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BRANDING: PASSION, RELATIONSHIPS, AND GETTING SOCIAL

Featuring Peter van Aartrijk, CEO, Aartrijk


Posted on 17 Aug 09

In this edition of Insurance Unplugged, we are featuring a discussion we had with branding expert Peter van Aartrijk, CEO of Aartrijk, a consultancy firm based in Fairfax, Virginia. Aartrijk provides strategic and tactical communication services that build brands for insurance and financial services firms as well as member organizations. Peter has 25 years of experience in brand management and branding, including advertising, consumer research and education, marketing, public relations, publishing, and Web development. He has conducted program-development campaigns and managed conventions and trade shows.

Annie George (AG): Let’s begin with a discussion of branding in general. Perhaps you can provide us your overall philosophy when it comes to establishing a company brand.

Peter van Aartrijk (PA): “I’d like to begin by discussing the concept as a noun, which is brand, instead of a verb, which is branding. Also, sometimes it’s easier to talk about what a brand isn’t. It’s not a logo or symbol, it’s not a mission statement, or product, or even advertising. A brand represents that intangible relationship, the emotional bond (trust, loyalty) that is created as a result of every interaction that prospects and customers have with you and your employees as well as that relationship you share with the broader business community. A brand is based on every facet of your organization, and everything matters—from the way you answer the phone, to your signage, the way in which your service people communicate, your reputation…everything is important, down to the small stuff.

“I would also say brand is about passion. Southwest Airlines, Amazon, and Starbucks, for example, are companies that have a passion about the way they deliver the brand experience. Insurance is a great business. Without passion in what you’re doing, you should really take a look at another business that will inspire that passion. If some of your employees lack passion for what they’re doing, maybe they should seek something they’re passion about.

“The important thing is to have a strong brand because that makes people want to buy products from you and recommend you to others. Strong brands have a way of keeping people on the books during controversy, such as a hard market, tough economic times, or an agency merger. A strong brand has a way of keeping people in the fold.

“Many agents, brokers and program administrators get referrals and a strong brand helps to convert those referrals. People are not always ready to buy an insurance product, but strong brands have a way of establishing “mind share”. For example, what immediately comes to your mind when you’re asked about a local coffee shop? Strong brands occupy that space of mind …go beyond being just a name, and that has real value. When it comes to insurance retailers, you want to occupy that space, have that mind share, so when a person/business wants to know where to obtain insurance coverage, whether asking the mayor in your town or your customers, you want them immediately referring you.”

Peter explains that people don’t buy products and services; they buy brands. Insurance consumers go through the same process.

AG: How often should a company look at its brand, image and the marketing strategies employed; conduct an analysis?

PA: “Most companies today have already established some type of brand position unless they are a start-up. Companies should capture a snapshot of where they are today and, to do this, they need to talk with customers, employees, community opinion leaders, and business and industry leaders, partners. What we need to realize is that it’s not what we say about our brand, but how the community, people see it. They ultimately own the brand, which can be scary for some people. You need to ask individuals their view of your brand.

“Once you establish where you are, see if it’s in synch with your business operations and with the public view. For example, let’s say you are a small insurance shop on Main Street, but your producers are going after large accounts or employee benefits. Suddenly, your brand is not what you think it is. Or, perhaps you consider your service as friendly, but it isn’t as responsive as you thought. Or you think ‘proactive service,’ which should be anticipating what customers need, means ‘reacting really fast,’ which is fine but doesn’t anticipate needs. You need to look at these disconnects. Be sure to put into place brand positioning that takes into account where you want to take the firm in the next three to five years, and maximize your opportunities to uncover any weaknesses during that discovery period when talking to people.”

Peter says that it’s a good idea to reassess where you are with your brand every three to five years. Unless you are going through a major change, such as entering a new area or launching a new product, or going through a merger, every three to five years is a good milestone to look at your brand and assess things.

“It’s not always a makeover that is necessary, some times it involves tweaking. Most firms have a lot of good will built up. They are actually stronger than they think. But they may be missing opportunities, or exposing weaknesses more than they should.”

When developing a plan to assess how your brand is viewed, there are two ways to go about it: 1. Qualitative research: where you set up focus groups or conduct one-on-one in-depth interviews. 2. Quantitative: such as conducting an online survey, where you talk with a statistical reliable sample of constituents. “If you don’t want to do a focus group or conduct a survey, you can opt to have your CSRs ask a series of questions at the appropriate times,” says Peter. “Provide your staff with questions that over time allow you to capture data. The only way to know how people feel is to ask them, or allow them to tell you in online surveys or postcard responses.“

AG: During tough economic times, I find there are two schools of thought. Some people feel they should step up their game and get their company brand and message out there and put the resources into marketing. Others, however, scale back...advertising is the first thing to go. In working with various companies during different cycles, and especially now, what is your response, your recommendations to agencies, wholesalers, carriers, industry vendors, etc.?

PA: “You’re right about there being two schools of thought. Sometimes it’s virtually impossible for a firm to literally justify branding expenditures when they are in the process of laying off employees. There are emotional, legal, political and economic issues involved. But on the other hand, I don’t believe advertising, marketing should stop.”

Although there may be legitimate issues for choosing not to ramp up advertising efforts at this time, Peter provides several key reasons for not taking a complete break:

1. Difficult period in customer care. “We have to put our arms around customers now, explain what we have, the differences our firm offers,” says Peter. “Engage in dialogue, concentrate on customer communications. Don’t always be about going to the next sale. You have to talk with people. If I had to cut out all my expenditures, I wouldn’t cut customer contact. It’s not only about customer service; it’s about communication. You have to talk to people…you can’t do it once a year, that is just unacceptable. Otherwise all they are getting is a bill.”

2. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. “I heard that quote at an industry conference. I love it,” Peter says. “During economic downturns and challenges, there are many opportunities available. All your competitors also are having problems… strong firms are having problems, but the weaker ones are especially in trouble, so there is a lot less noise out there for your marketing to have an impact,” says Peter.

3. Serve as a resource. “Insurance consumers need advice…you can’t just cut them off,” Peter explains. “You have to educate them. Some businesses are going bare, taking significant exposures and real risks. Use this time to develop campaigns to educate them.”

4. Ideal time to negotiate creative and ad placement costs in publications. “The media are open to negotiate rates and offer better deals, and design firms are working with companies to provide services at reduced costs. You can negotiate with your vendors now to work within a budget that is do-able.”

5. Attract talent. “If your brand is out there, you’ll be able to attract talented employees,” says Peter. “Perhaps you can’t afford new staff now, but in the future you will be able to… in the meantime a part-time solution may work, and when things turn around, you’ll have really talented people as part of your organization as a result of keeping your name front and center.”

6. Keep up the momentum. Peter explains that if you advertise in year one and then stop in year two, picking up in year three, it’s as if you are going back to year one. “Year three becomes year one all over again. You lose momentum and it costs a lot more to make it up in the future. However, if you continue with your advertising, year three is the culmination of accomplishments garnered from years one and two. You need to keep your advertising going, if nothing else at least with your customers, with people who buy from you and will continue to buy things from you if you’re selling.”

AG: We have been speaking with your colleague, Rick Morgan, about social media and the power of these tools for the insurance industry. I’d like your thoughts about this new technology.

PA: “First, social media tools are free, and with the economy as it is, why not experiment, especially when times are slow? These tools are great to round out what you’re doing now. When it comes to branding, I can’t think of better tools to put into the hands of independent agents/ brokers to help enhance and solidify their presence as part of a community. Here we have tools that put the new generation of agents and brokers into the hot seat, because they are representing themselves as experts. They can blog about a claim occurrence [without naming names], providing insight into what happened, the coverage on the claim…and tell a story. They are not selling insurance, but discussing what’s happening in the world.

“Social media finally allows agents and brokers to become more real, less of a faceless industry that is concerned just about numbers and profits. You are saying through these tools, ‘we care about you, we are part of the community offering risk management advice, loss control, etc.’”

Peter is excited about social media for the industry and believes it can be in the forefront of this technology. “We have been lagging in this area, but we don’t have to. We can go into these spaces and see what consumers are talking about, move away from only push marketing (press releases, direct mail), communication that is only one way. People want to buy when they are ready and they want to know about the person(s), company, from which they are buying. Social media provides the tools to let them know about you.

“It can be a bit scary, but if you have faith in what you’re offering, in your employees and you realize that social media is not just a potential sales tool, but an awareness tool, a reputational tool, to help position you in the community to which you belong, then you will begin to embrace the platforms available. You will join the conversation, serve as a resource, and see the opportunities available through Web 2.0 technologies for the insurance industry.

“There is good experimentation going on right now with large captive agents, direct writers, and we are seeing more independent agents entering the fray. A number of very progressive agents, with your typical 11 or 12 employees, not big companies, are using social media.”

Peter underscores that the independent agent/broker channel as a source for dispensing advice is incredibly important, but the advice gets lost. “Social media tools allow you to communicate your added value. It’s hard to get that message through with traditional advertising, but with social media you can get through. Independent agents and brokers have such a better story and it can be told in a direct way through these platforms. You can show people that you go to bat for them, that you have multiple markets and solutions to serve them. It’s ideal for agents.”

AG: The Aartrijk Brand Camp is being held this September in Chicago. What is the nexus behind the idea for the camp? What information will attendees walk away with?

PA: “We are playing off “band camp”… we want to it be fun, interactive. We’ll have facilitators and experts speaking about social media in general, but we’ll be putting it all into context as to how it applies to our industry. Company executives, association leaders, agency owners and other brand managers need context in order to get their arms around social media. Why social media for us? What’s more, attendees will be very involved in crafting their own strategy so when they head back to their offices they can look at these tools in terms of the insurance world. They will look at how to take their brand into this space, shape and control it and provide better service. CEOs, marketing people, brand managers will see the impact social media can have on their organizations.

“Anyone connected with the insurance industry: associations, wholesalers, agents, brokers, carriers, program administrators will be attending. They’ll go to camp, and return with a battle plan for 2010.”

The Aartrijk Brand Camp is limited to 120 people. You can register for the camp at http://aartrijk.com/brandcamp. Or email Peter at: peter@Aartrijk.com. And for more information about Aartrijk, please visit: www.aartrijk.com.

About Peter Aartrijk

As an expert in brand management and branding, Peter has been a spokesperson for the insurance industry, appearing on CNN, CNBC, Fox, and network TV, and has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine and other national media.

Prior to forming Aartrijk in 1999, Peter served as Vice President of Communications for the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. There he developed and launched a consumer marketing campaign that reached a combined 250 million households annually, which laid the groundwork for IIABA’s consumer brand, Trusted Choice®.

Peter began his career as a newspaper reporter and moved on to editorial positions with Best’s Review and National Underwriter. He later served as Director of Media Relations for the Insurance Information Institute. He has written a column for Independent Agent magazine for the last 10 years. He is a graduate of Rutgers University, with BA degrees in English and Journalism. He earned the Certified Insurance Counselor (CIC) designation in 1991.

Peter is a member of the faculty of IIABA’s Virtual University as well as the National Alliance for Insurance Education and Research. He participates in the Agents Council for Technology (ACT) and ACORD-User Groups Information Exchange (AUGIE). He is a member of the National Press Club, and is Past President of the Insurance Media Association.


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