Industry Watch: Loosening Ties

Financial types find success letting their brands go

When you think of finance, hip and cutting-edge design doesn’t come to mind. Even the actual banks run by Chase look like they were conjured by the IT guy at General Electric. When the brick and mortars in an industry have all the warmth of an Excel spreadsheet, you don’t hold out much hope for the Web presences.

Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. The first is Esurance. As an online insurance company, the three-year-old financial services firm fits the lifestyles of today’s digitally driven consumers and feeds their need for entertainment and engagement.

Unlike a traditional ad campaign, Esurance builds brand awareness and sales through an ongoing soap-opera-like story about a character named Erin Esurance. But the company could not have predicted the cult following she is attracting. Deadheads don’t show this kind of devotion.

Spy vs. Spy

Erin is the pink-haired special agent in Esurance’s cartoon TV commercials who goes around solving crimes against auto insurance humanity. In the process, she even convinces new customers to switch their car insurance. She’s been drawn by artistic fans, written into fiction and turned into Halloween costumes.

“People e-mail us asking where they can get a pink Erin wig for Halloween and we’ve sent it to them,” says Kristin Brewe, director of brand and public relations. They get e-mails daily from teenagers and design students sending pictures they’ve drawn of Erin or suggesting new story lines for her.

There are also several MySpace pages that feature Erin, as well as montages of the ads on YouTube. “My favorite is a mashup of our best ads set to music,” says Brewe. “It’s one of our most viewed ads on YouTube and we didn’t have anything to do with it.”

On, you can explore “Erin’s World” — a Jetson-like high-rise apartment where you can watch her past adventures (aka TV commercials) on her TV set, listen to her secret transmissions to headquarters (aka radio ads), click on her laptop to get an insurance quote, or check out the fan art in the wall gallery. Through her blog, fans can keep track of her life and even comment on it.

All of this has helped generate awareness and customers for the insurance newbie. Today, Esurance is ranked in a three-way tie for brand awareness among online users with Allstate and State Farm, behind GEICO and Progressive, compared with a 0–1 percent brand awareness after Esurance’s first TV campaign in 2004. They have more than 500,000 policyholders and, as of the third quarter of 2007, had written $601 million in premiums, a 38 percent increase over the same quarter in the previous year. “Erin Esurance has definitely been the driver of that,” says Brewe.

But sometimes the most important online advancements, particularly where sales are concerned, are less about being sexy and more about improving functionality, such as Esurance’s click-to-call capability (from eStara). Click-to-call results in about 350 calls per day and is responsible for a 30 percent increase in conversions, Brewe says.

While they’ve been using it for three years, recently improved data reporting from eStara is helping Esurance improve the site. “They’re now able to give us information like the duration of the call and which pages on our Web site the call was made from,” explains Lisa Ward, director of customer experience.

Tracking which of Erin’s adventures get the most play helps Brewe determine how to create the next creative flight. Meanwhile, YouTube, Ward says, is like having the world’s largest focus group at your disposal. “When you see how many people are watching your video and what kind of comments it generates, there’s nothing better for figuring out what you should air.”

On Dec. 26, Esurance introduced a policyholder in their ads who had won a voiceover opportunity at a charity auction. He starts as a real person, and then Erin transforms him into an animated character. Esurance plans to include him and other policyholders in more ads in the future.

A Little Intuition

Another very progressive firm is Intuit, the makers of personal and small-business money management tools Quicken and QuickBooks. What makes Intuit a leader is the company’s expertise in using online word-of-mouth and viral marketing to their advantage.

Recently, Intuit hired Decipher to conduct an online survey on their behalf and discovered that more than 72 percent of respondents said it was their dream to start their own business. That gave Intuit clear motivation for changing the strategy for its next campaign from reaching out to people who already own a business to reaching out to people who wanted to start their own business.

The result was “Just Start,” a campaign designed to get new customers into the QuickBooks franchise by distributing the QuickBooks Simple Start product for free to people who wanted to become their own bosses. “What makes this campaign work is the stories are real, authentic, aspirational and experiential,” says Kira Wampler, marketing leader for Intuit’s, a community and resource site for new entrepreneurs. 

To promote Simple Start, Intuit developed an online contest on the microsite There, people could join the “entrepreneurial revolution” by either uploading a video or writing a text message explaining their dreams for starting a business of their own. The grand prize winner of the contest will receive $50,000 in services, products and funding for his or her start-up.

To promote the contest, influential bloggers were given a preview of the site, including Anita Campbell of Small Business Trends, Ramon Ray of Small Biz Technology and John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing. Nearly 100 bloggers wrote about the campaign.

At, entries were written or recorded in the form of a pledge. “Some were as simple as ‘I will be my own boss in 2008,’ while others were more in depth,” explains Bridget O’Brien, QuickBooks’ senior marketing manager. Then each entry was put up on a wall on the homepage and made available for anyone to view or read. Visitors could also comment on someone’s idea and forward it to friends.

In addition, there is a Facebook group for people who want to start their own businesses. Over 100 people have joined to date. “The Facebook page includes a quiz to help people determine what type of entrepreneur they are — from ‘natural born CEO to ‘do gooder.’ More than 25,000 people have taken the quiz so far,” says Wampler.

They supported the online experience with a travel bus called the “Entrepreneur Revolution” that stopped in four major markets where people could record and upload their contest videos. Over 1,400 entries were received in the months of October and November and tens of thousands of pages were viewed by and forwarded to friends, family members and Intuit customers.

On December 1, entries were narrowed down to five finalists by the judges — small-business experts Campbell, Ray and Jantsch. Throughout December, online visitors voted on the finalist they felt deserved the grand prize of $50,000. Not a bad price for the eyeballs Intuit has garnered.

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