It was one of those California days they put on postcards. A perfect sun rising over calm beaches, a cool mist in the air. Mike Linton, a senior marketing expert with experience at top companies like Procter & Gamble, Best Buy, and eBay, was driving on Highway 101. Suddenly, he found himself side by side with a semitruck and a collision was inevitable. The two vehicles hit.
Miraculously, no one was seriously injured, so Linton’s mind drifted to legal and insurance issues. He had recently switched from AIG to Farmers Insurance Group and remembered that an old friend happened to work for the insurer. “I Facebooked him and told him I was about to test his claims service,” Linton recalls. As the claims process progressed, Linton stayed in contact through social media. Two days later, three people met Linton to give him a new car. It was only then that Linton discovered that his old friend, Jeff Dailey, had been named CEO of Farmers.
The two talked live and discussed marketing. Farmers was already airing its University of Farmers campaign, featuring J.K. Simmons as professor Nathaniel Burke. The humorous ads, developed by RPA, underscore Farmers’ focus on expertise and smart insurance decisions—agents are trained at a real University of Farmers just north of Malibu, California.
Insurance industry marketing is a no-holds-barred fight. At last count (in 2011), total yearly spend was $5.9 billion and rising. Dailey convinced Linton to join the battle. “Most of the industries I’ve been in have been in big fights with a number of big brands duking it out,” Linton says. “But that’s most attractive to me as a marketer.” He accepted a position as chief marketing officer of Farmers in October of 2011.
Twenty-five years ago, insurance was a slow-moving industry based on regulators and an agent-driven distribution channel. Then came the Internet, and nothing has been the same. The web has totally changed the speed at which insurance quotes and products are offered and fundamentally altered consumer participation. Whether customers start online or with an agent, they usually start with one thing—the brand. Insurance companies now function as consumer brands, and they will spend whatever it takes to capture the consumer.
To win the battle, a company must look at its brand and communicate what value it can bring that its competitors cannot. “Farmers brings expertise,” Linton says. “We have 13,000 loyal, trained agents in the marketplace. Insurance is expensive if you make a mistake, and our agents help clients navigate a really complicated business. That took us to the Smart Campaign.” The campaign is an evolution of University of Farmers that takes the concept “On the road where insurance meets the consumer” to illustrate how consumers, too, can be smart about insurance. “We don’t just sell you insurance, we help you think about it,” Linton explains. The company’s spokesman, professor Burke, serves as a proxy for agents where the brand meets the consumer.
Kirt Danner, senior vice president and group account director at RPA, the agency behind the campaign, says RPA worked with Linton and the Farmers brand team to “find creative ways to help make consumers more confident about their insurance decisions.” The numerous 15- and 30-second spots appear on TV and Internet platforms, and Farmers introduced an online destination at smart.farmers.com. There, users can interact with 15, 15-second videos that relay important facts and offer preventative tips. The videos each have their own unique style from stop-motion animation to 1980s PSA to kung fu movie. Danner says the overall campaign lets Farmers stand out in the age of insurance ad wars because it “helps consumers become smarter and plan ahead by communicating a number of important, proactive, and relevant insurance tips in a very unique and engaging way.”
And while communication is important, Linton says the clever ads are just the tip of the iceberg. Being raised in what he calls a “very serious math family” instilled in Linton a passion for numbers, statistics, data, and patterns. He estimates that marketing is 70 percent math and 30 percent creative. Farmers researches and tracks as many components as it can. The company has built internal research and finance departments just for marketing, and it runs analytics and does proprietary research with a brand scorecard to determine how pieces of the strategy are trending. Linton and his team observe and rate all components of marketing trying to best use and arrange every element. He then works to build the base of the iceberg—financials, direct mail, search, consumer research, and syndicated research—to increase the effect of the advertisements and media that are visible above water.
Linton and his team also led an effort to redesign the Farmers logo for the first time in 57 years. Consumers voted on hundreds of samples and ultimately chose a simple update based on the company’s original shield and sun design. Watching the process gave the company an inside look at how the consumer really thinks about the brand.
The evolution of University of Farmers into the Smart Campaign came as Linton’s team tore apart what consumers see when they interact with the brand. It’s a process he views not as a series of meetings but as an ongoing dialogue between ad agencies, research groups, and creatives. “The brand is always moving in the marketplace, and we’re trying to move it ahead of the marketplace,” he says. In the midst of the battle, the spoils go to the brand that makes the best argument. And only the consumer picks a winner.