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Big Branding for Small Companies

If you think branding is only for big companies, this might surprise you: Big companies don’t brand very well. In fact, individual agents and advisors might serve as better brands for insurance companies than the companies themselves.

That’s what one of the top thinkers in branding has to say about the life insurance business. Al Ries has been in the branding business for more than 40 years, first rising to prominence in 1972 with articles in Advertising Age on a new concept called “Positioning” written with his co-author, Jack Trout.

Their book, Positioning, took off after it was published in 1981, eventually selling more than a million copies. Since then, they have written Marketing Warfare, Bottom-Up Marketing, Horse Sense and The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.


Al teamed up with his daughter, Laura, to form Ries & Ries in 1984. Their focus has been branding, with books such as The Origins of Branding. They have helped many of the world’s largest corporations – such as Disney, Ford and H&R Block – to refocus on their branding.

In this conversation with InsuranceNewsNet Publisher Paul Feldman, Al reveals how insurance agents and advisors can learn lessons from the branding mistakes big companies make and how they can win against far bigger competitors.

FELDMAN: Many of our readers feel that their business is too small to worry about their brand. What goes into a brand and how can that apply to small businesses?

RIES: The first thing to know about a brand is that just because it’s well-known doesn’t necessarily mean it’s powerful. That’s the thing that people miss in marketing. Branding is the glue that holds the broad range of marketing functions together.

People think marketing is all about getting famous, when it’s really about owning something in the mind of your clients and prospects. A successful branding campaign program is based on the concept of singularity. It creates in the mind of the prospect the perception that there is no product or service on the market quite like yours.

What’s a BMW? It’s the ultimate driving machine. What’s a Chevrolet? A Chevrolet is a large/small, cheap/expensive car or truck – I mean, what is that? It’s nothing. So the first thing an insurance person needs to say to himself is, what’s my brand?

My consulting firm’s brand is focus. We help companies narrow their focus so they can own something in the mind.
So, first of all, the person who wants to build a life insurance business has to build a brand. But they go about it trying to think of ways they can get their name out in the community, instead of saying, “What do I stand for? How do I narrow my focus to something?”

That’s a very difficult thing for most people to get because, generally speaking, people want to broaden. If they have women as customers, they want to get men. If they have young people, they want to get older people. But, fundamentally, they have to start thinking about what they can focus on.

It may be product- or market-oriented, such as “I focus on retired people.” Or maybe it’s an entrepreneurial focus: “I focus on people who are starting businesses and want a way to protect their family in case the business goes south.” Unless you start out with something narrow in mind, you’ll never get yourself famous.

FELDMAN: When you’re creating that type of a brand, should it say how you’re serving the market, or should it just say, “Hey, I sell life insurance!”?

RIES: There are a lot of issues there. For example, what is life insurance these days? To the average person, what are we talking about? Term? Investment? Burial insurance?

We worked with a company that was related to burial insurance. That’s a company called Everest, which is a funeral concierge service. When a subscriber to this service dies, the company handles the details of the funeral, because the worst time of all for a family to plan a funeral is when somebody dies. It’s a very, very emotional, difficult time, so they’re at the mercy of the funeral homes.

We picked the name Everest because we used the words “ever rest” as a symbol for dying, and then put them together and used the mountain, Everest, as the symbol for the company, Everest Funeral Concierge Service. Now they have more than 20 million subscribers, mostly through their life insurance companies.

But that’s a very good example of how you can build a very big business by doing what seems to be exactly the opposite of what others in the market are doing, and narrowing the focus on something.

You don’t become whatever kind of insurance you want, which is what a lot of insurance agents do. They say, “Whatever you need, I’m your agent.”


FELDMAN: Do you think agents can rely on insurance companies to build a brand?

RIES: The most important thing about insurance is the agent brand, not the company brand. One of the reasons is that the companies themselves haven’t done a very good job in building their brands.

I mean, what’s MetLife? I don’t know. It’s Snoopy, I know that, but aside from that I have no idea what MetLife is. I know what Sun Life is – it’s annuities. That’s one of the few insurance companies that have built a strong brand, so Sun Life did a good job with annuities. And USAA did a good job of saying, “Hey, if you have military experience, we’re the ones for you.”

But to the average consumer out there, all the life insurance companies are the same. So as a result, the local agent is still important. Fundamentally, buying life insurance is a personal, one-to-one thing, where the agent sits down with you. And you tend to buy from an agent who you respect and who you think is smart, clever or whatever, so the personality and the name of the agent are important.

