Progressive Insurance Stacks Success by Assembling Ad-Character ‘Network’

Credit: Progressive

Baker Mayfield may not have lit things up in his quarterbacking of the Cleveland Browns in the team’s season-opening loss on Sunday. But one of the most exciting young players in the National Football League did a better job over the weekend with his acting chops during TV commercials for Progressive Insurance.

In a slew of new Progressive ads, Mayfield showed great stage presence and comedic timing as his bits promoted the company’s home insurance under the conceit that the quarterback’s “home” was actually a football stadium.

And so Mayfield became the latest member of what Progressive Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Charney calls the company’s “network” of advertising stars that began 11 years ago with “Flo” and remains built around her. Progressive’s marketing-led surge presumably has been key to its double-digit growth in sales and prospects over the last six years as well as a 30-percent rise in its share value so far in 2019.

The company now is up to nine characters including Flo, who remains the star of about half its commercials. There’s also, for instance, Babyman, a millennial who does all sorts of obnoxiously immature things to help sell Progressive’s car insurance; The Box, modeled after one of Charney’s know-it-all friends in college; and another new character, Motaur, a half-man, half-machine character who promotes the company’s motorcycle insurance. They show up not only in TV ads but across social media and other marketing channels for the Mayfield Heights, Ohio-based company.

“I always believed that if I became a CMO and in the right setting, I’d want to run a network of characters,” Charney, who joined Progressive nine years ago when only Flo was around, told Chief Executive. “This is what makes us different from any other brand in the industry. You have to have velocity, and characters, to run what I call a network. 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.”

Humor is another common denominator for Progressive’s ads. Insurance marketing is rife with competitors’ memorable characters and comic takes, including Allstate’s “Mayhem,” the GEICO gecko, Peyton Manning and Brad Paisley for Nationwide, and Mayfield’s fellow quarterback, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, for State Farm. But Charney tries to stand out for Progressive with humor that “is funny because it’s relatable,” he said.

“We do things that are funny because they’re true,” he said. “That’s what makes us different from the slapstick stuff that other brands do, the schizophrenic stuff. We have an underlying philosophy. We don’t want to force-feed people. We want them to come to us.”

Charney said that Progressive creates “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.”

Another important aspect of Progressive’s success, Charney said, is that the company buys most of its media placements on its own rather than through an agency. “That gives us great value, and we can see the results of our [content] immediately.”

There are at least a couple more new characters in the offing for Progressive’s marketing network, Charney said. The growing roster obviously makes less room for Flo, a now-iconic character who starred in about 95 percent of Progressive’s advertising 11 years ago. Now she’s the focus of only about half of it, he said.

“We’ve made her more scarce,” Charney explained, “and her numbers are actually going up” in terms of recognition and effectiveness. “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.”

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Dale Buss: Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.