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A fair amount of my career has been spent practicing the dark arts of advertising. These are the supernatural laws of persuasion designed a very long time ago by some suave and mysterious wizard in a cave with a name like Merlin McCann, Gandalf Olgivy or Dumbledore Draper.  Legend has it that with the right mixture of a few secret ingredients, new customers will pop out of thin air and will live happily ever after.

Back in the 1990’s it became more fashionable to describe advertising as marketing because it sounded more sophisticated.  Of course, most creative types weren’t particularly well schooled in the other functions of marketing except making ads. Academics more eagerly embraced it and fit it into frameworks, strategies and methodologies.  As we entered the 21st century, marketing as a term of art became passé and we became brand masters.  The word brand was sticky, meaning it stuck to everything like gum to a shoe.  I still cringe whenever I hear politicians using the word to attack their opponents as in “The Republican brand is tarnished.”

Now, we live in the digital age.  With the infusion of technology and the Internet, the old Draper magic has definitely evolved into something new.  Or has it?  The secret to growing your business (or brand if you prefer), is to connect with the potential customer at a deeper, emotional level.  And the easiest way to do that is for them to like you.  (Now you can fire your agency if you like because that’s the simple truth.)

In dealing with many advertisers over the years, there is usually one overriding area of conflict when attempting to sell a client on a new, creative campaign. Generally the client will say, “Now I’m not an advertising expert but,” and then they start to lay out a rational set of factoids they believe the customer only needs to hear a few times to win them over forever.  The conflict arises when the ad-marketing-brand-digital guy tries to explain another simple truth: people are practical creatures, but most often buy out of emotion.  I know of what I speak, because I have had many of those client conversations and talked to thousands of the Edwards of the world.

I have worked with insurance clients for many years.  In one case, I was testing a variety of insurance television commercials with customers throughout the country.  My research director had added a new spot on the test reel from Geico that featured the now famous talking gecko.  Geico’s agency, The Martin Agency, had created the little animated character out of necessity; there was a Screen Actors Guild strike.  It was supposed to name associate Geico and gecko. Martin Agency creative wizard Steve Bassett found that many customers mispronounced the brand name as “gecko.” The agency and the client hoped they would strike gold with visual/verbal mnemonic that would be a lot less expensive than paying an actor.


As I saw it, the problem was, no one in my focus groups even knew the word gecko so the connection was lost on them.  I only found two people out of forty who knew the word gecko.  They thought the character was as one person put it “a limey lizard.”  My report to my client (who competed against Geico) simply said that the gecko was no threat and that I hoped the agency would keep using “the little green character no one even understand.” 

Big mistake.

What I had missed in the deeply conservative category of insurance was a break-out moment.  Martin’s client got it while the entire industry, including my own, didn’t.  The agency rejected what I like to call “ FF and L” (facts, figures and legacy) advertising usually preferred by financial services advertisers.  Think of the typical “eighty billion strong and serving drivers since 1932” message.  Geico was not focused on the sort term.  Since Warren Buffet had bought the remaining shares in 1995 (Berkshire-Hathaway had owned a minority interest since 1975), the company was playing for keeps.

Auto insurance is a very low interest category.  People are mandated to buy by the state and their bank if they owe money on their car.  The only time you see any value to paying your monthly premium check if an inherently negative experience: an accident or loss of some type.  They see auto insurance carriers as commodities with little difference between the brands.  They often worry that switching to another carrier may cause them to lose valuable discounts.  In the end, there has traditionally been a very low emotional connection to insurance companies.

Geico decided to compete on one benefit only – low price.  But it is hard to win people’s hearts with only a rational benefit like savings.  To win at this game they decided it was critical to entertain their prospects while always embedding a simple price message of saving 15% in 15 minutes.   That basic tagline has been used continuously since 1994 in one way or another. The emotional connection Geico has made with their customers has worked.  The combined campaigns have increased Geico’s market share from in the late 1990’s 2% to 14% today.  They have become the third largest auto insurer in the country.

Brands reach a cult like status when their advertising enters the popular culture.  A few years ago, on a very delayed flight out of Atlanta, my pilot tried to make us smile when he announced, “Folks, we’re now 20th in line for takeoff.  But I have some good news.  I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to GEICO!”   Another widely quoted line was “So easy a caveman could do it”.   

Geico has stuck with this winning formula.  Often called “The Ultimate Client”, every ad agency is envious of the budget and the freedom Martin has been given to stay with a direction long enough to see dramatic results.  Over the past twenty years, American television viewers have been served a steady diet of aging celebrities, cartoon characters and animals.  Geico has a special place for animals as their commercials have featured a menagerie including wood chucking woodchucks, high fiving squirrels, a possum playing dead, a singing dog, a squealing pig, and boat rowing guinea pigs.   Geico also pioneered a fully integrated digital strategy with special websites and online videos to amplify their television campaigns.

It took nearly a decade, but the rest of the insurance industry finally caught on to this strategy.  Often called the “Geico Effect”, every other major insurance brand has tried to play catch up with their own assortment of humorous characters and spokespeople.  This new form of advertising has spread to many other industries as well.  Geico has connected with people in a special way no one could have predicted.  Of course, we will never know if any of this would have worked unless Buffet was ready to open his checkbook and freely spend.  He said they would spend at least 5% of revenue and they have.  Today, that’s approaching $1 billion in ad spend or about 6.5%.  That’s buys a lot of gecko commercials.  But, by entertaining them, in exchange for a brief sales pitch, the brand seems much less like a cold-blooded insurance company.  They are a friend.  What a concept.