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Balancing Act: Personal and Corporate Branding and Social Media

Featuring Peter van Aartrijk, CEO/Managing Director & Rick Morgan, Vice President, New Media, Aartrijk


Posted on 07 Jul 10

There’s an emphasis on personal branding on social media platforms, including in our industry, particularly as it relates to achieving balance with the corporate brand. We’re seeing HUB creating producer microsites that feature individuals and their expertise, and offer an avenue for clients to communicate and continue conversations online directly with these producers. We’re seeing Chris Jordan of Atlanta Insurance Live who “set up shop” at home and created a website that features him and his insurance expertise and services through video, blogs, and other platforms with the parent agency nowhere to be seen on the site. And, Ryan Hanley of Albany Insurance Professional is another example of personal branding online.

Is the focus on personal branding on the web a good thing for companies, agencies, and brokerages? Does it enhance the corporate brand and bring value to it? Or should we be worried as companies?

I spoke with Aartrijk’s branding consultant and CEO/Managing Director Peter van Aartrijk, and technology expert and Vice President, New Media, Rick Morgan, about personal and corporate branding on the web. Aartrijk is a highly respected branding and marketing-communications firm for clients in the arenas of insurance, financial services, and association management.

Annie George (AG): Let’s talk about personal branding and social media because we’re seeing more of this – where employees are becoming “headliners” so to speak for agencies, carriers, etc. I thought it would be informative for our readers to look at how social media is impacting branding and how you see it.

Rick Morgan (RM): “I think most companies initially were caught off guard by the rise of the personal brand online. Yet personal branding makes perfect sense as it was individuals who began blogging, tweeting, and posting on Facebook. Individuals got involved and represented the best interest of the company they work for, companies they own.

“When you think of social media you think of the individual. And if you’re a company, you may think you need control over this. People are blogging, engaging on Twitter, Facebook, and who’s minding the store, controlling what they’re saying, what they’re doing? But does it even have to be controlled or is striking a balance the way to go?

“You look at some of the bigger companies where the logo once did all the ‘talking’; now it’s a different model. You have Flo of Progressive, who in addition to the national advertising brand, is also tied-into a personal Facebook page with a following of more than half a million. Insurance agencies are also okay with young producers creating their own presence online…sometimes you have to hunt around to see who the parent company is. On Twitter you may never realize who it is.”

Peter van Aartrijk (PvA): “One of the macro trends we have seen is that for decades we had a one-way marketing barrage from the corporate world to the consumer or through distributors, such the independent agency system in our industry. This one-way messaging built brands, but at the end of the day you still had to perform. How people are interacting with one another today has changed. It’s no longer a one-way conversation from the corporate world to the consumer, it’s one to many, one to one, many to many, and it’s all back and forth, with consumers talking to one another. You still have to manufacture a good car, or offer a good insurance policy that pays claims. But what has occurred now is that the consumer is faced with so many choices and is editing those choices. Social media and web 2.0 tools give consumers the ability to edit what they want to see, hear, read, interact with, which is why we need to be in this space with both our corporate brand and the personality side of our corporate brand.

“In our business I can’t think of a better way to breathe personality to what is otherwise a fairly distant and impersonal business. For the most part, consumers see the industry as being concerned only with profits and numbers and not about people where in fact we know that isn’t the case. We are in the business of dispensing advice; we’re not selling books or shoes. You don’t need a lot of personality when you’re selling a book, but when you’re dispensing advice, it all comes down to people and how good they are. You can even argue that we are in the advice business now more than ever, with the way insurance is changing…just look at healthcare. People need us more than ever to sift through the information and make sense of it. Social media helps bring out the personalities at companies, agencies, and brokerages. Let your employees use these tools. Yes, you need guidelines to maintain a healthy balance, but to block it, and look at it as a threat and not an opportunity, is a real mistake.

“Every day agents and brokers give consumers advice about saving money, about specific coverages, avoiding loss, and these tools allow them to do so in a very personal, rich way that has nothing to do with the policy as much as it does all the risk management steps you take before you get to even purchase a policy. Agents and brokers do this every day. In essence, when they giving advice they’re blogging several times a day, they just don’t realize it.”

