May 02, 2019

Fixing Direct Line’s Brand Strategy: An Interview with Marketing Director, Mark Evans

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Direct Line have pulled off one of the biggest ‘jobs’ the insurance industry has ever seen. And no, despite the fact that their campaigns feature fictional gangster Winston Wolfe, there’s nothing underhand going on here. In recent years Direct Line have re-imagined their strategy, from the products offered right through to the way this is communicated to consumers. And it all began with understanding what their clients want when they pick up the phone or go online to speak to their insurer.

We interviewed Mark Evans, Marketing Direct of Direct Line Group, to uncover the data and decisions behind their now infamous ‘Fixers’ marketing campaigns, and the mentality that makes them the ultimate fixers.

Back to basics

“It was hiding in plain sight,” says Direct Line Group’s Marketing Director Mark Evans. He’s talking about the single piece of consumer insight that helped transform the Direct Line brand – and ultimately win the insurer IPA Gold Effectiveness Awards in 2016 and 2018 and the Best New Learnings Award in the 2018 IPA Awards.

When Evans joined the marketing team six years ago, he says the Direct Line brand was in “systemic decline”. Radical thinking was required, but first it was necessary to go back to basics.

“The brand had been dis-intermediated in an increasingly homogenised market,” he says. “It didn’t have a driving insight to differentiate itself from its competitors. So we went back to the fundamentals; to good insight, segmentation and research to ask what’s missing in the world of insurance?”

The simple truth that had been overlooked for years was that insurance is there to fix things in a customer’s time of need.

“The category insight was being ignored and everybody was fixated on price and the process of becoming insured, completely eclipsing the fact that we buy insurance for what it will do when we’re in trouble.”

Becoming fixers

Evans and his team took that insight and purified it down into one word, encapsulating the brand – Direct Line were “fixers”. The idea would provide a North star for everything the brand did from thereon out – including its now iconic advertising campaign in which Harvey Keitel stars as the ultimate fixer, Winston Wolfe from the cult film Pulp Fiction.

“It enabled us to identify the things Direct Line should be doing to answer to the core insight, own it vociferously and become fixers. We had to Amazonify our supply chain. For example, while everyone else fixes cars in about two weeks, we set out to do it in seven days. We’ll get you an emergency plumber within two hours, and if your mobile phone is lost, stolen or broken, we won’t get it back to you within days, we’ll ship it within eight hours.

“We had to take the biggest pain points in the sector and massively improve the service levels. It took a lot of internal orchestration and commitment to deliver the goodies that Winston Wolfe was going to talk about in the advertising. If that had been missing the re-launch would have fallen short.”

A calculated risk

WinstonWolfe1
Indeed, the Winston Wolfe campaign on its own could have seemed like professional suicide – getting a character famed for helping clean up murder scenes to promote insurance.

“It’s incongruous in one of the least trusted sectors in the world to have a gangster as your spokesperson but actually it’s a great metaphor for our intent – Winston Wolfe made very difficult problems disappear very swiftly and elegantly.”

Evans admits he had to talk a few senior people “off the ledge” who wanted to pull the campaign, but although it was a risk, it was a calculated one.

“We had done our homework so we knew it wouldn’t be rejected by our consumers. There were important moments when research really helped to guide us. For example, we were thinking do we really need Harvey Keitel? But in research he was identified as “the daddy of fixers” and so it had to be him. Anything else would be a weak substitute.”

Moving from a cost to an investment

Research is at the heart of everything that the Direct Line marketing team does. Symbolic of this, they have developed a novel technique which fuses econometrics and brand tracking, which has attracted much industry praise.

He explains: “Performance marketing is very data-driven, optimising the cost of direct response acquisition in a given campaign and channel. Does that meet our return on investment based on the lifetime value of the customer? The new technique is a great complement to this, allowing us to understand short and long term brand multipliers. This gives us both the conviction and the tools to confidently pursue a 60:40 split between brand development and direct response.”

The benefits of this data-driven approach go beyond proving the worth of specific campaigns and tactics; it’s validated the value of the marketing department itself.

