By Joe Pulizzi published September 28, 2013

What Content Marketing’s History Means for Its Future


The Furrow from Deere & Company is the largest circulated magazine to farmers in the world.

The following is adapted from my new book, Epic Content Marketing: How to Tell a Different Story, Break Through the Clutter, and Win More Customers by Marketing Less

John Deere is most often credited with creating the first major example of content marketing as we know it, so the company holds a very special place in my heart.

The story of John

There once was a struggling blacksmith named John. John was young, broke, and was desperate to provide for his young family in Vermont. In 1836, John made the tough decision to leave his family, with all of $73 in his pocket, to make his way west in the hopes of finding fortune (or at least a job).

After two weeks of travel, John decided to set up camp in Grand Detour, Ill. It was there he put out his blacksmith shingle.

Day after day, John would hear the tales of farmers who came from the Northeast and were struggling to push their plows through the sticky Illinois soil. Where their iron plows used to easily slide through the New England sediment, the Midwest sod seemed quite the challenge. The farmers became frustrated at having to clean the mud off the iron plows every few yards.

John believed that if he could mold the outside of the plow in steel, that the mud and dirt would not stick. So, in 1837, John built the first polished plow using a broken saw blade.

In the days and months that passed, John worked with the farmers, listened to their problems, and  continued to refine his plow design for many years to come. John would go on to become one of the greatest inventors and businessmen of his time.

That man was John Deere.

Content marketing in the 19th Century

Even though John Deere passed away in 1886, his values of listening and teaching live on through the company he built. Deere & Company, arguably the most famous agricultural company in the world, launched, created, and distributed a printed magazine, The Furrow , in 1895. Deere leveraged The Furrow, not to sell John Deere equipment directly (like a catalog would do) but, instead, to educate farmers on new technology and how they use it to become more successful business owners and farmers. Thus, content marketing was born.

The Furrow was not filled with promotional messages and self-serving content. It was developed by thoughtful journalists, storytellers, and designers, and covered topics that farmers cared about deeply. The goal of the content was to help farmers become more prosperous and, of course, profitable.

Now 120 years later, The Furrow is still going strong. It is the most circulated farming magazine in the world, and is currently delivered each month to over 1.5 million farmers, in 12 languages, across 40 different countries.

John Deere is often given credit for being the first to leverage content marketing as part of a long-term business process.

A glorious past

And John Deere was just the beginning:

  • 1900 – Michelin develops The Michelin Guides: This 400-page guide, now with an iconic red cover, helps drivers maintain their cars and find decent lodging. In its first edition, 35,000 copies were distributed for free.
  • 1904 – Jell-O’s recipe book pays off: Jell-O distributed free copies of a recipe book, which contributed to sales of over $1 million for the company by 1906.
  • 1913 – Burns & McDonnell Engineering launches Benchmark: This Kansas City engineering and consulting firm still produces its award-winning magazine to this day.
  • 1922 – Sears launches its “World’s Largest Store” radio program: The radio station helped keep farmers informed during the deflation crisis with content supplied by Sears’ Roebuck Agricultural Foundation.
  • 1930s – Procter & Gamble began its foray into radio soap operas with brands such as Duz & Oxydol; hence the term, “soap opera.”

If you’d like to see more examples of content marketing’s historical significance, take a look at this awesome infographic put together by CMI’s creative director, Joseph Kalinowski:

Understanding history

Yes, content marketing, as an industry, is taking off. But it’s important to realize where brand content came from to understand the direction it should be heading in. Brands have been telling stories for centuries. It started when they had just a few channels at their disposal, and continues today — at a time where they literally have hundreds of media channels to choose from for marketing.

A quality story that is told to the right person at the right time will always cut through the clutter. There will be another new channel tomorrow… and another one the next day. It’s easy to be seduced by the new. As smart content marketers, we need to keep in mind that channels come and go, but good stories (and storytelling) last forever.

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi is the Founder of Content Marketing Institute, a UBM company, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s the author of five books, including his latest, Killing Marketing. His third book, Epic Content Marketing was named one of “Five Must Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine. If you ever see Joe in person, he’ll be wearing orange. Follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

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  • Jeff Simmons

    Channels come and go but good stories last forever. Well said Joe

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Jeff…so, so true!

  • Ann Bevans

    Love this! I’m always coaching my clients to work on their origin stories, but you’ve told the origin story of origin stories! Well done.

  • Barbara Mckinney

    Great article Joe. I agree with you,Channels come and go, but good stories last forever.Sharing a quality content should always be the top priority of every marketer.

  • disqus_W4KjfaOksA

    Very interesting, Joe. The people at John Deer must have been quite visionary. Who would have thought that you could make money out of supplying valuable information without trumpeting on about your own business?

  • Evgeniy Afanasiev

    Joe, I enjoyed reading your article. It helps to realize that content marketing is not a “new thing” at all. More than 100 years ago people and marketers used books and magazines as a source of communicating with customers. Nowadays, when we have social networks, TV and radio, printed items seem to be unpopular. What do you think? Are books or magazines still playing any role in content marketing? And if yes, which target groups may still be interested un this source of information.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      All those channels still work, they are just different today. Honestly, I feel there is a huge opportunity in print right now (about 35% of enterprises still do print magazines for their content marketing).

  • Alison Gilbert

    I love stories, listening to them and telling them. Thanks for the reminder Joe. The John Deere story is a great one. Good content marketing is about storytelling not about hawking merchandise. A pearl of wisdom to be remembered by anyone who has something to offer and wants to share it or sell it.

  • Nick Israel

    This is a very nice story, Joe. I’m currently writing my thesis about content marketing strategy. And as a son of a farmer, this story would be a great opening for the presentation of my thesis.

    However, I’m not sure how accurate the story is. You mention that The Furrow is not filled with promotional messages and self-serving content. But when I take a look at the first page of the 1897 edition I see alot of: “It is a satisfaction to be able to offer our patrons the VERY BEST in these lines.” and “If there are any new tools to be bought, now is the time to buy them. We have now in stock, or ordered, as full a line of high class products.” And ” Farmers who consult their best interests buy only the best goods. We have them. Come, and let us convince you.”

    Allright, it’s not filled with self-serving content. But there is still quite alot of it to be found.

    Nick Israel

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Nick…totally agree…it’s not a pure play…but the majority of the content was informational. But you make a great point…they wanted it to drive sales.