We have an accounting firm. I’m not exactly sure what their name is. I know the guy we work with – Steinberg – but I mean as far as the name of the company is concerned, he could call himself New York City Accounting Inc. and I wouldn’t know the difference. Steinberg is our guy.

FELDMAN: You have said it’s important to be first. First in what?

RIES: The first brand in the mind is usually the winner. It’s not necessarily the first brand in the market. Like with Greek yogurt – the first brand that most people know is Chobani. Chobani has made the owner a billionaire, and he started the company six or eight years ago. But, it wasn’t the first Greek yogurt.

Fage was the first Greek yogurt, but didn’t get in the mind. It didn’t have a marketing program. Matter of fact, the containers of Fage yogurt didn’t even say Greek yogurt. So that’s the notion of the category – be first in mind.

Sun Life wasn’t first in annuities, but it was the first brand of annuity that people knew about. In the same sense that USAA might not have been the first company to market to the military, but it’s the first company that military people knew about.

Getting in the mind first is very powerful. Facebook and social media, Google and search, Microsoft and personal computer software. Virtually every big, enormously successful company was first in something.

The second rule of marketing is that you become the opposite of the leader.

When companies aren’t first, they typically say, “Hey we’re better. We’re better in annuities than Sun Life. We’re better handling you in the military than USAA.”

They tend to focus on being better, but that’s very difficult, because people are skeptical. Everybody says they’re better. You can’t walk in a restaurant or a store or anything without the entrepreneur claiming, “Hey, do business with us. We’re better.”

FELDMAN: It’s true that saying you’re the best doesn’t have a lot of credibility. How do you distinguish yourself as the opposite?

RIES: If you’re the opposite, you can really get rich and famous. For example, Red Bull was the first energy drink, and Red Bull today is certainly successful. It did $11.2 billion last year. It’s an energy drink invented in Austria, based on a recipe out of Thailand. But one of the reasons that Red Bull was successful was that small, 8.3-ounce can.

That small can made a big impression. People looked at it like it was a stick of dynamite, and they said, “Wow, this thing must be very, very powerful if it comes in this small can.”

Would you believe that there were more than a thousand – a thousand – energy drink brands launched in the American market after the introduction of Red Bull?

What’s the No. 2 brand? It was the first brand that came out in a 16-ounce can. It’s called Monster. Is a 16-ounce can a good idea for an energy drink? Not really.

But Monster went out there and did exactly the opposite, and now Monster has 35 percent of the market. Red Bull has 43 percent. Red Bull plus Monster dominate the market. Nobody else has more than 10 percent.

Why is the No. 2 brand the literal opposite of No. 1? Because, in general, people either go with the leader or they go with the opposite.

It’s like politics. If you’re opposed to the Democratic Party, then you go to the Republican Party. Another principle of marketing is to avoid the mushy middle. If you’re in the middle, you don’t have any identity. Look at politicians. Anybody in the middle gets creamed. You have to be either a strong Democrat or a strong Republican, or you can’t get elected.

FELDMAN: Another one of your rules, The Law of Advertising, says that once you get to be a brand leader, it’s important to advertise.

RIES: When you get to be the leader, the thing that keeps you in front is advertising that keeps the competitor silent.
Too many companies launch their products rather than advertising their leadership. So their advertising tends to be a mess. Who knows what Campbell’s Soup is? They have about six different kinds of soup: heart-healthy, condensed, chunky, extra chunky and home style.

It’s like Chevrolet. Instead of advertising Chevrolet, they advertise the Volt, their electric Chevrolet. So they tend to think that once they’ve achieved a leadership position – Heinz in ketchup, Hellman’s in mayonnaise, Kleenex in tissue and so forth – that it’s theirs forever, and therefore they spend their money on something new and different.

The best thing is to consider advertising as a price of leadership. We say advertising is insurance. You pay a small amount of sales revenue to guarantee that you’re not going to lose your leadership. It’s unlike life insurance, which pays off when you’re dead; this is insurance that keeps you alive.

FELDMAN: How does an agent build that brand without a huge marketing budget?

RIES: The important thing for an insurance agent is to conduct public relations on a local level. There are a lot of opportunities in local newsletters and magazines.

