By Barry Janoff
October 8, 2014: You may never have insurance agents named Jake, Aaron, Chris, Cliff, Hans, Franz or Super Fans, but for State Farm they are brand spokesmen beyond reproach.
In the world of State Farm marketing, Jake wears khaki pants when he's talking to customers at 3 AM, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers embodies Discount Double Check as much as he does the green-and-gold of the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Clippers Chris Paul leads both the NBA and insurance agents in assists and Paul's faux brother Cliff.
And in a tie-in with Saturday Night Live, Hans (Dana Carvey), Franz (Kevin Nealon) and Super Fans (Robert Smigel and George Wendt) are as real as the messages they convey.
Although State Farm has a portfolio of messaging platforms, the Bloomington, Ill.-based insurance firm is a major player in sports and entertainment.
Among its alliances, State Farm has a deal with Lorne Michaels and Broadway Video Entertainment to support the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live (including a three-hour show scheduled for Feb. 15 on NBC), is title sponsor for the college basketball Champions Classic (Kansas vs. Kentucky, Michigan State vs. Duke on ESPN Nov. 18), presents ESPN's in-season weekly basketball College GameDay Covered by State Farm and is title sponsorship of the NBA's All-Star Saturday Night (this season scheduled for Feb. 14 on TNT, to be held in Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY).
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Patty Morris, Marketing Director, Brand Content for State Farm, about using sports and entertainment to reach consumers, how putting Aaron Rodgers and Chris Paul into humorous scenarios has helped to build brand awareness, why adding classic SNL characters is enabling State Farm to get its messages new target demographics and upcoming NBA-related marketing with Paul and Stephen Curry.
NYSportsJournalism.com: How do you deal with the challenge of getting your brand and message to stand out in a crowded insurance category and also amidst ads during sports programming?
Patty Morris: It is no secret that insurance is not necessarily endemic to sports. What we really work hard at is storytelling in that environment. We know that there are really passionate fans who are consumers and who are potential consumers, and we work to connect with them around that passion-point. We tell an engaging and entertaining story to break through. As a brand, we have spent a lot of time on these campaigns telling what I call 360-degree storytelling campaigns over time, which definitely aids in that brand recall in that space, whether it's the NBA or NFL. When you do that over time, people start to look for that story, they want to see the next installment of that story, and that's a key part of what helps up to break through in that very crowded environment.
NYSJ: What is the challenge of using humor to talk with consumers about serious topics such as buying insurance policies?
PM: You have to be really thoughtful about what message you are trying to deliver in that environment. It's not a situation where you go in and give a really hard retail message. What we try to do, and what we have been successful at, is aligning with specific athletes to deliver messages that are about, in these cases, two of our key offerings: Personal service, which lines up beautifully with Chris Paul as an NBA assist leader; and what we've done with Aaron Rodgers and our Discount Double Check policy. We have been successful in getting these messages to people and in having them associate Chris and Aaron not only with State Farm but with specific services. The use of humor is different for each campaign, but it has made the messages resonate with people.
NYSJ: State Farm has been using Rodgers and the Discount Double Check theme since late 2012. How do you keep it fresh and from becoming overused?
PM: We have had a couple of successful years. It has taken on a life of its own. As we moved into this season with Aaron, we wanted to think about how to talk about Discount double Check in a way that keeps the storyline fresh in sports but also advance the message outside of sports. We partnered with Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Live and Broadway Video Entertainment. We had some great success last year with Aaron and the Saturday Night Live Super Fans creative, which led us to having in-depth conversations about a partnership with Broadway Video Entertainment to use other characters. This is a great example of how you keep a message fresh in terms of the talent that we are using around Aaron. And also in terms of consumer engagement and keeping their eyeballs on the creative.
NYSJ: Are you able to reach the people who remember these characters from their original appearances and younger viewers who may not have seen them before?
PM: Bringing in these nostalgic characters, these iconic characters from Saturday Night Live draws attention and has given us equity with our core target audience. And with Saturday Night Live celebrating its 40th anniversary, we are helping to introduce them to a new and younger audience. When you see Aaron with those characters in a comedic environment it is entertaining and at the end of the day does a great job of delivering that Discount Double Check message for us. (See Trainers spot here.)
NYSJ: Did State Farm know going into the relationship with Rodgers that he would be so amenable to the situations in which you are putting him?
PM: I can't say enough great things about him. He's always a professional, but always very much a good sport. He's up for almost anything we throw at him. When I talked about how important it is to align your company with the right celebrity or athlete, Aaron is a great example. In the beginning, his attributes as an athlete and a person really aligned with our brand values and how we see ourselves. Once we laid that groundwork, and you have someone like Aaron who actually has a great comedic sense about himself, is willing to take chances and is willing to poke fun at himself, it has turned into a great relationship. He has been able to come across as authentic and genuine, which Aaron is, as well display some pretty good acting chops in creating this character. He is a great collaborative partner.
