Progressive Insurance Co.’s move to re-brand its independent agency segment is being met with good reviews from outside financial analysts and branding experts, but mixed reviews from the independent agents who are at the center of the strategy.
After weeks of guessing within the industry over what the giant auto player had up its sleeve, Progressive revealed it would re-brand its independent agency channel by giving it a new name and a big advertising push.
The agency segment will be marketed as Drive Insurance from Progressive beginning in December. Drive will have its own logo and a Web site with a “find an agent” feature. Television ads will be road-tested in Florida next month and aired nationally in January.
The company has hired the New York advertising firm of Ogilvy & Mather to design its campaign, which will include TV spots on cable channels deemed to have more upscale audiences, such as the History Channel, ESPN and A&E. The branding effort will also include cooperative advertising with agents through store signs, Yellow Pages and display ads. The new slogan: “Relax. Just Drive.”
Progressive is best known for extensive national branding of its auto insurance that is sold direct, both over the phone and online. But it is also the largest writer of auto insurance sold through independent agents. Drive is an attempt to take the same high-profile branding approach it uses in marketing its direct sales and apply it the independent agency side.
Company officials unveiled the new branding campaign before 1,200 of their largest agencies at a gala event in Las Vegas last month and have begun regional meetings across the country to introduce it to all of the company’s 30,000 agencies.
“Since we began advertising in the early ’90s, agents have told us they value our brand building activities but they’ve wanted to participate more actively in them,” said Bob Williams, agency group president for the Mayfield Village, Ohio-based insurer. “Drive Insurance from Progressive is designed expressly for our independent agents and brokers. It leverages Progressive’s brand equity while highlighting the value that independent agents and brokers provide.”
Grab more market
According to Williams, captive insurers now grab the majority of the $120 billion auto insurance market. Progressive has about $10 billion and wants more. “We want to continue to grow,” Williams told Insurance Journal when asked why the company is reworking its dual distribution model that has produced strong results. The insurer hopes to grow by grabbing more market share through its independent agents, he explained.
Williams acknowledged that the company’s independent agency side, despite its growth, has been constrained by the direct side because consumers don’t associate Progressive with independent agents as strongly as they do with phone or Internet sales.
He also acknowledged that the company’s own research with independent agents uncovered that they question the company’s commitment to the agency system.
Drive is an attempt to change the minds of both consumers and agents by combining Progressive’s claims service, high technology and marketing experience in a program that touts the value of using independent agents. Williams said the company has been looking into this change in strategy for two years and included agents in its research.
“We did our homework,” he told Insurance Journal.
While the branding effort may win overconsumers, it remains to be seen if agents will be. Independent agents praise the company’s technology, easy processing and claims service, but they have complaints about Progressive, mainly about low commissions (8 to 10 percent on average) and fears the company’s direct side will poach business from them.
Some agents remain skeptical about Drive, telling Insurance Journal privately that the new plan does not address their concerns.
Two stories about the move posted to InsuranceJournal.com in late September drew more than 100 lively comments in a matter of days, revealing that some agents have strong negative feelings about the company.
Steve Atwell at Georgetown Insurance Services in Silver Spring, Md., is among those with strong feelings and he is not at all enthusiastic about Drive. In fact, Atwell thinks it’s “dead-on-arrival” because it fails to address the commission issue, he told Insurance Journal in an interview.
“Everything they do is ‘progressive’ except pay their agents,” Atwell said.
Atwell said that he is not going to write good business for 10 percent commission when another company will pay 15 percent. “We have bills to pay,” he said.
Paul Improta, owner of the Underwriters Inc. agency in Stamford, Conn., said he produces for Progressive sees it as a last-resort market. He told Insurance Journal he doubted he’d write more business with the company for a very simple reason. “They don’t pay us.”
“Sometimes it’s not even worth getting paid to have the clients they target,” Improta said. “They tend to be walk-in people who bring their money, and we have to write a check against it. It’s more labor-intensive business in addition to being low compensation.”
A number of agents volunteered the same solution: Progressive should give agents some of the money it plans on funneling into advertising and let agents do the sales and marketing, which is what they do best.
That’s not going to happen, according to Williams. “We feel like we pay a fair commission,” the agency business president said, adding that Progressive is sticking with its strategy of being a low-cost provider with great service and strong marketing. While there are no plans to cut commissions, neither are there plans to raise them. Williams is counting on agents being happy over the increased volume of business they will get through Drive.
Progressive has 30,000 agents and is not necessarily looking to increase that number. But the company would like to become a bigger player within more of the agencies it has already, according to Williams.
