Jeff Charney would hold the main character of his company’s car-insurance advertising up against any of the main foes in his industry. When it comes to recognition, awareness and effectiveness, “Flo,” the champion of Progressive Insurance, can go toe-to-toe with competitors such as the GEICO gekko and with football stars Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, who represent Natonwide and State Farm, respectively.
But for Charney, the chief marketing officer of Mayfield Heights, Ohio-based Progressive, Flo is only one in a growing cast of brand characters that he has come to call a “network.” There’s now a total of nine different marketing characters that support various aspects of the company’s efforts in auto, motorcycle, home and other types of insurance coverage. They also include Babyman, a millennial who does all sorts of obnoxiously immature things; Motaur, Progressive’s new character for selling motorcycle insurance; and, most recently, Baker Mayfield, the rookie-sensation quarterback of the Cleveland Browns whom Progressive tapped to help promote its homeowner insurance.
“You have to have velocity, and characters, to run what I call a network,” Charney, who has helmed Progressive’s marketing for nine years, told me. “And the differentiation in our characters is all improvisational; no one else in our industry does that. Motaur has real character; Babyman has real character. And they definitely stand out.”
Progressive’s characters also stand out because Charney’s approach in the advertising content is to use humor across the brand’s commercials and marketing platforms, but it’s often subtle. “It’s funny because it’s true,” Charney said about the Progressive mien. “It’s funny because it’s relatable … We don’t want to force-feed people. We want them to come to us.
“We create characters who relate to who you are. We want to create long-lasting, enduring characters who are interesting that people will want to talk about. When Flo was introduced” 11 years ago, Charney said, in the form of Stephanie Courtney, who still plays her, “people scratched their heads a little bit. But it’s the best thing for your brand when people are scratching their heads and talking about it.”
Context is the crucial third element of Charney’s strategy for building a “network” of successful characters. “Another thing that must be aligned is that we buy most of our media [placements] ourselves. That gives us great value, and we can see the results of our [content] immediately.”
One indication of the success of Charney’s approach is that Flo starred in about 95 percent of Progressive’s advertising a decade ago, but now she’s the focus only in about half of it, Charney said. “We’ve made her more scarce,” he said, “and her numbers are actually going up. We didn’t want to over-use her because we would have run her into the ground. She’s still at her peak, and people still want to hear more about her.”