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Breakfast with Flo

We did a blog post a couple of months back about the explosion of characters in the car-insurance category. This morning I heard that Flo, from Progressive, has been nominated for the Ad Icon Walk of Fame. Maybe it's just that I read the news while eating my Honey Nut Cheerios, but the Flo thing got me thinking of breakfast cereal. 

Breakfast cereals have long used characters to put a face on what were originally commodity products. The characters became points of distinction in a category that was pretty much staples (grains, corn, rice) coated in sugar, and they helped to justify premium pricing and to create loyalty. It seems as if the characters who worked most effectively for their cereals did so by powerfully crystallizing and taking ownership of otherwise generic insights within the category. Tony the Tiger was a beautiful representation of the energy boost kids got from eating sugared cereal and made Frosted Flakes a powerhouse. Sonny the Cuckoo bird was a great symbol of the passion people feel for chocolate and consequently a great representative for Cocoa Puffs. And Lucky the Leprechaun put a face on the ultimate magic kids wanted to capture: getting to eat dessert as a meal without getting in trouble.

It's not hard to see parallels with car-insurance characters. Given changes in government regulation that have made car-insurance coverage much more uniform over the last decade, the category has approached commodity status, driving many insurance brands to reach for characters, like Flo, to serve as points of distinction and create connection with the audience.

Allstates's Mr. Mayhem fits the breakfast-cereal character model. Mr. Mayhem crystallizes the capricious nature and trickster aspects of chance. Sometimes, it seems as if the world is just out to get you. During those moments, there's nothing you can do to protect yourself, so insurance is important as a safety net. Mr. Mayhem helps you understand why you need insurance. Any insurance company can talk about risk (in fact, State Farm is currently airing a pretty funny commercial featuring a giant robot built on this exact theme), but Mr. Mayhem puts a face on this generic aspect of the category.

The next character that I thought of, the Geico Gecko, doesn't seem to fit the cereal model as well. The Gecko pioneered characters in the category and has been around the longest (excepting MetLife's borrowing of Snoopy). While he clearly started as a mnemonic device to help people remember the Geico name, he seems to be built on a bigger idea: that car insurance should be accessible and down to earth. This attitude fits well with Geico's "15-minutes-or-less" approach to insurance. The Gecko has represented accessibility in many different ways: by being the little guy in a big world, by standing as counterpoint to his mature and grave-looking CEO, but mostly by being funny. He's been so effective at crystallizing the accessibility message and building a connection with the audience that he's virtually led the charge for bringing humor into the car insurance category.

Oddly, however, the Gecko--and all the other Geico characters, actually--seems less about an insight into insurance and more about an insight into how people feel about buying insurance. Pioneering a new way of buying insurance has given Geico a lot of traction and could also explain why the Gecko himself has been so fluid and changeable. He's been more like a chameleon than a gecko because he's not about the fundamental truths of insurance; he's about the way that buying insurance is changing. 

How people relate to buying insurance brings me back around to Flo. She has more in common with the Geico Gecko (species aside) than she does with Mr. Mayhem. She's like an ostentatiously funky sales clerk in a limbo store, selling what looks like store-brand insurance. If there is an insight that she's built on, it also appears to be about buying insurance. She's like an acknowledgement that insurance has become a commodity, so you might as well be rational and comparison shop. Get the generic; it's cheaper and smarter. Her whole shtick seems to be to quirkily dispense insurance as if it were nothing more than--well, boxes of cereal. She herself doesn't seem deeply connected to what insurance is all about. In fact, on the surface, it seems as if she could be used to sell pretty much any product in any commodity category. Flo's not selling insurance; she's selling a way of buying insurance.

Insurance is an industry that has long been built on our personal relationships with insurance agents. But that model is changing fast, and a lot of insurance is now being sold online or over the phone. Where Progressive's Flo doesn't work all that well in terms of representing a fundamental truth of the category, she shines in terms of representing someone we can relate to. Perhaps that's what all of her ostentatious quirkiness is about and why she seems to be appealing to so many people. She's not so much about representing a truth of the category as filling a hole in people's changing relationship to insurance.

The danger for Progressive with the Flo approach is, of course, success. Think about the travel industry. Once it was all about travel agents. Travelocity made its huge splash by pioneering agentless travel, thus revolutionizing the category and making Travelocity the name in travel. That is, until the whole industry followed its lead. Now agentless travel is the cost of entry, and Travelocity's once unique identity has been swallowed by the category because Travelocity didn't take its story deeper than the innovation in how people buy travel. The opportunity for Progressive is to use the connection Flo has made with the audience in order to express a deeper and more timeless message about what the brand means.

Without a firm handle on that meaning, Flo might just as well be selling breakfast cereal.