CATEGORY DEFINITION: The insurance category includes brands in both the business-to- consumer: life, property and casualty, and the business-to-business sectors. Health insurance is excluded here.
Brands resist forces of commoditization
As competitive, technological and demographic factors disrupted the insurance category, brands sought to differentiate in meaningful ways and communicate distinctive brand identity.
It wasn’t easy. Brands in the US tried to stand out in a noisy media landscape filled with provocative or clever cartoon characters and spokespeople, building salience by emphasizing some combination of ease, advice, price and care.
In other markets, like the UK, aggregators stripped out value to offer rock-bottom pricing, further commoditizing the insurance category and forcing even traditional insurers to compete on price.
Meanwhile, enabled by big data and analytics, insurers continued to transition from a product-driven to a consumer-centric business model. But segmentation was complex and required understanding how individuals shopped for insurance and the communication each preferred – digital, mobile or in-person.
A generational change in attitude compounded the challenge of adding new customers because millennials are less inclined to purchase insurance, or at least to purchase it as their parents did.
All of these factors were folded into the ongoing insurance category challenge of demonstrating value and brand experience to customers who buy insurance products reluctantly, hoping never to use them.
Communicating more than price
Many brands added back value and explained why value merits a higher price. They switched their approach from being product-centric (what we want to sell you) to being more consumer-centric (how we can help make your life better). Brands tried to humanize the online claim process with face-to-face web connections.
By using actors or characters to project humor or friendliness, brands tried to make buying insurance easier. In the US, Geico’s talking gecko lizard enlivened insurance advertising, while Progressive’s spokeswoman focused on ease and price.
To position its brand as consultative and helpful, a UK brand created a campaign around the character of Winston Wolfe, the “fixer” from the movie Pulp Fiction. In some ads he fixed insurance problems. In other ads he solved more everyday problems, like tying a bow tie.
Challenges and disruptions
Insurers used various tactics to reach insurance-averse millennials, less inclined than their parents to face off across the kitchen table with an insurance agent. State Farm operated its Next Door Cafe? in Chicago. A brand named Oscar, to sound cooler than brands of older generations, was established in New York as the craft beer of healthcare insurance.
Technology, big data and analytics furthered disrupted the insurance category with data monitors that enabled providers to personalize rates with pricing that flexed according to customer behavior. These monitors included telemetric devices in cars that recorded driving habits, wearables that tracked exercise and recorded health statistics, and automated home devices like Google’s Nest thermostats.
Already in the insurance business as an aggregator, Google raised its potential impact on the category when it launched its own branded wireless telecommunications network. The move expands Google’s repository of data on human behavior that could be used to personalize and price insurance products.
Disintermediation of the agent continued, mostly in home or auto insurance, where an online application is relatively straightforward and there is less need for human interaction than in life insurance, where policies can be more complicated, the stakes are higher, and the sale is more emotional.
The US market remained bifurcated, between strong agent-driven businesses and growing online options. Even online brands sought to refine their presence with propositions that were not about price alone, but also included interactive and consultative qualities.
In the UK, where insurance purchasing mostly happens through online aggregators, agents primarily served business clients
or consumers with complicated insurance needs. In contrast, the Chinese brands employed enormous teams of agents; China Life had over 640,000.
Life insurers faced other challenges. Unlike auto or home insurance, life insurance isn’t legally required. And it aligns with life stages, only becoming a priority for most people during periods of transition like marriage or parenthood. Life insurance can be a baseline product for insurers whose portfolios include investment and retirement products.
China, other Asian markets drive growth
In parts of the world where insurance and banking are combined in a category called bancassurance, insurers offered portfolios of financial products. China’s Ping An, for example, provided banking and wealth management along with insurance.
Because insurance is relatively new to China, brands like Ping An, China Life and CPIC educated consumers about insurance and offered tailored products that promised not only peace of mind, (as in more developed markets), but also sound investment for recently acquired wealth.
Profit for Hong Kong-based insurer AIA rose 22 percent based on strong performance in China and other areas of Asia-Pacific, where it operates in 17 markets and has a bancassurance arrangement with Citibank. Prudential, a British brand, focused on growth potential in Asia and enjoyed a strong rise in share price.
Focused more on Europe than developing markets, Germany’s Allianz experienced strong sales and profit growth in life and health insurance, but weakness in property and casualty insurance as well as in its asset management business. Profit declined slightly for Zurich, in part because of non-recurring costs and the effect of low interest rates on investments.
BRAND BUILDING ACTION POINTS
- Demonstrate clearly the value that the brand adds. Explain the features and benefits that the brand offers beyond the competition, and also communicate the meaning of the brand, and why it cares about the people it insures.
- Demonstrate that concern when customers file claims and actually need the brand. Life can be hard enough when things are going well. Don’t make it harder when something goes wrong. The message is “no worries.” Make it the reality.
- Speak to people the way they want to be spoken to. Use data to understand how people live their lives; make customers see insurance as a product that fills an important life need rather than as a to-do box to be reluctantly checked.
- Get beyond the noise. Be well regarded not only because the brand has a memorable spokesperson, but also because its products are somehow different in a way that customers appreciate.