Ariana Gibson is Head of Brand and Driver Insights at Clearcover, a Chicago-based insurtech startup that’s out to improve the car insurance experience from end to end.
At our October 30, 2019 Here’s How Startup Marketing Conference, Ariana shared how her team built a distinct brand within the crowded insurance market.
In case you don’t have time to watch the whole video now, here are a few of our favorite lessons from her talk:
- Talk to your customers and your colleagues to understand what your brand is. These people will become your best ambassadors.
- Use your brand guide to dictate more than fonts. This document has the power to set standards for communication across the company. Set the tone for your communications and your color palette.
- Be inclusive. The photos, illustrations, and words you choose matter. Build a brand that welcomes your whole audience.
Looking for more advice? Read on for a transcript of her presentation.
My name is Ariana Gibson, and I am the Head of Brand and Driver Insights at Clearcover. For context, Clearcover is an insurtech startup. We focus on car insurance.
We sell car insurance in four states, and we will be in two more by the end of the year; 2019 has been really great for us. We raised $43 million in our series B and grew from 45 people to 114. Things are going very well.
A little background about me: I was a film student and then worked in advertising-funded business development. I did that whole twenties figuring-out-what-you-want-to-do thing, but what I realized is that I really like telling stories. I shifted into working in brands almost accidentally.
I was a creative director working on video writing and directing, but I was working with Fortune 50, Fortune 100 companies, and even startups. Often, when we talked about a piece of creative content, they wanted to turn it into a conversation about brand.
I thought, “Well, I better do some homework and learn more about brand. So I am entirely self-taught. I encourage you to do the same thing. I do not have an MBA in brand, and I was told I was hired for that reason.
The other thing I wanted to point out is that this is called, “Here's How I,” but it should be “Here's How We.” For so many of us, I'm sure it's a “Here's How We” scenario, but in brand especially. It requires a lot of people, a lot of participation, and buy-in from your entire organization to build a brand. I got to steward it and lead it, but it was not just me alone.
They said to put a bragging point, so that's what this is: we built a brand that people say they love. They use the word "love," and we are a car insurance company, so that's a pretty big deal.
This was my goal from the beginning because when you think about building a brand so much of it is about establishing emotional connections with people. When you think about the emotional connections that typically are associated with car insurance, it's ire, disgust, and fear – some bad things. We set out to change it.
In 2017, when I joined, Clearcover was pretty incredible. I had worked for startups before. I had consulted for startups before. I was consulting at this one.
I could tell that they had a lot of the ingredients that you need to be successful. They had a great founding team, decades of experience in insurance, and tons of experience in technology. The area where they were lacking was in structured and formalized brand strategy.
After two meetings, the CEO said, “Come work for us. Build a brand.”
I said, “I've never done that before,” and he said, “Perfect, none of us have.” It was the right attitude.
I knew how to tell the story, so I got to work.
One of the problems we were facing is that we are in a heavily commoditized industry. The role of brand in a commoditized industries is perhaps more important than in any other type of industry because if everyone's charging about the same price and offering about the same product, you have to find a way to differentiate yourself.
Brand can be the thing that drives loyalty. It was incredibly important. But our competitors were being very loud.
In insurance, brand recognition is huge. We just did a consumer survey that said, on average, people can list five different insurance companies off the top of their head. I'm sure everyone in this room could do it.
Recognition of brands in car insurance is high, but loyalty is really low. The reason that recognition is high is that on average – in 2017 and today – large insurance companies spend an average of $6 billion on advertising.
If you've ever been to a sporting event, you've probably seen this before. It's why you know the names – learning happens through repetition and they know this.
We went to market saying we weren't going to advertise at all. I took the job, and all of my friends and former colleagues said, “What are you doing? This is a terrible idea. How will you possibly help people understand who you are?” But that is what today's Here's How is about.
1: Talk to customers
The first thing you have to do is talk to customers. For some people, you won't have customers. When I joined the company, we hadn't launched.
We didn't have any customers, but we had customers in the industry and in the market. We went to them and said, “What do you like about insurance? What do you not like about insurance? What is it that you're hoping to get?”