RM: “I think it’s even more important now to empower your employees when you consider all the negative press the insurance industry is getting. Although a lot of what’s going on involves the financial side and not the P/C side, the consumer tends to view it all in the same light. They look at the industry as the enemy. Now we have an opportunity through social media to put a human spin on issues, create a personality. It’s a positive environment for independent insurance agents. It gives them an opportunity to be part of a community, be seen as individuals, unique, and not someone who is just an evil logo out there.”

AG: Peter, you have said in other interviews that social media is perfect for agents and you’re reinforcing it here with personal and corporate branding.

PvA: “It’s perfect because the best brands really understand it’s about people, it has to do with personality, performance, and presence. You have to deliver quality each and every time. But in the end it’s about who you are, the personality – it’s the narrator on radio ads, the way you answer the phone. Social media is a very efficient way to deliver a trustworthy, authentic, and powerful brand message because it’s people who are delivering it.

“We’re doing it all the time anyway…on our personal Facebook pages, you’re laying it all out there or potentially are. And if it’s not authentic, people will call you on it. Your face, your blog, your tweets, your LinkedIn profile – it’s you, your knowledge, your caring for your customers and community. It’s such a strong, powerful way to fight back against major brands like GEICO that flood the airwaves and the web with messages. But GEICO isn’t in every hamlet, it doesn’t understand local nuances like independent agents and brokers. Agents/brokers know the communities, are a part of them, and these tools just draw them out. You can’t picture this being accomplished in a Yellow Page ad. We need to leverage these tools.”

RM: “It’s still legitimate to say that there has to be some new thought around how to manage individuals and the companies they’re representing. There should be guidelines, an understanding of what appropriate behavior is…because it’s not only about the individual agent on Facebook or Twitter but the employees who are also using these tools as well. In terms of producers, as in the Atlanta Insurance Live example, there also needs to be some consideration from the parent companies as to what it means for these individuals to be out there creating their own unique following. I would probably argue that customers are more loyal to the person but they most likely were anyway. It’s just more obvious now with communication tools that facilitate a connection. But I don’t think the dynamic has changed significantly. Customers have always worked with producers within an agency with whom they’ve developed a relationship. It may feel a bit scary and threatening but it’s not very different than before. Any good producer was creating relationships before.”

PvA: “This is a fascinating area and something that corporations worry about, but you raise an interesting point. Let’s take the classic independent agency. If I have really only a direct relationship with all my commercial accounts as Joe Jones, the producer, I’m not really building a brand for the firm. I have a name, a strong name, as a person. But when you have an agency or brokerage brand, the relationship the person has is with the firm itself, including the CSR, the owners, claims department, maybe the front desk, and yes, Joe Jones, the producer. The firm is worth more, and is a more valuable entity as a brand than an individual brand. It’s really not an either or proposition. It’s about both the firm brand and the individual brand. When folks are promoting themselves, they should take care to also talk about things in a contextual way about the firm. And most people probably do this anyway. If it’s really only about the person, then there probably wasn’t much of a brand with the entity itself anyway.

“If you look at a commercial account that has service needs throughout the year – Certificates of Insurance, claims, etc. – the customer is going to be working with the agency, which has to perform. Additionally, there may be an account rep or producer who are on Facebook. So the relationship is about both, the individual and the agency. You have to pay attention about building the brand for both, because if it’s just about the person, I’m not sure it works quite as well. “

RM: “It’s certainly an interesting study. One of the great examples used over and over again about individual vs. the company is Scott Monty of Ford. He created a personal image of the carmaker on Twitter. People ask him questions about Ford, and many times his tweets are very personal as well. He’s part of Ford’s management team and has the authority to take action and do the necessary things he needs to do as real-time activity and news occurs on Twitter. He can respond to people’s issues. This gives Ford a very different presence in that particular space. Clearly, Ford does all the traditional marketing and branding that a big company would do, but in this case in a space that’s more about individuals than logos, Ford was really able to leverage Scott’s presence.”

AG: How does Ford continue to leverage that space if Scott Monty leaves? Does it even matter?

