Case Study: how Direct Line fixed the insurance market

The problem 

Direct Line was a business in need of a radical intervention. Its premium consumers in both the motoring and home division were in decline. Meanwhile, price-comparison websites were driving a tide of commoditisation, which was fuelling a race to the bottom.

Consumers don't daydream about losing their luggage on holiday, aspire to crash their cars or will themselves to come home to find their house has been burgled. Insurance, while vital in a crisis, remains fairly intangible in consumers' minds making it uniquely difficult to build brand loyalty.

The insight

Empathy is not the primary currency in the insurance market; consumers simply want their problem to be fixed. To face this challenge, Direct Line needed to reinvent itself as the "fixer" brand, as the antidote to inertia in the sector and the company.

Mark Evans, marketing director at Direct Line, explains that the shift to being a "fixer" was the golden thread that ran through the entire campaign. It was an insight born of going back to basics with the brand through quantitative and qualitative research. The marketing team was also tireless in honing the research, with Evans staying true to his philosophy that you can distil the essence of a brand into one word.

Richard Huntington, chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi, explains that the campaign is based on a "ruthless logic" and addresses the insurance industry’s fundamental problem head on: namely, talking about what insurance means in people's lives. "They are giving out toys rather than talking about insurance," explains Huntington. "But what you are really selling is the absence of something.  When something bad happens, your primary response is you want it to be last week before it happened."

The process

In many ways the story of how Direct Line turned its brand around is a tale of the continued power of the fundamentals of marketing at a time of seemingly relentless digital disruption. The beginning of this story lies not with the classic five-week creative pitch run through ISBA, but with Direct Line Group’s IPO in 2012. It was from this point that Direct Line's marketing team built its capabilities, challenged existing mindsets and engendered the necessary behaviour to gather the momentum for the marketing team to muscle through the significant change ahead.

First, the brand invested significantly in insight. "We knew we needed to deliver a market redefining proposition, which meant we had to invest in a huge amount of insight. To achieve a paradigm-change in consumer experience we had to have substance," Evans explains.

Saatchi & Saatchi delivered the creative substance to sell this new proposition to consumers by alighting on Pulp Fiction’s infamous fixer character, Winston Wolf, as the ultimate Fixer. The gangland legend character, played by Harvey Keitel, was secured after negotiations with film distributor Miramax, Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino and Keitel. It was a win that meant the team didn’t have to switch to its "B-list" of alternative fixers, which included chef Gordon Ramsay, Mafia figures or East End gangsters.

The plan

In the 80s, Direct Line revolutionised insurance by cutting out the middle man and creating the direct market. The brand planned no less a revolution with this campaign, aiming not just to increase brand metrics of market share, but to "revolutionise insurance again".

This was not a superficial communications campaign, and, internally, the strategy was supported by two mantras: "What would Wolf do?" and "We're on it". Indeed, many of the crucial building blocks of the campaign were internal, a shift that Evans describes as nothing less than a "metamorphosis of the marketing team itself".

Internal education and training was a significant driving force. "The leadership team invested in capabilities and created a desire for change," Evans says. This involved creating the right learning structure to ensure the team could deliver the change. "One of our staff picked up a tweet from a customer complaining he couldn't watch a boxing match because his television hadn't arrived. He drove home got his own television and delivered it to the customer," he adds.

The action

At a time of significant media fragmentation and a marketing industry in thrall to digital development the root of this campaign’s execution is a 30-second TV spot. "Television still has that extraordinary power to deliver in 30 seconds," Huntington says. "We proved to our industry that making brave calls delivered commercial success."

According to Evans, working alongside MediaCom, Direct Line used new media channels to manifest the brand at its most empathic, while simultaneously investing in the big TV campaign featuring the Hollywood star.

One of the most fundamental lessons of this campaign is not just the enduring power of television advertising, but the simple fact that digitally driven innovation and television advertising are not mutually exclusive pursuits.

"The big television campaign worked for us," Evans says. "The big brand idea can still win through and deliver – we saw a 53% improvement on quotes we would get for every pound we invested."

Direct Line went above and beyond to make its brand promise tangible in consumers’ minds. Its Christmas campaign featured a team of "fixers" travelling across the UK, helping consumers resolve an array of festive disasters over the traditionally hectic Christmas period. The campaign capitalised on the fact that while Christmas is a time of great cheer, it is also a roasting pot of stress and raised expectations.

In an attempt to both relieve the festive pressure valve and drive good will in the market, Direct Line turned to Twitter to identify members of the public talking about their stress, deliver a rapid solution to them and then publicise the good deeds on the social-media platform.

However, in a telling reminder of the unpredictability and human tragedy that underpins the insurance market, just days into the launch the UK was hit by some of the worst floods and storms in living memory, with large parts of Cumbria devastated. At this point, the #DirectFix campaign was scheduled to be in Manchester, but the decision was made to scrap the plans and re-route to Carlisle.