NYSJ: He seems to be having fun with the different tie-ins, such as Neighbors earlier this year with Zac Efron and Seth Rogen and now the Saturday Night Live characters. Have you had a scenario where he looks at the script and goes, 'Umm, I not sure about that one?'
PM: We love dropping him into these environments because he’s such a good sport. He just puts himself out there. And he is a fan of pop culture. So when we talked to him about the idea of integrating SNL into our NFL work — because part of that is work with Aaron and part is work without Aaron, to try to advance the Discount Double Check message to a broader audience — he was so receptive to that. These are some of Aaron’s favorite SNL characters. He was excited about it. He's a world-class football player, but he has these other sides to him, which helps when we are having these creative conversations.
NYSJ: Given State Farm's roster of athletes — Rodgers, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry — taking into consideration some of the current situations involving players from the NFL and elsewhere — how vital is it for State Farm and other companies to know up front the types of people with whom they are working?
PM: It is critical. When we enter into partnerships with anyone, be it a celebrity, an athlete, it is not something that we take lightly. We put a lot of thought and effort into who we align with. The first criteria is that they align with our brand values. And then it helps if they happen to be the NBA's assist leader or a Super Bowl MVP. That is not all we look for, but that helps.
NYSJ: Can you tip your hand about future upcoming creative? Will Curry and his faux twin be back with Chris and Cliff Paul?
PM: (Laughs.) I am actually on the set of our NBA work right now. We are filming new ads. What I can tell you is that Chris and Cliff are not alone.
"We feel that our brand is top-of-mind. And I would say that both of these campaigns, with Chris and Aaron, have done that for us."
NYSJ: State Farm has extended the Chris-Cliff Paul scenario beyond the commercials, with Chris 'interviewing' Cliff during last season's NBA All-Star Game and Cliff having his own Twitter account with something like 33,000 followers and 21,000 likes on his Facebook page. Are you surprised or encouraged by the fact that Cliff Paul has taken on a life of his own?
PM: It's true. Cliff Paul has become a celebrity in his own right. The fact that he is a State Farm agent whose goal is to assist people is a great demonstration of our brand. The message takes a different type of path to reach people, but the fact that it does tells us that it is successful.
NYSJ: How important has social media and other activations beyond TV commercials become in reaching consumers and potential consumers?
PM: This is not a one-channel environment, especially when you are dealing with fans and a variety of demographics. Part of our core strategy is that we have a 360-degree approach. So if a campaign begins in a TV commercial, we always looks for ways to extend the storyline into social media, digital, broadcast integrations, personal interaction. We have found that we have meaningful engagement when you interact with people through multiple channels. That is a big reason why our sports campaigns, in particular, have been successful. Because it is that 360 approach from a creative and media perspective.
NYSJ: Do you envision a scenario where Aaron from State Farm meets Jake from State Farm?
PM: (Laughs.) I like that idea! Maybe we can work that into some our our digital work. Did you know that Jake has his own Twitter page, with more than 25,000 followers?!
NYSJ: The 2015 NBA All-Star Game will be in New York this February, with the game itself in Madison Square Garden. Have you started to formulate plans to market and activate behind the State Farm All-Star Saturday Night program (taking place in Barclays Center in Brooklyn)? Perhaps another commercial where Cliff interacts with the guys from the NBA on TNT crew?
PM: All-Star Weekend is a big part of our activation with the NBA, one of the pillars of our relationship with the league. So, as in the past, you will see us activate on the ground and in broadcasts. We do have some fun things planned for the New York event.
NYSJ: Saturday Night Live is filmed in New York, so will there be an integrated effort there during NBA All-Star Weekend in New York?
PM: The core or our activation with SNL is built around their 40th anniversary, and they will air (a three-hour) special show (scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 15, on NBC, the same night as the NBA All-Star Game on TNT). So it will be a big weekend for us. We are planning some partnerships with them: digital, a presence on the 40th anniversary show, other elements.
NYSJ: Have you been able to determine how your marketing and activations translate into brand recognition and brand loyalty?
PM: Our 'Super Fan' spot with Aaron last year was the most memorable spot of the year, according to Nielsen. In terms of brand loyalty or consideration, when we repeatedly talk to consumers about the full array of services that State Farm provides, be it Discount Double Check or having a State Farm agent ready to assist you whenever you need it, the repetition of that alone keeps you in the minds of consumers, So that when it comes time for them to think about insurance, we feel that our brand is top-of-mind. And I would say that both of these campaigns, with Chris and Aaron, have done that for us. We want to believe that a growing number of households associate Discount Double Check with Aaron and State Farm. And more people, certainly among NBA fans, are familiar with Chris and what he does with us. And that's a plus for us.
NYSJ: Sports and entertainment marketing is just part of what State Farm uses to reach consumers, but do you see it being a strategic part of your plans moving forward?
PM: Yes. Sports is a key tenet to our overall media and messaging strategy. The number of fans and folks who are engaged in sports activities on a day-to-day basis warrant us to be in that space. So it will continue to be a key part of our media strategy and messaging strategy. And we will continue that 360-storytelling approach. We have had a lot of success, so you will continue to see us in that space.
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