“In 2012 when I took over, Marketing was a low confidence, low capability, low credibility function and it was stuck in the corner, in the shadows. Whenever the cuts came, we were at the front of the queue. But now we’re not, we’re at the back. That is a huge victory. Ultimately marketing is now seen as an investment and not a cost.”

If you don’t take a scientific approach to marketing, warns Evans, you risk it not being taken seriously.

“In the end, it’s got to be a numbers game. Otherwise you resort to being perceived as a “colouring-in” department. Every year when we go to the Board to do an update, we don’t show adverts – if you’re really proud of your adverts, show them to your mum – we talk to the commercials and how we’ve improved efficiency year on year.”

Not forgetting the most important people: the customers

There is a human side to it, however. Translating the concept of Direct Line being fixers throughout the organisation has been instrumental in its success.  

“Customer experience has moved into the remit of Marketing in recent years. If you’re of the belief that a brand is not just communication but is in fact everything that a customer experiences it puts the onus upon manifesting the brand promise all the way through the organisation.

“An example is a customer from Doncaster who had their TV stolen and tweeted us a few days later saying, ‘I’m annoyed because my replacement TV hasn’t arrived and I wanted to watch a boxing fight with my friends tonight. Come on, what are you going to do about it?’

“Purely by coincidence our Twitter handle is managed out of Doncaster and the person on the Twitter handle logged off, drove home to pick up the TV and took it to the customer’s house so he could watch the boxing fight. This person knew what it took to be a fixer.”

A holistic approach

Churchill
In Direct Line’s offices they display posters asking ‘What would Winston Wolfe do?’. It’s become a mantra for staff, but strong brand values are not limited to the group’s flagship brand. They are evident across all of their brands, which include Churchill Insurance, Privilege and Green Flag.

“We have this thing called the portfolio poster, it explains what the different brands mean, what the key features are, what the experience is and what customers expect, so that it’s accessible for everybody. It is the sat nav for our business.

“We’ve also done a lot of empathy training in our frontline, using tools such as Insight colours profiling. It’s this combination of clarity of purpose for the brands and the provision of tools to the frontline that make sure our brand values actually materialise.”

The dream team

This holistic approach doesn’t just make for happy customers – it makes for happy staff too. According to Evans, Direct Line Group measures for engagement on a regular basis and scores have increased significantly, not least within the Marketing department.

“We’ve moved from having the lowest engagement scores in the company to one of the highest. We’re just awaiting results from the Sunday Times Best Company Survey but we think we’ve done well, particularly within Marketing.”

Evans adds that taking risks when it comes to its people has also paid off. “Backing people and giving people stretch roles into senior leadership positions has been a key part of building such a strong team and I’m really proud of that. All of the output, including the re-launch of the Direct Line brand has come from building a strong team.”  

It’s a team that Winston Wolfe is still very much a part of. He continues to star in TV commercials for Direct Line and deliver “knockout” results. The insurer achieved a 54% increase in quotes per pound spent on TV compared to the previous era. As a result, Evans firmly rejects the idea that digital marketing is more important than traditional media.

“I always say that the media is not the message, the message is the message. Moreover, TV still has a lot of legs, it’s still proven to be the highest performing medium. So my advice to any marketer is to stay agnostic. In a fast-changing world don’t bet the ranch on any one channel or area.”

Concluding thoughts

Evans credits his former boss Bruce McColl, Mars Global CMO, as the inspiration behind his modus operandi, reminding him to stay curious at all times.

“Bruce McColl told me curiosity is the number one tool in the toolbox for marketers. He said there is a powerful insight lurking around the corner, waiting to transform the fortunes of any brand, business or even sector, you just have to be curious enough to find it.

“Low and behold, fast-forward 10 years and that’s exactly what happened. The insight about fixing wasn’t even hiding around the corner, it was hidden in full view. It has absolutely transformed the fortunes of our brand and turned the tide on the sector by moving it away from a path of homogenisation. In the end, one word popped out – fixers, but it took an infinite amount of curiosity to get there.”

This article was previously published in our quarterly magazine, In the Know. To receive a free copy of the magazine, subscribe here