We’ve done business with real estate agents, and they’re building their businesses by producing articles for local audiences on how to buy a house and how to look for a good mortgage. So you can build a name for yourself locally using PR and, if you’re good at it, get onto radio, television, and so forth.

My daughter Laura’s been doing a lot of TV for CNN and a couple of other channels, and that’s been helping build our brand. So there are opportunities out there.  You have to ask yourself, what is your expertise? And then try to think of how you can use that expertise to build your brand, so people know your name and know what you stand for.

FELDMAN: PR seems to be a lost opportunity for many people in this industry. How does an advisor get started in public relations?

RIES: PR and advertising are problems for an entrepreneur, because you really need expertise to do a good job of either. Some people are just naturally good at that because they’re extroverts. They know how to get around, how to talk to people and so forth. But most people are not.

I would hire a PR person maybe on a monthly basis, even just an hour a month, to help develop a PR strategy or an idea. That could be very good for an insurance agent. Not advertising, yet, because it’s almost impossible for a small entrepreneurial organization to use advertising effectively. The problem with advertising is you have to spend enough or else all of your money is wasted.

People laugh at advertising when they see companies spending $4 million on a Super Bowl spot. But I have to tell you, that’s what keeps them alive. McDonald’s is spending $500 million a year in advertising. You can say, “Boy, they don’t need to do that.” Maybe they wouldn’t need to do that this year, but if they stopped, five years from now they’d be in deep trouble.

A small, service-oriented life insurance organization should probably not use advertising at all. Oddly enough, that’s probably the only thing they spend money on. They spend money on these little ads in these little newspapers once in a while, when they should be talking to the local PR person.

Hopefully, the PR person will help them formulate some strategy. You don’t need to hire a PR company to do massive PR programs, but maybe more a question of just getting advice and counsel once in a while about what things you should do, and what you should focus on, and things of that sort.

FELDMAN: You have The Law of Credentials. Does that relate to PR?

RIES: That’s the focus of PR. PR builds credentials when people see your name in a newspaper, even a local paper, as an expert in life insurance.

Life insurance agents have to get out in the community in some way, maybe even in areas not connected with insurance, so people see that the agents have something to contribute to the community. Communities have many organizations that allow an agent to belong and contribute.

You’re building a reputation for yourself on the local level, just the way a politician does it on the national level, so people look at you and say, “Hey, he’s an up-and-comer.”

FELDMAN: Let’s talk about some new techniques in brand building. You talk about creating the verbal nail and the visual hammer. What does that mean?

RIES: This is important for the insurance business. When you have a product that’s invisible, like life insurance, it can be very helpful to develop a visual associated with the brand. If you run an automobile ad, you can show a picture of a Mercedes or a Lexus or whatever, and people can “get” it. What visual do I use for a life insurance ad? Some guy in a casket? I don’t think that’s going to work.

FELDMAN: It seems like most of the visuals in the life insurance and annuity industry are retired couples walking on the beach.

RIES: A retired couple on a beach, OK. But Aflac is a very good example of a brand that has a visual unrelated to the products. Aflac’s brand recognition was 10 percent before they launched the advertising campaign with the duck. Today it’s 92 percent, and their sales have gone up like crazy too.

Look at Geico. Geico was a very small brand in car insurance, and they did some heavy promotion. But the gecko associated with Geico has made that brand.

When you have a visual that acts as a hammer, it hammers a nail. Take the old-fashioned Coca-Cola bottle. You may have noticed that Coca-Cola in its advertising today is almost 100 percent focused on that old bottle. They don’t sell many glass bottles. Most Coke is sold in cans or plastic bottles. But that’s an iconic image that says to the customer, “This is the real thing.” And that’s the core idea that keeps Coca-Cola in front of everybody else. People relate to symbols in an incredibly emotional way.

That gets back to the way the mind works. The left brain is the verbal side of the brain – it handles words. The right side is the visual side of the brain – it handles visuals. You can be driving down the street, for example, and a child darts in front of your car.

Guess what? Your foot hits the brake before the left side of the brain thinks about it. In other words, you react to the visual – boom. I used to say that our stoplights had the words “stop,” “go” and “caution,” you’d see the most amazing run of accidents that you can possibly believe. But red, yellow and green, in a sense, communicate faster – bang. As a result, the visuals have power that the words do not, and that’s why visuals like the Coke bottle work.

FELDMAN: How does the verbal nail fit in?

