By Jon Evans, Chief Customer Officer, System1
The Geico Gecko and those infamous cavemen. Flo from Progressive. Professor Burke from Farmers. LiMu Emu. Jake from State Farm… the list is enviable, and you know what? Mention the brand and these characters come to mind. Why? Because these insurance brands nailed their use of fluent character devices. More than a mascot or a slogan, fluent devices–or rather, these characters–drive the brands’ creative like a unifying force.
In fact, at System1, we’ve found that campaigns with fluent devices are 23% more likely to generate very large share gain, and 22% more likely to generate very large profit gain effects, than the average–all to say, that brands that make use of them can go far with customers.
But American insurance brands… well, they’ve created magic as a pack, with each of the five taking up valuable brain space in our memory banks. But are these characters in danger of being played out? Are they at risk of losing their distinctiveness, which in turn aids their effectiveness?
The short answer: No. Nope. Not at all.
A review of System1’s database for recently tested ads in this sector provides a veritable case study in utilizing fluent devices effectively–specifically characters and creative tropes–to drive distinctiveness in an otherwise crowded category. Data shows that using fluent devices remains a tried-and-true approach toward not just helping viewers remember your brand, but to simultaneously create memorable, even lovable ads that can help insurance brands grow in the long term. In a review of 200 of the most recent ads in the category, we found that ads using a recognizable brand character or distinctive creative style or scenario perform markedly better with consumers than ads that don’t. In fact, across the category, these ads score a half-star better than ads lacking fluent devices (2.4 versus 1.9), indicating meaningfully stronger potential to help brands grow market share in the long term. These ads also have an advantage when it comes to brand recognition (92% versus 86%).
Geico has famously played with a variety of recognizable creative conceits, recently running a campaign that asks people “So what are you waiting for” as a set up for a humorous scenario, like in this ad where the world’s strongest man helps a regular guy breakdown cardboard boxes. Ads like this have helped make Geico the reigning king of distinctive insurance advertising. But if we know anything about Geico, we know that it’s not just scenarios–they’ve been relying heavily on a cheeky cartoon Gecko for years and he drives some of the most impressive responses in the category. Ads where he appears have an average Star score of 3.2–astronomical for financial services.
All to say that now is not the time for Geico to rest on its laurels, as competitor brands are fine-tuning their approach toward fluency. An interesting insurgent in the last couple of years is State Farm, thanks in part to their affable agent Jake from State Farm. The provider has also invested heavily in big name athletes like Patrick Mahomes, Chris Paul and Aaron Rodgers, but what’s truly fascinating–and a takeaway for any of us–is that the data suggests that a focus on Jake is actually more effective… meaning State Farm could repurpose the money they spend on celebrities to focus on promoting ads that feature Jake in all of his relatable glory. Point in fact, that ads that feature Jake interacting with regular people score 2.3 Stars on average compared to only 1.8 stars for ads that feature celebrities.
You might not know Stephanie Courtney by her given name, but you certainly know Flo, the fictional salesperson she’s played for Progressive since 2008. Over the years, there have been many ads featuring Flo, with the brand investing not only in her presence but also in developing a rich storyline. Viewers continue to gain additional insight into Flo’s family life, social circle and even her love interest with the recent addition of Jon Hamm. While the scenarios provide variety, one thing is consistent—you can typically expect an appearance from the comedic character and her group of fellow insurance friends. Progressive ads featuring a character device average 2.2-Stars compared to 1.87-Stars for ads that don’t.
Farmers certainly knows a thing or two about fluent devices because they’ve also leveraged a recurring character and scenario for years. Since 2010, actor J.K. Simmons has starred as Professor Burke in the insurer’s ads. Many of the professor’s ads are set in the same way – he walks a policy holder through an almost unbelievable disaster that is actually a real claim covered by Farmers. In recent years, the company has also added in different Professor-driven spots that deviate from the “we’ve seen a thing or two” concept. But one thing is consistent—they always play with humor, even when highlighting safe driving discounts and other “Policy Perks” that might otherwise seem a bit dry. It’s almost impossible to find a Farmers ad that doesn’t feature Simmons as Burke—and with good reason. Since 2018, ads featuring the actor average 2.95 Stars.
Like Farmers, Liberty Mutual makes use of both recurring scenarios and characters. For the former, its “Truth Tellers” campaign places a diverse range of customers in front of the Hudson River and Lady Liberty. From a DJ to a caricature artist to a boardwalk vendor, everyone benefits from customized insurance. Created by Goodby Silverstein & Partners, the long-running campaign launched in 2014. In 2019, the brand launched LiMu Emu and Doug, a dynamic yet unexpected pair. And while Doug does all the talking—LiMu is just a large bird after all—the ads lean heavily into humor to drive feelings of happiness and surprise. But which drives better long-term brand building? It’s a close race, with LiMu and Doug averaging 2.4-Stars and recurring scenarios averaging 2.3-Stars.