More than 100 #DirectFix boxes were delivered to customers with portable phone chargers, and colouring books and treats for children.

Elsewhere, the brand invested in specific campaigns to tackle brand objectives and underline its position as both an innovator and a fixer. One of these objectives was to make Britons better drivers, targeting 17- to 19-year-olds who, despite making up just 1.5% of UK licence-holders, are responsible for 12% of fatal and serious crashes.

The team identified the vlogger Alfie Deyes on the basis not just of his 4.5 million followers but his well-established lack of driving skills. In fact, the vlogger’s lack of prowess on the road had even spawned its own dedicated hashtag #alfiecantdrive. Direct Line provided Deyes with driving lessons and then insured him on a telematics policy for a year after he had passed his test.

The policy allows the installation of the "DrivePlus Plug-In" device which monitors each journey and offers improvements related to cornering, accelerating and speed. Deyes then posted exclusively on Direct Line’s YouTube channel over a four-month period with links to his own PointlessBlog Vlog.

The challenges

The insurance business is, by its very nature, risk-averse. The average car insurance premium sold by Direct Line amounts to £350 a year. In contrast, the biggest, single car-insurance claim amounted to £19.4m. "The ambiguity in the true cost of a product is unique to insurance, which makes it an inherently risk-averse sector."

For a sector built upon being there for consumers when the worst happens, the fact that consumers have not only become apathetic, but are losing trust in insurance providers was a significant challenge.

At the same time, over the past 30 years the market has become commoditised and extremely price-oriented. Creating a brand that would take the insurance industry beyond the confines of price, and inspire consumers’ trust would require significant risk.

"We delivered a step-change in performance and turned a declining position into a position of significant growth," explains Evans. "This is ‘marketing 101’ in action; you can galvanise a business through marketing, and the fortunes of a brand [can be] revitalised by the grounding principles of marketing."

The results

In the past 18 months Direct Line has transformed, both as a business and a brand. In the past 12 months it has increased market share in the face of intense competition and commoditisation in the market.

Direct Line has regained its market-leading position across all brand metrics, including brand consideration and preference. It has also picked up a range of awards, including being voted the most empathetic company on Twitter by the Harvard Business Review.

According to research from Hall & Partners (Ad and Brand Tracker – September to May 2016), Direct Line is the most distinctive brand in the market and continues to further improve perceptions.

Just two days into the Alfie Deyes campaign, Direct Line had 50,000 views on the dedicated channel and 500,000 on Alfie’s. Such was the success of the campaign that it delivered more views in three days on the Direct Line channel than the past six months of the channel combined.

The next stage

The metamorphosis of the Direct Line brand has at its core the marriage of communication, culture and commerce. In line with this, the brand has an innovation pipeline not clogged with communication that has little to do with the reality of the business, but new product development driven by a new-found confidence in the brand. "From driverless cars to connected homes, it is a disruptive time for insurance, and we are positioning ourselves to adapt to this," Evans says.

Wolf will continue to front the above-the-line campaign and new "high-performance insurance products" are in development.

The inside track

In an era where austerity is never far from the headlines and price-comparison websites dominate the market, the success of Direct Line’s campaign is a timely reminder that consumers will continue to pay a premium for things that they care about. Austerity may well be a business reality but it is not a viable excuse for maintaining the status quo in the face of unprecedented digital and social flux.

"Don't let anyone tell you that you can't re-invent a category or grow a brand because of market commoditisation. A significant proportion of the population will invest in what matters," Huntington explains.

Mind the empathy gap

Notably, for a sector that has many legitimate reasons to tug on consumers’ heartstrings, and an advertising industry that has spawned the mantra "If she’s crying she’s buying", Direct Line actively chose a somewhat brutal message. "The insurance industry believes that empathy is the currency, but the fact is you don't want a shoulder to cry on – you just want things fixed. It isn't about the money, it is about putting things right," Huntington says.

The choice of gangland fixer Winston Wolf presented Direct Line’s Evans with what he admits was a "difficult internal sell-in". For an industry where trust is such a problem, questions remained as to whether a gangland fixer theme was the best approach. However, the exec team was aware that not only was the choice bang-on the consumer zeitgeist, in light of the popularity of dramas such as Breaking Bad, but also, and perhaps more importantly, that they needed to deliver a market-redefining proposition.

Employee engagement

Of course, the campaign must be praised for overcoming a variety of logistical, emotional and egotistical challenges to secure not just an A-lister, but the A-lister that was promised by the pitch team. However, the real star of this campaign was behind the scenes.

The internal transformation and collaboration – led by the marketing team – is perhaps the greatest achievement.

"We gained stature with our CEO and we certainly have a bigger share of voice across the company," Evans points out. This is a shift that has served not just to evolve the communications strategy, but to foster a culture in which innovation is a reality, rather than empty rhetoric.

The success of this campaign underlines the often under-exploited role of marketing in driving not just above-the-line communication, but in engaging employees to drive the kind of innovation that can happen only when people actually care about what they are doing.

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free