RIES: The flip side of this is that a lot of companies try to use visuals to say something. They use horses and dogs and all sorts of stuff. So it’s not the fact that nobody’s using visuals.

But there’s something different about a Marlboro cowboy and a Coca-Cola bottle and that type of visual. Those visuals say something. You have to start with the words.

For example, BMW’s advertising before 1975 claimed everything. The headlines said we’re great on gas, we’re easy to drive, we’ve got performance, we’ve got this, we’ve got that.

They could have said, “This is the performance machine – the ultimate performance machine.” But you can’t visualize a word like performance. However, you can visualize a word like driving.

So what made the BMW brand famous were the commercials showing happy owners driving their BMWs around winding roads, and ending with “the ultimate driving machine.” So the purpose of the visual isn’t just to associate the brand with the visual. It’s to communicate a word, like driving, and associate it with the brand: masculinity with Marlboro, the authentic cola with Coca-Cola and so forth.

That’s the trouble with the blimp. I mean everybody looks at the blimp –MetLife blimp or Snoopy – but what does it say? Not much. I mean, are your rates high? Is that why you have the blimp up there in the sky? I don’t know.

And yet, I have to say the blimp is a very powerful visual symbol. I would say their association – the blimp and MetLife – is well in the 90 percent range, which is astounding, actually. Yet it doesn’t really say anything. That’s the mistake people make.
Look at the flip side. E*Trade, for example, uses babies. That’s the visual – babies – but you see that the verbal they’re trying to get across is it’s so easy to use that a baby could do it. Well, a baby can’t do it, but symbolically, they’re communicating ease of use with a baby.

When you develop a visual symbol, first thing you have to think about is the verbal. What’s the verbal? With Aflac, the problem is that the word, Aflac, is difficult. So somebody figured out that, “Let’s see – how can we get the word Aflac into people’s minds? Well, it sounds like the quack of a duck, so why don’t we use a duck, and the duck says, ‘Aflac,’ and people see the duck, and they think quack, and they think Aflac.”

So to get the word in the mind, they picked a duck, and that’s the sort of thinking that you need to do to come up with a good visual. You have to figure out what word it is that you want to own, and then develop a visual that communicates the verbal. You work backwards from the visual and start with the verbal.

FELDMAN: How do you create a memorable slogan?

RIES: The most important thing about being successful today is having good ideas to start with and then developing marketing programs that exploit the idea.

Without a good idea, marketing can’t solve anything. It’s just like a doctor can’t save somebody who’s unsavable, but a good doctor can do a very good job of healing the patient if the conditions are right. So the conditions need to be right. With an idea, it should be possible to come up with a verbal, a visual and a good marketing program to establish that idea.

America doesn’t lack ideas. In fact, it’s often too many ideas at once. I have worked with big companies that have a list of 20 products that they’re thinking about introducing.

I think all of the ideas are good but they wind up introducing none of them. Or the ones they do introduce, they don’t do a very good job of introducing. The results don’t tend to be very good because big companies in particular are very rigid in that marketing. They have philosophies, such as line extensions. That’s when they say, “We don’t want to introduce new brands. It’s too expensive. Therefore, we’ll use our existing brand.” That keeps them back.

This is why I think this is such a great country for entrepreneurs, because the big companies are just stuck in the mud. Look at all the successful Internet brands. Were any of those Internet brands launched by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post or Time or ABC, NBC, CBS or any of the big communications companies?

You would think that NBC or CBS or The New York Times would be communication experts and that when the Internet came out, they would dominate it. Did they launch brands like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, Zappos, Amazon and so on? No, of course not. They came out with the and the, – line extensions, and none of these things has done extremely well. Meanwhile, look at Twitter.

FELDMAN: Twitter has become a phenomenon. Is that a case of going opposite of the leader?

RIES: Yes. It is actually a good example of being the opposite of everything else on the Internet. There are something like 250 million blogs out there. People get on the Internet, do the personal blogs that go on and on. Twitter’s just the opposite – instead of an on-and-on-and-on personal blog, this is a blog that’s limited to 140 characters. So the limit is the essence of the brand, and that’s what built the brand. Without that limit, if the messages on Twitter were unlimited, the site would have gone nowhere.

But that was the idea that built the brand, and then the bird, and the words “tweet” and “twitter” kind of symbolized the bird, sending very short messages. You listen to a bird, their message is very short – peep, peep, that’s about it.


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