RM: “It might in this case. It’s so much about Scott, his personality, and how he communicates in that particular space. It’s unique and so different from what we have experienced in other forms of media.”

PvA: “Look at GEICO and its gecko, caveman, and now the 60-year-old executive who spars with the gecko in the office on those funny television spots. These are personalities, again in an otherwise distant industry, especially with a direct-response car company with a name like GEICO. GEICO wanted to draw out the company’s personality. Flo is doing the same thing for Progressive, and she has a blog and many followers on Twitter and Facebook as Rick mentioned earlier. She is bringing a lot of personality for Progressive. If she goes, hopefully the company has a Plan B.

“But as we both keep looking at this, I too don’t know if things have changed that much. Social media just allows a lot more iterations of things. Before the Internet, the CEO could get very personal with letters via mail to customers, to policyholders, that are very genuine and warm. Now these platforms allow more iterations, more frequencies, and more possibilities, I think.”

RM: “That’s a good analogy, one that is valid in terms of thinking how this works together.”

AG: Let’s talk a bit about what Chris Jordan with Atlanta Insurance Live is doing in our industry.

RM: “With the Atlanta Insurance Live website, it’s not obvious who the agency is. But it has allowed the parent agency to expand in a way that it was unable to do so before. The parent company is in Birmingham, Alabama, and Chris is physically in Atlanta but doesn’t occupy a brick-and-mortar office. He is communicating and selling insurance online using the latest platforms available from home. The parent agency attracted a young, aggressive guy, and didn’t spend any money setting up physical space. They said go and produce… which ties in with what Peter is saying, that it’s just another iteration, expanding upon what was possible before in a different, significant way. Chris, along with others, is taking the possibilities even further. It’s good for him, and ultimately good for the parent agency as business is being produced on its paper.

“The way people shop for insurance and get advice, agents, brokers, companies need to leverage these tools. They need to make sure they’re meeting their customer base where their customer base exists.”

PvA: “The owners of the agencies are also very smart because as our good friend, Chris Amrhein with Insurance is Fun (www.insuranceisfun.com) says, the agency owner from the baby boomer generation is not always the right person to actually do things but he is the right person to say, ‘We know we have to do something. I’m not the guy to do it, but I am going to find someone who can.’ In this case, it’s younger people who want to experiment without messing with the host brand…they learn some things, write some business, and perhaps down the road the agency itself will even look different. Chris Jordan has done so much with video, for example, that the agency principal in Birmingham wants to do its own videos now. The agency set up video cams on the street where it’s located and is streaming live on what’s going on in the town. So Chris has learned some things and he’s also teaching the owners. I think this is great.”

RM: “Peter and I are experiencing a similar evolution and looking at the same issues when it comes to branding. I was on my own creating my blog, with a Facebook page, tweeting, building followers, etc. As I get more involved with Aartrijk, we don’t want to throw all my personal goodwill around the industry away…we want to maintain our individual presence, and as Peter and I work more closely together, it will serve to expand our reach. It’s absolutely good for Aartrijk as a whole as it is for me.”

PvA: “Another macro change is the way people work together and how they work. There is strong growth in work-at-home businesses. Part of the reason for this is the economy, but it’s also because people are looking for different ways to get income. The corporate world is beginning to recognize they need to be more flexible, younger folks are coming into the workforce (about 100,000 every day) and are looking for more than just a paycheck. They’re looking for flexibility, for how a company approaches corporate social responsibility, and yes, they’re looking to spend some time at work on Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s how young people operate and they will make up whatever time is needed at night because they’re still working.

“We need to be in this space with our corporate brand and the personality side of our corporate brand. This is especially the case in our industry… what a great way of building a reputation of people helping people with these tools.”

This conversation will continue and many more topics will be discussed at the Aartrijk Brand Camp in Austin, Texas, October 25-27. For more information about Brand Camp, please visit: http://aartrijk.com/brandcamp/brandcamp10/.

To discuss your company’s branding and social media, you can contact Peter at 703.868.0144, or via email at peter@Aartrijk.com. You can reach Rick at 720.255.1645, or at rick@Aartrijk.com.


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