That is something that we've continued to do. Our company says that we want to build a car insurance company that’s something customers actually want. That was the differentiator for us.
You don't get to remain that company if you don't continually ask people what they want and if what you're doing is right.
The way that we talk to customers has definitely changed over time.
We do surveys. We had those surveys set up before we ever launched the company. We knew we were going to ask people, “Was your experience positive, yes or no? If so, why? If not, why?”
We used that information to form the foundation of the brand.
Brand is a lot of things. I think the best way to think about it is that brand is two things: it is the promise that you make to your customers and the clothes that promise is dressed in. That is not mine – I read it in a book. It was on how to build a brand for startups, and I bought it on Amazon.
I liked the way that they said that because people think about the clothes more often, and they don’t think about the part that matters more, which is the promise.
The clothes just need to be a reflection of what that promise is going to be. If you want to satisfy your customers and you don't ask them what it takes to do that, you're just shooting in the dark.
We talked to customers in a lot of different ways. Then, we talked to colleagues.
2: Talk to colleagues
The best brand ambassadors for any company that exists in the world will be its employees.
If you just go to your team members and tell them, “This is what the brand is. Please memorize this tagline, slogan, brand promise, and value props," it's not the same as having meetings, talking to people, and saying, “What do you think? We want to be what made you join this company. What do you think Clearcover does for people?”
The idea is to figure out what benefits you can bring to people's lives. Those are your value props.
One thing I didn't mention about talking to customers that is very important is that when you create your messaging, you want to be formulaic about it.
Create a strategic messaging document. There are a lot of resources online to help you figure out what that means.
What are the components of a strategic messaging guide? The value props must be in the language of the customer.
We made a mistake in the beginning. We went with what we thought worked because we were talking to a lot of investors. We were talking to a lot of press and media outlets, and what they found interesting was very different than what customers wanted and found interesting.
About six months after we launched, we did a refresh of the website. The design wasn't that different, but the words were.
So, get buy-in from your colleagues and avoid confirmation bias. Go out and seek the people you think won't agree with what you're saying. Avoiding them just means you're not solving holistically and coming up with a strategy that works for everyone.
Make sure that you get buy-in from your coworkers because they'll be excellent ambassadors for your brand.
3: Build messaging and visuals that reflect what you hear
Number three could be an entire day-long workshop. It is part of the hardest part, but we built messaging and visuals that reflected what we heard.
I already talked about the messaging part. The visuals take work.
It takes talented artists. It takes people who are good at communicating who you can tell, “This is what we stand for. This is our promise.” Then, they'll bring designs, photography, illustrations, and videos to life that capture the essence of what you're trying to convey to the market.
4: Create a robust brand guide
We created a robust brand guide. In brand guides, people typically focus on the clothes: “This is our logo and here are the versions of it. Here's the font treatment."
All of that is incredibly important, but our brand guide starts with who we are. We talk about our culture and our philosophy on culture. We share our core values. We use specific language to talk about our company, so that the people who are going to talk about our company are armed with the resources they need.
They also say about brand, “If you don't tell people who you are, they will decide for you,” and that's very real.
They will base it on one service interaction or on one ad they saw on Facebook. You have to make sure that you know what you're doing, that you have your strategic messaging, and that the visuals are consistent across platforms.
One of the best ways to do that is to work with partners and give them the tools to be able to talk about you exactly as you want to be talked about.
5: Make inclusivity a MUST-have
Make inclusivity a must. I think it is one of the biggest things that has made us successful as a brand from the very beginning.
As a creative director, I would always say to the people who I worked with, "When someone finishes engaging with this, what do we want them to think, feel, or do?"
I told our brand team that we want people who engage with our content to feel like, “That is a company for me, that is somewhere where I belong.”
This part I can't emphasize enough. Be inclusive in your illustrations, in the photos that you pick, and in the way you word things.
We put our job descriptions through a gender identifier to find language that might make people feel isolated.
I've been at conferences where people say, “I can't believe how much diversity you have in your illustrations.” It's something we're really proud of. I think it's a thing that creates an emotional connection, which is what you need to do in brand.
6: Follow through
Lastly, we followed through, which sounds sort of simple, but people forget to do it.
