Howard Railsback on Advertising

The “Superman” who transformed the way John Deere told the world about its products.

In 1937, Howard “Bub” Railsback, the longtime director of advertising at John Deere, was flooded with letters congratulating him for his work on the John Deere centennial celebrations. In his usual modest way, he responded graciously, recognizing his own success merely as an extension of the success of John Deere. It was the company that took a chance on a young college graduate who wanted to be a writer.

“I have been spending on an average of one hour a day in the Advertising Department,” wrote Frank Silloway, the head of sales, in 1917, having been asked to report on a few candidates in consideration to be the next director of the Publicity Department. Railsback, 31 years old with five years of service, was “not too young” according to Silloway. He had a “pleasant personality” and was a man of “positive ideas” and with “the courage of his convictions.”

Railsback got the job. “Advertising, no matter how well prepared, represents money thrown away if the goods advertised aren’t right,” he told factory managers shortly thereafter. At the time of his promotion, Deere was largely a manufacturer of tillage equipment. In 1918, the tractor came on board in a major way with the acquisition of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company. The tractor transition was one of Railsback’s first major projects in his new role.

A few years later, amid a deep agricultural recession in the United States, Railsback learned important lessons about being a strong brand. In a speech, he recalled being unable to “give implements away,” and that “things looked mighty blue in the implement industry.” He found help looking out his office window at the original John Deere building, built in the 1840s. On the wall was a large leaping deer trademark with the words “Quality Implements” written underneath. “That sign had been covered with paint to the extent that it was but faintly visible on clear days,” he said.

“But on drab, cloudy, wet days, that sign stood out almost in relief. Cloudy, damp weather brought out its message. To me, and to all who saw the phenomenon, it was reassuring and symbolic. It was what that trademark stood for that would pull the John Deere organization out of depression when the business horizon looked dark. It had done so for years and years and will continue to do so on down through the ages.”

After 41 years of service, Howard Railsback retired in 1953. Over the course of his career, company sales grew tenfold, from $30 million to more than $300 million, and the John Deere product lineup had become known around the world.  Notable accomplishments under his leadership include: launching the first international issue of “The Furrow” in Mexico, using motion pictures to introduce new products at John Deere Days, and organizing the celebration of the John Deere Centennial in 1937.

“It will take a superman to fill your position and accomplish as much over the years as accredited to you in your official capacity,” wrote a colleague. In his retirement bulletin, special attention was paid to how Railsback went about this work, that he “built up the principle that John Deere advertising should always reflect the high quality, standing and character of both the Company and its products.”

Si Draft

In 1911, John Deere dealers first saw a new monthly publication called “Hustling for Business: Hints from John Deere’s Advertising Department.” The June 1912 issue introduced Si Draft, a fictional salesman who diarized stories based on people Railsback met over the years. Entries were based on stories he “heard,” built in the style of a Mother Goose nursery rhyme.

For example, Zach Riddle was, the “corner-cuttin’est farmer in the country, but he seldom cut a square one. He had one inflexible principle — never buy anything cheap if you can buy something cheaper.” Si Draft’s Diary included entries that described Riddle’s cheapness, and how he got what he deserved by buying cheap goods, and often reinforced the principle of promoting your own goods instead of denigrating the competition. “I’ve allus (always) noticed that the man who knocks his competitor the hardest usually gets hit the hardest by the echo,” he wrote in 1912.

Advertising required diligence, though. A year later, he shared that “I never heard of but one feller bein’ ruined by advertisin’ — and he let his competitor do it all.”

“Hustling for Business” continued an impressive 20-year run through 1931. In 1951, “Si Draft’s Diary” was printed as an abridged version of the collected work.

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Howard Railsback on Advertising

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