Companies & Industries

Issue: Liberty Mutual, Doing the Right Thing


The insurance company knew the message it wanted to send in order to be in the top five, but the challenges were many

Insurance company Liberty Mutual had an ambitious goal in late 2005: to become one of the five largest auto insurers in the U.S. In the auto insurance business since 1918, Liberty Mutual was in the top 10, but it was seeing its market share shrink rather than grow. And it was seeing itself outspent on advertising by the dominant players by a margin of 5 to 1.

"About the time that we were to put more resources behind [the auto insurance market], so was everybody else," remembers Stephen Sullivan, senior vice-president, communications services. Competitors GEICO, Progressive (PGR), State Farm, and AllState (ALL) were each spending five times what Liberty Mutual was on advertising to maintain their market share or attain modest growth. Plus, to make it into the top five, Liberty Mutual would have had to increase its business by three times the industry average.

The company saw other challenges as well. "All of this was made even more daunting by the very low degree of interest and in particular, trust, the consumer has in the insurance category," Sullivan admits. And he recalls that compared with the category leaders, consumer familiarity with the Liberty Mutual brand was low. Consumers were familiar with the name Liberty Mutual, but they didn't know what the company did.

Making a Corporate Motto Resonate

"We realized that we would have to change our messaging and our advertising direction to differentiate us from our competitors," says Sullivan.

On the plus side, the company believed it had a strong message to convey: Its mission is to help people "live safer, more secure lives." But how do you convey that and make a corporate motto resonate with consumers? "We knew we had something to say—the question was how do you really make something like that tangible?" says Sullivan. "How do you connect with people in a way that's not just some other claim from a big insurance company that people are going to disbelieve?"

The questions were more than rhetorical ones thrown about at strategy meetings: They were problems Liberty Mutual brought to its advertising agency, Hill Holliday. The agency helped Liberty Mutual further refine its message.

"In doing that research, we had reinforced to us over and over that our employees believed something very strong about the company," says Sullivan. "The way people expressed it: 'You know, at the end of the day, we just do the right thing.'"

Thinking Beyond the Traditional

Liberty Mutual decided that "doing the right thing" was the message it really wanted to communicate to customers and prospects. If employees felt strongly about it, the company would be able to deliver. But the refined message was no easier to communicate. "It's a wonderful thing to say that we do the right thing, but it's also a more difficult message to get across to consumers because so many people want to say that," says Sullivan. "What we wanted to say is 'We recognize that personal responsibility is one of your core values and if this is true, then you will like doing business with a company like us because we share that value; in fact, we celebrate it on your part.'"

And Liberty Mutual never lost sight of the fact that it was always going to be outspent on advertising and it needed to think beyond traditional ways to reach the marketplace. So the challenges it took to advertising agency Hill Holliday were multiple: How do you achieve significant growth in a crowded marketplace where your big-spending competitors are also hungry for growth? How do you translate employee passion and commitment about responsibility to consumers who have little interest in and trust for your product? How do you build awareness of what the brand really stands for in ways that will differentiate you?

When the insurance company planned a new campaign, its agency, Hill Holliday, found that the most potent appeal was to people's deep values

When Liberty Mutual came to Hill Holliday in late 2005 with its stated goal of becoming a top-five auto insurer, it became very clear, very fast that to achieve this goal, our agency/client team would need to create a campaign that went way beyond the disparate category conventions of "traditional"—think Progressive, for example—or "irreverent," like Geico, to stand out and claim a larger share of consumers' hearts, minds, and wallets.

The agency/client team started with a special strategic process. In contrast to the industry's heavy reliance on analyzing competitive activity, we started by looking inside the culture at Liberty Mutual and assessing values unique to its employees and its business practices.

We also undertook an examination of the cultural and social context, beyond the insurance category, to seek any social undercurrents relevant to Liberty. We were seeking a natural fit that would lead to a single catalytic idea that would generate external buzz.

Hungry for Relevance

The agency believes the day of passive consumers waiting to receive messages is long gone. In the era of continuous partial attention, the pendulum has swung the other way: Consumers now seek messages, but only if there is a high degree of relevance to their lives.

Our research into Liberty Mutual's corporate culture told us that, in this post-9/11 era, when the unthinkable can happen, when corporate scandal is rife, and when people are losing faith in institutions, people were starting to believe in the importance of becoming more responsible for their own actions and in doing the right thing by themselves and each other.

We also know that any message a company hopes to send has to be authentic. Liberty Mutual's creed, displayed in stone at corporate headquarters in its office on Boston's Berkeley Street, states how the company is engaged in a great mutual enterprise to "help people live safer, more secure lives." Hundreds of employee interviews confirmed that this is something Liberty Mutual employees live by.

That marriage of cultural context and corporate creed meant there was a shared value and one core thought: responsibility. Employees summed it up as: "We know you do your part, and you can count on us to do ours." It's what Liberty believes in, and it is what consumers seek. A proprietary study confirmed this by finding that 90% of people believe that they are "more responsible than others." The team had found the catalytic idea—that collective, almost subconscious thought—that was already part of Liberty Mutual's value system. This shared belief in responsibility would be the basis for a brand movement.

Acts of Personal Responsibility

We decided the best way to get this idea across initially was to celebrate acts of personal responsibility in the U.S. and to position Liberty Mutual as the catalyst for that celebration. To do so, the team had to create work that didn't define what responsibility was and that didn't aim to provide any answers. This kind of approach was almost alien to the advertising industry. The TV anthem launch, supported by print, was titled "What Goes Around," and it demonstrated that when people do the right thing, one good turn begets another, making life better for everyone.

The commercial elicited more than 3,000 positive e-mails to us at Hill Holliday and at Liberty Mutual, including this one, which seemed to sum up the impact it was having on people: "I gained a lot of respect for your company…your commercials showed what little things people can do to show care for others and make the world a more civilized place."

It turns out that in 2006, the first full year the spot ran, Liberty Mutual had the greatest growth in its history. Net premiums written grew 10%.

The Today show picked up the spot and ran it in a segment about "Rudeness in America." Schoolteachers asked for copies to use in discussing responsibility in class. The spot was favorably mentioned by Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball, and in perhaps the most persuasive proof that it touched a deep chord with the American public, it was spoofed by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show.

Follow-Up to the Ad Campaign

Following on the success of the TV campaign, Liberty Mutual recently launched the Responsibility Project, an outgrowth of the company's ad campaign. Liberty Mutual is using a variety of entertainment content, including a Web site with independently produced short films, a blog written by an Emmy and Peabody award-winning journalist, and a resources section for anyone who wants to discuss personal responsibility, as well as TV programs created in partnership with NBC Universal (GE) as catalysts for examining the decisions that confront people trying to "do the right thing."

Individuals can participate in online conversation about personal responsibility and watch and discuss live-action and animated short films at the Responsibility Project's Web site and online community at www.ResponsibilityProject.com.

We've helped consumers think about the brand in a different way by spotlighting issues related to personal responsibility. It's an authentic value that is part of Liberty's culture and it's a value that's relevant and important to our culture today—which makes for a brand message that goes beyond advertising.

Patricia O'Connell is Management Editor for BusinessWeek.com.

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