The work of brand is about figuring out what that promise is and what the clothes are, but the delivery of the promise happens in a different part of the organization.
If you're working on a brand, you have to work with the people who are responsible for delivering on the promise. For us, our three value props are price, ease, and service.
Price happens through the distribution model we have, so that's our growth team. It also happens with the technology we use to be an efficiently operating company, so we work with the tech team.
The biggest one – service – lives with our customer advocates. We hired our director of claims a year-and-a-half before the first claim ever came through our doors because we knew we needed to do well on that.
The loyalty piece in insurance is lacking because people don't pay enough attention to delivering on the promise.
Brand sets up the promise, then finds ways to create visuals, messaging, and stories to tell. But you rely on people.
I have a great partner in PR and communications. We say my team is the water and she's the pipes. I don't know how to get it to the right people at the right time, but she does. I just work on telling the stories that we think will resonate with people because we did the research to understand who those people are.
For the first year, we intentionally didn't do NPS. I fought hard to not do NPS because I said, “Psychology studies that say people are bad predictors of future behavior.”
But beyond that, it doesn't tell us exactly what we're doing right or what we're doing wrong.
We just said, “I had a positive experience with Clearcover.” Rate the degree to which you agree with that statement.
If it was a high level of agreement, we said, “Great, what did we do well?” If people said, “No, this was terrible,” then we said, “We're so sorry. What we want to make it right? What was it that we did?”
For example, one person said they had a positive experience. We asked why.
They said, “I feel like Clearcover truly has my back. My first experience was smooth and well-handled. It feels more personal than other insurance services. I love that I feel like part of the family.”
I want to frame this because it's the best thing that could have happened in taking on the challenge of building a brand and trying to connect emotionally with people about a topic that's hard to connect on.
But what it's doing is telling us that something about the way we are coming to the market and telling our story is making customers feel like we're different than other insurance companies. That is the ultimate goal when you're in a commoditized industry.
I feel this captures how our process. Building a brand is about building it and then never stopping building it. You have to check in all the time. You never stop talking to customers to learn what they want.
You also have to build in the tools that help you measure your reputation in the market and what people think of you.
I wanted to list a couple of the tools that we've used. It is by no means a comprehensive list, but knowing that a lot of people are in an early stage of their companies, I wanted to focus on some things that might be helpful for you and talk about how we've used them.
Our Google review rating is a 4.7 out of five. We're really proud of this. We have hundreds of reviews, if you Google us.
What happened is that we used Trustpilot, and it wasn't the right fit for us. I am not here to dig on any company. It’s just that depending on the company that you use and the stage of company that you are at, you may try something that’s not right for you now that may be right for you later. Or it just might be a bad fit.
We're saving thousands of dollars by not using Trustpilot. We've automated in our system the trigger that sends out the request to leave a review on Google. There was fear that people who don't have Gmail wouldn't have a Google account, so they might not leave a review.
We saw exponentially more reviews left when we switched over to this process. It's been helpful to understand what people like about us.
We use SurveyMonkey for a variety of surveys, but customer satisfaction is an area where we really focus. Right now, our score is 92 percent. This is after a service interaction. This tells us that we promised you good service, and yes, you think we are delivering it. We're doing something right.
We measure employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS). A brand is not just an external thing. There is a whole movement right now about employer brands. It should be an extension of the brand you have created for consumers. You should build them in tandem, but it's important. Our eNPS is 77. We're really proud of it.
We have Google alerts set up on a simple level to see what people are saying about us.
ReviewTrackers is a local startup, and they have a widget that we use on our reviews page. It's much more cost-effective than some of the other tools that we've used. We simply use it as an aggregator to help us make sure that we're responding in time to the messages and reviews that we get in the App Store, on Facebook, and in a variety of places.
Crimson Hexagon (now Brandwatch) is a great tool. Don't make the mistake I did: we got it too soon. I wasted a lot of money – that will also happen.
You try to be so thoughtful, but it was just not the right tool for us at that time. Overall, the feedback that we're getting on third-party reviews, internally from our employees, and through the customer satisfaction score is telling us that the thing we're promising is working. But we won't stop doing the work because the work of brand never stops.