Number One and Number Two


They are Number One and Number Two at what they do. What they do is earn billions and billions of dollars. And that’s just an estimate.

It’s the Millennials. Again. These people—born between 1977 and 1992—are going online to shop for insurance coverage. This is forcing insurers that once sold through agents to advertise directly to consumers. Insurance is a mature industry. This means that in order to grow, insurance companies must steal market share from one another.

Believe it or not, insurance companies are often perceived as cold and uncaring. So they are turning to what’s known as “brand personality campaigns,” to change the negative perception by identifying themselves with characters conveying warmth, humor and credibility.

Today’s Number One and Number Two brand personalities are the “Geico Gecko” and “Progressive Flo.”

A reptile? Can a lizard be warm and cuddly? Yes, according to a 2011 study for Advertising Age. More than 90% of consumers recognize the Gecko—and the company.

How does one come up with a reptile as a spokesperson? Geico’s name was often mispronounced "gecko," and as the ad agency was brainstorming, someone doodled a gecko. Voila! The Gecko came to life and made his debut during the 1999-2000 television season.

About the same time, that dopey duck appeared—the one who tries to convince us that ducks don’t say “quack" but “aflac.” The ad agency came up with the Duck because they had been having a hard time remembering the company’s name—American Family Life Assurance Company. One day, one of them asked, “What’s the name of the account we’re pitching?” A colleague replied, “It’s Aflac! Aflac, Aflac, Aflac!” Someone said he sounded like a duck, and the idea was hatched. The company’s name recognition soared from 11 percent to 94 percent, and sales of plush Aflac Ducks today raise millions for the treatment and research of childhood cancer.

These faux characters have become part of our social fabric. Don’t you love khaki-clad Jake from State Farm? He and the other brand personalities even have Twitter followers and Facebook pages. The Aflac Duck has a spot in Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. At Halloween, you can buy a Flo costume.

In November, Progressive aired its hundredth Flo commercial. The firm’s chief marketing executive (who joined Progressive from Aflac, by the way) talked about the character as if it were real: “Flo has evolved from her humble beginnings as a cashier into a love interest, a reality star and an insurance pusher … different than anything else in an industry that is literally an arms race right now."

Let’s overlook the fact that a major corporation’s chief marketing officer doesn’t know the difference between literally and figuratively. He must have been absent the day they taught that in Fifth Grade. But an arms race?

"We wanted to kick Flo's ass," said an Allstate ad agency exec—obviously another class act—when they launched their "Mayhem" campaign in response to being ranked fourth in advertising spending behind Geico, State Farm and Progressive.

The Mayhem guy is a metaphor for any disaster that might befall you, and he warns you to buy insurance. Mr. Mayhem boosted Allstate to third place as most-recognized insurance advertising character, behind The Gecko and The Girl.

All this sounds silly to us grown-ups. But mega money is up for grabs. In 2013, the U.S. life and health insurance industry alone generated revenue of $783.9 billion. Billion.

In my next blog, “ Uniforms Means Uniform”

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