one now.”

Staying close to home is one big reason John Deere has drawn a loyal following. After 164 years in business, John Deere green and the leaping deer logo have become the most recognized symbols in agriculture. Yet even a dominant brand can face challenges.

The farm crisis of the early 1980s decimated Deere's customer base. In response, company executives pushed to diversify into less cyclical businesses, taking a stake in service industries such as Farm Plan, an agricultural credit company, and Heritage National Healthplan, a health maintenance organization. Deere also expanded into home care products, such as lawn mowers, chain saws and leaf blowers. The company also began developing overseas markets.

When the ag economy recovered in the late 1980s, Deere found itself in an excellent position to pull market share away from its weakened competitors. Deere thrived again, and its image had evolved into that of a technologically savvy, global company.

Barry Nelson, John Deere's public relations manager, says the diversification efforts of the ’80s had caused John Deere brand recognition to spread beyond agriculture, creating new challenges as well as opportunities. “Our surveys showed that people correctly identified John Deere as an ag equipment brand, but many were confused about the company name — Deere and Company. Some people thought it was a bank, a law firm or a stockbroker.

“That was a bit troubling, because we want people to know that our core business will always be tied to agriculture. Farming, construction and lawn and garden equipment have all helped our company grow, and they will take us into the future. So, to take better advantage of our strong brand recognition, all our signs are being changed so that the first thing you see is the new leaping deer logo and, under it or off to the side, the words John Deere. This will also help us have better brand recognition globally; anyone, regardless of their language, can recognize the new leaping deer.”

Nelson says farmer loyalty is still one of John Deere's most valuable assets. “I've had people call to ask me for a photo of a 4020 tractor because they wanted to put it on their grandfather's tombstone. And people send me Christmas photos of their family standing in front of their favorite John Deere tractor. Farmers spend a lot of their time on tractors, and it's a big part of their livelihood, so it's not surprising that there's an emotional attachment between people and farm equipment.”

Touchdown IQ brand challenge. Jerry Miller, a farmer in Sperry, IA, says herbicide company brands have little influence on his buying decisions. “I might try something new if it solves a problem that my old program can't,” Miller says. “Otherwise, I choose herbicides the same way I choose which cap to wear. I'm not particular about the name on it; I just pick the one that fits.”

Meanwhile, Bill Kremlacek, who farms in Wahoo, NE, says that although he wants information about products, the choice of herbicide often boils down to looking at what worked before and then going with a gut reaction. “I'll do some research, but I can't waste a lot of time figuring out what the best product is,” Kremlacek says. “It's really a fairly quick decision about which product is going to do the best job for the best price.”

Farmer attitudes seem to favor what works; and if it works, don't fix it. When that kind of passive brand loyalty favors one dominant name like Roundup, it can be tough for a new, but similar product to break in and prove itself. Bill Buetke, brand manager for Syngenta's new glyphosate product, Touchdown IQ, is aware of the challenges.

Buetke says his goal has been to educate farmers about why Syngenta thinks Touchdown IQ works better than other glyphosate products. Strategies range from providing scientific explanations about molecule performance, to attaching symbolism to the name and logo. “Our product penetrates the weeds better and increases crop safety,” Buetke claims. “In fact, IQ stands for Ion Quality-In Quick-In Quantity. The name Touchdown refers to the product touching the plant, then going down to the roots. The logo represents the product penetrating a weed. And through advertising and public appearances, we've associated ourselves with Olympic gold medallist and farmer Rulon Gardner, who did his homework and wrestled smarter to beat the undefeated Russian.”

Will all that be enough to steal customers away from the market leader? “At the outset, we hope to reach those farmers who are receptive to new technology,” Buetke says. “But for most farmers, seeing is believing. They've got to see the difference in test plots, in their neighbors' fields and on a few acres of their own fields. Even though we know Touchdown IQ has a performance advantage, our situation is a lot like Pepsi trying to win market share away from Coke. Pepsi asked loyal Coke drinkers to take the Pepsi Challenge: Try it, you might like it better. We're asking farmers who use Roundup products to take the Touchdown IQ Challenge. We hope a lot of them will like Touchdown IQ better and become our customers.”

Farmers fired up about Firestone. A lot of farmers cared when consumer lawsuits started attacking the safety of Firestone ATX tires, which came as standard equipment on Ford Explorers. But it wasn't in the way you might expect. According to Firestone Agricultural Tire Company President Ralph Burchfield, sales of Firestone agricultural tires actually increased as farmers rallied in support of the company.

“Firestone Agricultural Tires is a totally separate division from Bridgestone/Firestone,” Burchfield says. “We do all our own design, research, testing, marketing and manufacturing. It's been that way since Harvey Firestone invented the farm tire in 1935. Even so, since our name is Firestone, we got a lot of e-mail about what was happening in the news. The e-mails farmers sent us were very supportive. Most of them saw it as litigation by opportunistic lawyers. In the Heartland, they'd had no problems with the ATX tires on their trucks, and their tractor tires still performed in the field.

“At the Illinois Farm Progress Show,” Burchfield continues, “a lady walked up to our booth with a basket of cookies. She said, ‘I'd like to give you these cookies.’ I asked why and she said, ‘I figure you guys have been getting your butts kicked the last couple of weeks. You might need a cookie.’ That made our day. Then another farmer came in and said, ‘I planned on not buying until spring, but I'm going to buy now because I figure you guys need all the money you can get your hands on.’ Even though we were fine financially, we sure appreciated that kind of loyalty from our customers.”

Burchfield attributes strong farmer loyalty to Firestone's long history in agriculture and its renewed focus on developing products for agriculture in the 1990s. “Firestone cut back production and lost its knitting during the early ’80s farm crisis, but in 1995 we took our plant from a five-day to seven-day production to expand output and develop new products,” Burchfield explains. “That lowered our cost base and remade the company to be more like a manufacturing company and less like a bank. In the last four years, we've released 200 different tire designs and sizes. It's really been a brand renaissance for us. We're extremely focused on what we do best — manufacturing and servicing tires that enhance the farmer's performance and profitability.”