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I Can't Hear You. Why Getting People to Listen to Insurance Carriers Doesn't Have to be so Hard.

My grandfather would always say “come again” when he did not catch what we were saying. It is an easy, comfortable phrase, “come again.” It is not as harsh as “what?” Nor as humbling as “I didn’t hear you.” As a kid, my siblings and I knew to repeat what we said, but this time facing grandpa. There was something about the eye contact, facial expressions, and focus that guaranteed he would get us the second time. 

Grandpa might have been hard of hearing, though hearing aids did not help so I doubt it. My grandmother called it “selective hearing,” which feels like a better fit. When grandpa was lost in thought, focused on a problem that needed solving, or reading the newspaper, his mind was an impenetrable fortress, thwarting words on their march from ear to brain. He wasn’t ignoring us. He just could not hear us. 

To hear someone, you must listen. And listening is complicated. Listening comes in types (either four or seven types of listening to be exact, depending on your source). Listening is finicky – temperature, comfort, and background noise can throw you off. Listening is hard in a world of distraction and diversion. Yet listening is key to marketing success. You need to get a person to listen to your brand before they do anything else. Unfortunately, most people are not listening. They are not asking you to “come again.” They just do not hear you. 

Insurance brands have it the worst. All the challenges listening faces come to a head in the insurance category. Let’s cover the basics then talk about solutions. 

No one wants to listen to insurance carriers.  True and broadly accepted, but why? Yes, yes, I know, because it is boring, nobody wants it, but they must have it, so they resent the carriers for providing a necessary product. Yet there are other categories that are just as boring and somehow, we pay attention (I never thought thermostats were particularly interesting until Nest, nor taxis interesting until Uber.) Boring things can be made to be interesting. Why not insurance? 

You get what you give. This is a two-way street, my friends. Brands get what they give. And people get what they give.  

What Brands Give. 

Most insurance brands are telling stories like it is 2005 (I remember this year because it was the year my agency won Liberty Mutual thus excluding us from the Progressive pitch. Nine months later, I was waiting to see which would be born first – my first-born child or the ‘Responsibility. What’s Your Policy’ campaign we created for Liberty Mutual. The ad came first.) About a year later, Progressive launched the Superstore campaign, and a star was born in Flo, the friendly girl next door that is overly enthusiastic about insurance quipping ‘I said it louder’ and ‘sprinkles are for winners.’  

Liberty Mutual has since shed its position as a responsible insurance company for responsible people in favor of a 70s style detective and his emu sidekick, but Progressive is still churning out Superstore and Flo ads. Geico has its gecko still. I think mayhem is still around for Allstate. State Farm copied the Progressive playbook and launched Jake. Then Nationwide created a jingle.  

Insurance brands are giving what they gave seventeen years ago. I do not know about you but when I think of the world in 2006 compared to today, so much has changed it can be difficult to recognize reality (VR, bots, and IA do not help with my sense of reality or grounding). None of these technologies were around when these campaigns were born. So why are brands launching the same-old advertising year after year expecting for people to care more? If it does not work, change something. 

What People Give. 

In short, not a lot. But why should we expect any more? At Progressive I would hear the CEO lament that if only our customers had to use our insurance, they would know how much better the company is – but only 7% file a claim each year and you cannot build a brand with such low exposure (though given the post pandemic severity hikes, I am pretty sure she is not saying this anymore). Marketing and advertising have to do the job of exposure, and both must make the job of listening easier for regular people. 

How to Get People to Listen in Insurance. 

Insurance is important, yet boring. People do not care, yet they should. How can insurance carriers bridge the gap? Through a combination of human understanding, psychological insight, great storytelling, and courage. 

1. Human Understanding

Information processing, listening’s second cousin, is often simplified. While various models exist, most simplifications have two critical dimensions – interest and ability. People tend to intentionally process information only when it is interesting to them, and they can understand the topic. Also called deep processing, when people are very interested in a category and can understand the information, then the information is noticed, processed, stored, and then used. Persuasive communications work well with deep processing – the type found in 1800s newspapers claiming to be better, faster, easier, cheaper – because people who are interested and have deep knowledge care more about an item’s superiority.

Insurance is usually neither interesting nor easy to understand. This means people won’t put in the effort to process your story, so persuasion is not going to work. Instead, insurance marketers need to find a way to make their brand salient, which usually means (cover your ears product team) superficial communications that provide shortcuts. Fast paths to interest – through insight or humor – and parables or illustrative story telling to enable shallow processing. 

2. Psychological Insight 

People do not care about insurance, but they do care about themselves and other people. To encourage listening, ground your branding and positioning in a human truth. Sometime the human truth is simple. Theodore Levitt famously said; “people don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.” By turning the focus away from the product to the need, brands can quickly develop marketing and advertising that connects on a human level. Let’s call this level-one insights. There is nothing wrong with level-one insights, and communications that use needs-based storytelling do well, but you can take it up a notch by identifying psychological insights.  