Some observers were surprised by the repositioning because the company has been highly successful the way it is. In 2002, premiums grew by 30 percent and, in 2003, by 26 percent. Over the last decade, its annual profit has averaged 6.5 percent; in the last five years, 5.8 percent; and in 2003, it reached 12.7 percent.
Financial analysts contacted by Insurance Journal commended the company for not becoming complacent and for being “proactive” in the face of heightened competition and a softening auto insurance market.
Polina Chernyak, analyst with Standard & Poor’s, maintained that the most important aspect of this move is that Progressive “wants to demonstrate to its independent agents that it is committed to them and willing to spend the advertising dollars” required to increase their business.
Meyer Shields, an analyst with Legg Mason, applauded the company for recognizing that as good as its results have been, it has to keep changing to continue its growth. “Their results for 2002-2003 were so outstanding that they would be difficult to duplicate,” Shields commented. Shields agreed with Chernyak that Progressive executives are looking ahead to when competition is bound to get tougher and premiums will likely come down.
Both analysts will be watching for the next six months to a year expecting to see a boost in independent agency business at Progressive before making any judgment on the strategy.
From a branding perspective, the move appears smart, according to Peter van Aartrijk, who is managing director of The van Aartrijk Group LLC, based in Springfield, Va., and an expert on insurance branding.
Van Aartrijk said the move makes sense for a company with dual marketing channels. “This is a case of multi-distribution dilemma–what do you do? Keep Progressive as a single brand and have two distribution channels? Launch a new company without any ties to Progressive? Or launch a new company that leverages the master brand, which is Progressive? They chose option three, which is the right course.”
The switch will take time and money but it is better in the long run than continuing with the distribution conflict, he said.
Van Aartrijk also likes the chosen name Drive, which he believes sends a clear message about the company. “It says ‘action.’ It’s pretty cool, actually–matching the company’s personality. It describes what people want to do–they don’t want to worry about an insurance policy–that’s what they have an agent for. They want to climb into their favorite toy and drive. And it sure is clear. It should put to bed speculation about whether Progressive wants to be in home insurance.”
(Van Aartrijk is right. Williams confirmed that the company has no interest in the homeowners insurance market.)
In addition to elevating the agency segment, the move strengthens Progressive against its captive competitors, according to van Aartrijk. “Left unsaid here is Progressive Direct’s ability to mount and maintain a full-scale attack at the direct-customer prospect, who is interested in shopping around online from companies like Allstate, AIG Direct and Geico. That’s a huge plus.”
Improta, the Progressive agent in Connecticut, also applauded Progressive’s branding move as a strike against the captives. “I think the concept in general is good,” he said. “It’s good for the independent agents. When people come to my door, they don’t know who any of the companies are. What [Drive is] doing is in part promoting me as well as the company.”
Improta said he hopes the move spurs other companies to spend more money on advertising the value that independent agents provide. He added, however, that he doubted the new branding campaign alone would drive new business to his door or that he would feel compelled to write the risk with Progressive once initial contact is made.
Al O’Reilly, an independent Progressive agent who began his insurance career with MetLife’s captive division, said his agency’s book of business with the Ohio auto insurer has jumped 250 percent in four years in part due to the company’s previous branding efforts. (Disclosure: O’Reilly is the father of IJ Midwest Managing Editor Kevin O’Reilly.)
“I came from working for a brand-name company,” he said. “When I left Metropolitan I was at sea. I wasn’t sure how to operate. It’s easier to write something people have heard of. People call me saying, ‘I want Progressive.’ … I know I’ve got a step up right there.”
O’Reilly said, however, that Progressive is sometimes seen as a nonstandard carrier (which is how the company got its start) and that the new brand might change those perceptions. “They said at our meeting they’re going to spend tens of millions to brand Drive. The Big I’s Trusted Choice has $3 million in their budget. So, that sounds good to me.”
But, he added later, “Can an agent live on 9 percent [commission]? I haven’t figured out how yet.”
The new Web site for Progressive will allow users to find an agent immediately or go through the quoting process online. But consumers will not be able to purchase directly from the company and must find an agent to buy the coverage, according to Progressive IT agent business leader Chris Garson. Agents who write more business with Progressive and participate in the company’s cooperative branding efforts will receive priority in the company’s “find an agent” search results.
Despite criticisms over commissions, the company remains popular with agency customer service people because of its ease-of-use systems and claims service, van Aartrijk noted.
“One thing is clear: Progressive is the largest writer of auto insurance via independent agents. They have 30,000-plus agency distribution points. If agency owners come to appreciate Progressive–now Drive–as much as their customer service representatives have, the sky is the limit,” he said.
For the complete Insurance Journal audio interview with Bob Williams, agency president for Progressive, visit www.insurancejournal.com.