Lessons from Insurance Branding

By Allen Howie

All banks run into the same wall when it comes to branding. They offer the same products as their competitors, delivered in the same ways (branches, online, mobile platforms) by people trained in the same fashion, with rates and fees that are roughly the same.

It’s very nearly the definition of a commodity, which makes branding a challenge. And that’s a big problem. A strong brand—a truly unique position that only you occupy in the minds of customers—makes a bank more profitable, attracts better staff and reduces turnover, amplifies the effect of every marketing dollar, decreases customer defection, attracts new business, improves media relations and more. The lack of a strong brand makes all of those objectives more difficult.

But banks can break out of the “me too” box and brand themselves effectively if they choose to. For proof, look no farther than another commoditized financial profession: the insurance industry.

While insurance companies also sell the same products through the same channels with similar pricing, a handful of them are doing a masterful job of branding—and reaping the benefits. Here are 10 tactics that banks can borrow from their peers in the insurance field to find similar success in setting themselves apart.

  1. The Message, Not the Medium.

In every case where an insurance company has begun to create a unique brand for itself, their marketing messages have taken a sharp left turn from the “traditional” (i.e., boring) industry approach. Allstate embodied the bad things that can happen with “Mayhem,” while Progressive created an insurance “store.” State Farm introduced agents who appeared on (musical) cue, Geico served up a talking gecko and Farmers enlisted its “professor.” All of these brought a new attitude, and all of them sidestepped the clichés of their industry to create something different and memorable.

  1. Stake Your Claim.

Owning your own niche is absolutely central to branding. So why do companies in general—and banks in particular—avoid doing it? Because you have to give up something. Banks want to be all things to all people—the polar opposite of branding.

Among insurers, Geico took the low-price approach. Progressive offered to tailor a policy to your budget. State Farm grabbed responsive agents. Nationwide snagged customer advocacy, while Farmers took consumer education and Liberty Mutual nabbed replacement value. For a bank to create a differentiated position in the marketplace, it has to choose a niche it wants to own—and then claim it effectively and deliver on its promise.

  1. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

There’s no substitute for the value of repeated impressions. The master in this regard is Geico. They can now begin their brand promise (“Fifteen minutes can save you…”), then leave it unfinished with the assumption that you can complete it for them–which you can. They even launched an entire series of spots around the refrain, “Everybody knows that.” Repeating your ads, repeating your promise, repeating your position—this is vital to cultivating a brand.

  1. Be the Same Everywhere.

Every Progressive spot features a pristine white environment, with Flo dressed in white as well. Every State Farm spot features their signature red. And those attributes carry over into print, outdoor and digital messages as well. For a bank to brand effectively, the look and feel of every marketing message across every medium has to be a consistent part of the whole.

  1. Stories Stick.

Liberty Mutual tells tales of customer misfortune in front of the Statue of Liberty. Allstate’s “Mayhem” spins catastrophic takes on consumer calamity. State Farm puts people in tough spots, then rescues them. Nothing sells like a story.

This may be the most obviously underused opportunity for banks. You have literally hundreds of stories unfolding with your customers every day. All you have to do is find them and tell them well, being sure they dovetail with your brand position.

  1. Make a Little Music.

It’s seen as an outdated tool, but the humble jingle has been very good to the insurance industry. Denver Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning walks around humming the Nationwide jingle. Customers escape jeopardy by singing the State Farm jingle. Every Farmers spot ends with its jingle. Why? Because it works.

Music drives memory. Think about how you learned your alphabet. Memorizing a sequence of twenty-six letters would have been much harder if those letters hadn’t been arranged over the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Make it work for you, by putting your brand promise to music.

  1. The Power of Personality.

 Progressive has Flo. Nationwide has affable actor J.K. Simmons as a professor. Allstate taps “24” star Dennis Haysbert’s rich baritone. Geico has its gecko. And most appear in print, on TV and online. Giving your brand a face and a voice makes it easier for consumers to relate to you and remember your brand position. And it doesn’t have to be a celebrity—just someone appealing who’s used well across all media.

  1. Make ‘em Laugh.

Even though Claude Hopkins’ classic “Scientific Advertising” dismissed the marketing value of humor, there’s plenty of research to show that it works when it’s done well. Just ask “Jake from State Farm.”

So why do banks avoid humor? A couple of reasons. First, they may feel it’s beneath them; that it’s too undignified for their profession. And second, it’s really hard to do well. But for those banks who can get over themselves and take advantage of it, humor makes a brand much stickier.

The secret? Be sure your messages are genuinely funny—and be sure they connect back to your brand promise.

  1. Get (Your Audience) Engaged.

It may seem obvious, but if a marketing message doesn’t engage the intended audience, it’s a complete waste of resources. Branding is more than presenting information. It’s using all the tools at your disposal to draw your intended audience in and give them something to care about. When you can do that consistently, you’re on your way to a powerful brand—something that all of the insurance companies mentioned earlier have demonstrated by producing entertaining messages that sell the benefit. No one has ever been bored into buying something.

  1. Play Tag.

“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” “Nationwide is on your side.” “You’re in good hands with Allstate.” “Fifteen minutes can save you 15 percent or more on car insurance.” And don’t forget the “Discount Double-Check.” Each of those slogans is short, sweet, and specific, tied to a direct benefit to the consumer.

Banks tend to embrace generic-sounding slogans or brand promises, but those only make you sound like everyone else. Make yours different, and connect it to the distinct benefit you offer. You’ll get a lot more mileage out of it.

There they are: 10 proven ways to build a brand. Best of all, none of them requires a huge budget. What they do take is a commitment to be truly distinct. Few institutions dare to be different—it takes nerves of steel. So make that work for you. If you’re the bank in your market whose positioning is truly memorable, it will show up in your bottom line.


Allen Howie is a national speaker and the author of “The Marketing Minute” as well as numerous articles for professional journals. He is the recipient of dozens of Industry awards for excellence in marketing and design. He is the principal of Idealogy Financial Marketing, Georgetown, Ind.