Brand Building Strategies

By Rick W. Jacobs | August 6, 2001

Mergers, consolidation and worldwide expansion greatly affect the way the insurance industry does business today. As boundaries collapse and markets change, there is a tool you can use to gain an edge over the competition. It’s a strategy that other industries already embrace. In an era of global competition, you must build your company’s brand to survive—and thrive.

To most consumers-your customers-the insurance industry is confusing and crowded. Consumers face many options, but what factors will resonate with them when they purchase insurance? As with most industries, and particularly those where experience and trust are so important, the stronger brand will win.

Insurance organizations and financial services firms have various operating units, divisions, subsidiaries, products and services. Often, those units or subsidiaries don’t consider the larger picture when it comes to the corporate identity and branding. Some communicate their own set of messages without relating them to the overall organization. What is the result? The messages of the overall organization become fragmented and diluted. A strong brand unites your company’s messages to drive communication with a clear and consistent voice, and in the process, further strengthening your business.

All brands have several components. As the Brandscape graphic shows, that “brand essence” is at the core. Your brand essence is simple: It is what you stand for, what sets you apart and what makes you unique. This is the overall message and feeling about your company you want consumers to understand.

Outside the center are the “core identity elements,” which include the names, designs and brand structure of your company’s various brands. And beyond the core identity level are the “communication elements.” These include all the ways you communicate your identity to the public—everything from advertising, letterhead, printed materials and signage to web sites, uniforms and vehicle graphics.

Finally, the outermost layer consists of performance, service, quality and actions. Through these your company demonstrates that the promise of its brand is authentic. The inner layers of the brand mean nothing to customers if your company does not deliver on the brand’s promise.

This is the most important lesson of all: if your contact with customers is not in sync with your brand promise, you will lose the opportunity to influence the decisions people make.

Case Study:
The importance of brand identity can reach across industry sectors and throughout an entire organization. In April 1999, Standard Insurance Company decided to revitalize and purify its brand after changing from a mutually owned company to a public company. The Standard, which serves more than four million people nationwide with group and individual financial security products, turned to Monigle Associates for guidance. The assignment: energize Standard’s 100-year-old brand and raise expectations for quality and service.

The company changed its name to The Standard Insurance, which conveys an elevated level of product and service quality while maintaining the warm personal relationships Standard has built with brokers and customers. The company also incorporated this message into its visual design. The new logo features a stately blue banner, along with a wing protecting a group of people. The words “The Standard” are emphasized in larger type, followed by “Insurance” underneath them. The Standard integrated this logo and visual design into all corporate communications, including its website, signage, product literature and promotional items.

The Standard’s brand rebirth was a success. The company retained its customers while it continued to attract new capital. Its stock price has doubled since the new strategy was implemented in Fall 1999. Today, its retooled brand helps The Standard Insurance set itself apart from the competition, and it emits a sense of strength and pride to its customers.

Success Criteria of a Brand
To grow into a strong identity, your brand must incorporate four fundamental building blocks:

1. Legitimacy—What is your key audience’s concept of you? Your positioning must be built around a promise on which you can legitimately deliver. In addition, the positioning must be consistent with how audiences think of you.

2. Distinctiveness—Consumers are bombarded with hundreds, even thousands, of messages each day. Your name and identity must be distinctive enough to cut through the clutter. The purpose of a brand is not to describe, but to distinguish.

3. Relevancy—The messages must be meaningful to key audiences. Many companies spend a lot of time talking to themselves, using their own internal jargon, as opposed to communicating in terms of the benefits that are most meaningful to key audiences.

4. Consistency—Can you live the message consistently? A consideration is whether you can deliver on all of these messages through all the things you do, from how you train employees to the way you deal with consumers. And can you communicate it consistently through the name, brand structure and design?

Brand Structure
Every company is different, but your company’s brand structure must come from a clear understanding of your business strategy, your capabilities and the marketplace. To navigate through the issue, consider the two components of brand structure: brand hierarchy and relationship structure.

The hierarchy of your brands has to do with defining and structuring them so that their total impact helps the overall organization achieve its goals. Which are your “power brands” and which are your “sub-brands”? Power brands are those that nudge you into public consciousness, while sub-brands are used to clarify, distinguish or define your overall set of offerings.

The other component is relationship structure, or the link between your power brands and the sub-brands. The challenge for many companies is to treat each brand and sub-brand with the importance it deserves while still maintaining the scope and breadth of the overall organization in the company’s communication.

American General Financial Group, one of the country’s largest diversified financial services companies, revamped its core brand when it struggled with its relationship structure. As it acquired new subsidiaries and grew, the company’s branding practices had not kept pace. An outdated corporate signature, confusing naming policies and ineffective integration of acquired brands diluted the brand presence of American General, which is a financial services powerhouse with over $100 billion in assets and 12 million customers.

After a complete brand overhaul, American General now has a brand system that better suits its needs. A new signature and design system was created to present the company’s brand in a unified spotlight. American General also created formal procedures for integrating newly acquired brands into its large hierarchy of power brands and sub-brands. Along with other initiatives, these actions helped American General maximize its brand strength by forming a logical system that distinguishes each of its brands while uniting them under the American General name.

Branding Challenges
It is not easy to develop a strong brand. And in the insurance industry, consistent brand management can be even more difficult for independents, since large state and national direct writers offer their captive agents branding muscle not commonly available to independents at the local level.

While independent agents have wide latitude in matters of branding strategies, captive agents generally must follow strict branding guidelines set forth by the insurance company they represent. Compliance departments ensure that they cooperate when creating new signage, sending out marketing letters and advertising in the mass media—and this effectively carries the insurance company’s branding efforts to the local level where business is built.

Independent agents generally have no such constraints since they represent several different markets; however, on the other hand, scant support from the home office in branding matters poses a challenge that captive agents do not face. Nevertheless both captives and independents stand toe-to-toe in the marketplace.

To ensure success at the local level and throughout the distribution channels, it is vital to establish as strong a brand at as many levels as possible. A strong brand, effectively communicated, will bring your company higher visibility, and that will bring more customers.

Jacobs, a principal with Monigle Associates, Inc., Denver, is responsible for overseeing strategic planning of all major projects while also directing marketing, strategy and new business development. With 15 years experience, he has counseled more than 200 major corporations on the strategic planning, crystallization and deployment of optimum brand strategies. He is a frequent speaker before corporate and professional conferences.

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