Let’s Hot Tub Time Machine back to 2005/2006 and the ‘Pay it Forward’ campaign for Liberty Mutual. Why did we position Liberty Mutual as responsible? Because in a pre-digital world that lacked sophisticated media targeting, we needed another way to attract people who would be good risk. An analysis of the customer base showed their customers participated in more ‘responsible’ behaviors, like voting in elections or volunteering for a cause, than the average American. In the mid-2000s, irresponsibility was celebrated. Remember Paris Hilton/Nichole Richie socialites turned celebrities? Their drama was all over the place. They were getting all the attention and all the deals. Responsible people, those that focused on their families and communities, didn’t feel seen. When we launched the ‘Pay it Forward’ campaign, the marketing department received mail from the grateful people who finally felt seen and were able to share their values with the young people in their lives. We even turned it into a classroom module because teachers wanted teaching tools. One gentleman even wrote a letter saying he was not able to be a customer but that he wanted Liberty Mutual to accept his check for $10, asking us to put his money into more responsibility ads. 

When I was client-side at Progressive insurance, the entire company was on a quest to extend PLE. Since homeowners with both auto and home insurance (aka the Robinsons) stayed the longest, everyone from product to direct acquisition to marketing developed new strategies. As head of marketing strategy, I looked to our customer base. When I looked at the data, I saw most customers were too young to own a home – the average age of Progressive customer was mid- to late-twenties while the average age of a first-time homebuyer was mid-thirties. Our entire marketing engine was optimized (through media, offer, ad creative, and positioning) to acquire young car owners at the lowest possible cost. What worked for this audience was not going to work for the slightly older desired audience.  

Additionally, Flo was losing her relevance. Most late twenty-somethings had grown up with Flo (she was over a dozen years old at this point) and didn’t see her as being for them. So how do you steer the Titanic away from the iceberg? By taking the truth and shining a light on it. 

 Sure, Progressive’s customer base was young, but that also meant Progressive had the largest population of adult kids that were owning their adulting, taking the plunge and buying their first houses. Progressive was expert at helping people at this moment of transition - a transition Catherine Sheehan, the lead brand planner at Arnold, called the ‘grown-up switch.’ I suggested we own that moment and be the company that understands what it is like to become a more adult version of themselves. The ‘Parentamorphosis’ campaign was born out of the insight that when we start to become even more adult-like, we model the responsible adults around us – our parents. This campaign ended up outperforming the Superstore ads and continues nearly five years later to be a top performer, airing today as the Dr. Rick campaign. 

Why did these campaigns work? Because they took a simple insight that people kept a secret then made it public. I am responsible in a world that celebrates irresponsibility. I am adulting in a world that tries to stay young. With these campaigns, the unsaid was said. The unseen, seen. And people who did not care about insurance suddenly cared about a brand that saw the world differently, a brand they could relate to. 

3. Great Storytelling

A contributor at the New York Times called my marketing department at Progressive asking why all insurance companies use humor. At the time, we had launched the ‘Parentamorphosis’ campaign and we were seeking other insights to grow the marketing franchise. So, I had been doing a lot of thinking about this. I told her that insurance uses humor to get people to care about the category, and smart insurance carriers take a truth and makes it funny to gain the most attention. This was a tactic I called ‘Funny Because It’s True’ and I still maintain this is one of the most effective ways to tell insurance stories that get people to listen. 

Beyond humor, insurance carriers have another task on their to-do list – that is, they must find a way to make the intangible tangible. You see, Insurance is not real. Sure, it is real in the sense that contracts are real, but insurance is an intangible promise a carrier makes to its customer, promising to pay a claim when something bad happens.  

I cannot think of anything more difficult to sell than a promise. What are we supposed to say? Trust me, I will do the right thing when you need me to. Yeah, that does not fly in Peoria. Campaigns like the Superstore are workhorses in an intangible category – by putting insurance product boxes on shelves in a physical store so people can purchase them at checkout. Over a decade ago, this storytelling approach worked well because most of us bought products in an actual retail store. We do not buy most products in stores anymore. Insurance carriers must find new ways to tell their story so insurance feels real today. 

4. Courage

Insurance companies are in the risk mitigation business. Typically, carriers treat change as an iterative process. When innovation happens, it is brought to market in small pilots or proven through disciplined A/B tests. To succeed today, insurance carriers must overhaul their approach to marketing. And here lies the issue, because running against the category norm is a risk and feels scary.  

Carriers need to have the courage to challenge the status quo; it is the only way to get people to listen. They must develop new stories and new insights to gain attention, earn active information processing, and ultimately drive action.  

Winning the branding and acquisition marketing game in insurance is going to require us to operate differently, to change our value propositions, and to adjust our offers. Success today requires courage, which is why we like to contain risks by leapfrogging the category while going-to-market in a controlled way, proving results every step of the way. Afterall, at Coologee we are not in the business of selling a promise. We are in the business of delivering results.