good-neighbearWhen I started in the ad biz in 1987, the largest account at our agency was State Farm. For like…forever, State Farm had worked with what is now DDB Chicago to leverage its agents as a point of difference.

“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” (Fun fact: Barry Manilow wrote the jingle!)

I didn’t work on State Farm. People down the hall did. But it was such a big account that we were all aware of what they were doing. Theirs was the ultimate “old school” approach. Of course, only hindsight allows me to call it “old school”. It was, at the time, “school,” because we’re talking 25 years ago.

(Cue sound effect of my tennis-balled walker sliding across linoleum. Squeeeeeeak!)

State Farm spent loads o’ cash on this effort. Which in addition to being developed by just one agency, had just one tagline. And one message. And one ad format. And one jingle.

It was an all-English campaign back then, and while the company was rather progressive (no pun intended) in terms of the number of African American agents it featured, the ads were in all other ways the very definition of cookie cutter. I am not saying it was “safe”vertising, but rumor has it that each ad came with a heaping tablespoon of Duke’s Original Mayonnaise.

The ads themselves were less about getting people to switch to State Farm than to convince the 50% or so of America that already had State Farm to stick with it. The ads focused on the agents, those “neighbors” that were available whenever you were in trouble.

They were like tiny whispers from your Mee-Maw. “Choose security.” “Keep making the riskfree choice.” “The quality choice.” That’s what you did in those days of yore. Found a message and spent like a sailor on leave to keep it in people’s consciousness.

How times have changed.

Today they have separate efforts for Hispanic, African American, and Asian targets. And there are several “Anglo” campaigns. The Millennial trial/switching focused campaign uses the tagline as a sort of abracadabra, It’s gotten significant buzz, and they turn what could be a “minus” (I have to call an agent) into a “plus” (I’m a VIP entitled to deal with a real person.)

The campaigns for the rest of us deliver a strong message about value – that good pricing can come WITH great service. Additionally, they do engaging digital marketing that’s as strong as anything in the category. This quirky vid is an example:

I experience several of these campaigns every day. The youth stuff when I get my Sheldon Cooper on via TBS, the mainstreams on sports, a radio campaign on discounts during drive time, and the Hispanic campaign on Univision soccer.

Despite this executional variety, or perhaps BECAUSE of it, these marketing streams cume up to a much stronger brand.

Last week during the Harbaughpalooza game, I saw a vignette ad set to the Cheers theme. Cheers – that venerable 80s show that defined real friendship. By airing this one-off execution as part of its multifaceted marketing effort, State Farm better connected to the vivid idea of being there when you need them.

In the ads of olden times, the State Farm agent sat at his or her small town knotty pine paneled office and spoke to camera. Now a State Farm office looks like a tech start-up. Back then the agent delivered the paraphrased value prop in words. Now many of the ads don’t even need V/O because the pictures are good enough to do the work.

State Farm is also breaking another old school rule – they acknowledge the existence of competitors despite being number one. Why? Because it would be patently absurd to pretend that we had never seen the morose caveman or the uberperky Flo. Today’s consumer values “real and genuine” over “leader branding.”

Of course this change at State Farm is connected to the rise of GEICO and Progressive – sales growth driven by their aggressive marketing efforts. Indeed, GEICO’s model probably helped State Farm be comfortable with all this message variety.

Competition does bear tasty fruit.

But in these times – of media fragmentation, multiculturalism, greater need for value, and stronger consumer “control” – State Farm’s approach appears to be a great example of “what works” today. I for one am glad that they were able to come so far – to recognize that “rules change” and adapt it to their unique brand.

I like Progressive’s Flo. And the Gecko. But using the Cheers song? That was mighty nifty. If it took breaking the old rules to make it happen, I am thrilled that the old advertising conventions lie shattered on the floor in Bloomington, IL.

(BTW I have absolutely nothing to do with State Farm. I just thought the example was strong.)

About Jim Nichols

Jim Nichols is Senior Partner - Strategy at Catalyst S+F, a marketing services company based in San Francisco. Surrounded by so many youthful Internet marketers every day, he fancies himself at 47 the "Oldest Living Digital Marketer." He keeps a daily blog profiling start-ups for ad:tech, is a is a frequent contributor to iMediaConnection, and has also contributed to ReadWriteWeb, Venturebeat, Brand Channel, MediaBizBloggers, and Daisy Whitney’s New Media Minute. You can also find him on Twitter @CatalystaJim



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