For The Zebra, 'Brand-ish' Advertising Cements D2C Positioning

The Zebra, the insurance comparison site, recently launched its first large marketing campaign. For CEO Keith Melnick, the goal (of course) is to generate traffic and sales. But it’s also time to better acquaint consumers with the insurtech brand. He gives D2C FYI an update.

D2C FYI: You've been CEO at The Zebra since 2017, but aren't a co-founder. How’d you get there?

Keith Melnick: I co-founded Kayak and was president for 14 years, and Accel Partners was an investor. It asked me to take a look at The Zebra, which we think of as the Kayak of insurance, and then brought me on as CEO.

The insurance business is huge -- about seven to 10 times bigger than the travel market. And it's highly fragmented. Most people are aware of maybe six insurance carriers, and there is something like 500 or so. And the idea is very Kayak-like. We help consumers navigate the process of finding and buying the right insurance.

D2C FYI: What's the main point of differentiation between you and competitors?

Melnick: Not only are we providing an easy experience to be able to compare all of these great carriers on our website, but we also provide insightful educational content. We do a lot of original market insights research, a lot of surveys.

We do not just have a transactional relationship. We're guiding them towards the policy that fits their needs, which is in line with our new brand campaign. We add value. Other sites are more of arbitrage play, buying traffic as cheap as possible and selling it off for more money. We don’t spam people; we don’t even take their phone numbers. And we have live agents, so there is human-to-human interaction.

D2C FYI: The new campaign is from Argonaut, an agency in San Francisco, and called "Multitudes of You." It’s on the funny side -- one spot features a guy with a quirky devotion to rescuing cats [see above]. What's the idea behind it?

Melnick: When I got here four years ago, we were about 50 people -- a scrappy little company. I felt that for us to be perceived as successful, we had to kind of grow things up a little bit.

We first started advertising on TV and doing a bit of brand-building about a year ago, still very much a direct-response campaign. Yet insurance is a mass consumer product. The best way to reach a mass market is through TV, whether it's OTT or online video now.

With this campaign, we want to continue in that vein of growing up. In terms of our funding, the growth of the company and proof of concept, we are now at the point that it was time for more of a brand-building -- or, more accurately, "brand-ish" building approach. I hesitate to say pure brand-building because we are still somewhere between that direct and pure brand-building.

D2C FYI: How is it different from what you've done before?

Melnick: We chose Argonaut because we wanted to produce something more polished. We needed a little gravitas.

Insurance isn't always the most fun stuff for people to talk about, but it's important. And if you get it wrong, it can have a serious impact. So there needed to be a bit more trust and confidence in what we were doing.

It doesn't need to be super-serious, and there are certainly some elements of humor and maybe even whimsy. But the ads need to make us look like a quality company.

People don't want to feel like they're working with a cold, giant machine. But there needs to be a base of establishment so people don't feel like they're taking a big risk.

D2C FYI: What are you hoping the campaign accomplishes?

Melnick: On one side of the pendulum, there's purely direct response -- people immediately come to our website, but if you ask them a day later, they have no recollection of the company. And on the other, they may remember the brand, but there's no response. I know it's an oxymoron, but I sometimes call it direct-response brand-building.

We're trying to overcome inertia. How do we get people off their asses and search for insurance because it's something they need to do? How do we drive some action and also create some memorability for our brand?

D2C FYI: How will you know when you've done that?

Melnick: I knew we'd done it with Kayak when I was going through airport security one day, and someone saw the Kayak sticker on my laptop and, instead of saying, "You sell boats," said, "I love that site -- it's all about travel." I want that to happen with The Zebra.

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