Mark Evans, Marketing Director at Direct Line Group, spoke to us about his brand marketing challenges, his outlook on the latest technologies and why companies should not ignore the basics.

What is your biggest brand, or indeed marketing, management challenge?

Mark Evans: We have a full-service marketing function at Direct Line, which stretches from Brand Development and Communications right through to Customer Experience, Insight and Marketing Effectiveness, PR and CRM and Analytics. There is a very broad range of challenges, but the overarching accountability of our department is to manage our brand portfolio to meet different customer needs based on our segmentation model.

At the heart of our brand portfolio is the Direct Line brand – our master brand. However, in 2013 the brand was in systemic decline. With a burning platform as our stimulus in 2014, we executed a brand relaunch and went back to basics to define the unmet needs in the sector and the killer insight that could help us to re-discover the success of the brand.

As is often the case in a successful brand turnaround, the answer lay in going back to the origins of the category. For many years, the industry had been exclusively focused on the point of purchase – but what had been hiding in plain sight for decades was that insurance is actually about the point of need and being brilliant at fixing things when they go wrong. It seems obvious but we’ve had a lot of success with the new positioning. We’ve gone from being in systemic decline to seeing strong and sustained growth.

We’ve been fortunate enough to win lots of awards and we’re currently the only insurance company to win an IPA Effectiveness Gold. But we also maintain a healthy dissatisfaction with our performance and continue to be more tenacious on our ‘Fixer’ strategy by;

  1. Continuously bringing new propositions to market that provide a reason to believe in that proposition.
  2. Continuing to activate our ‘Fixer’ strategy across the organisation, which is a continual “hearts and minds” endeavour.
  3. Getting ready for a world where insurance transitions from the process of restitution to the service of prevention. Insurance is at the confluence of driverless cars, IoT, blockchain, and smart homes so projects like Fleetlights and Smart Crossing are crucial; they serve as the north star to the type of company we need to become.

"As is often the case in a successful brand turnaround, the answer lay in going back to the origins of the category."

What tools/technology do you use to manage your brand?

ME: As the media landscape continues to evolve rapidly, we have developed a Marketing Effectiveness approach which incorporates many methodologies, including econometrics, geo-testing and first-click attribution. We have also increased the sophistication of our Insight approach.

However, arguably the more interesting aspect of our utilisation of technology is in the ways that we have used leading-edge technologies to reinforce our brand credentials in a somewhat tangible way. We wanted to have a conversation with customers outside of the annual purchase cycle but needed to find a legitimate way to do so.

In this context Fleetlights was developed in response to the unfortunate fact that more deaths happen in winter due to shortened daylight hours. The UK’s lighting system is very old fashioned, and mainly focused on busy urban areas, paradoxically leaving the most dangerous roads in the dark. Therefore, we wanted to find a way to ‘hack lighting’. The result was the Fleetlights concept, which is a fleet of synchronised drones that can light the way in places where lighting is poor.

We described the project as a brand activation activity, designed to increase search and consideration. At the point that we launched it, we did not have a clear plan as to how we would commercialise the technology. We were thrilled that only six months later, Caister Sea Rescue approached us to use the technology to help save lives at sea. They believe it now helps them to find people five times faster than before.

This activity reinforced our forward thinking and technology credentials. It is, therefore, perhaps unsurprising that we have subsequently developed partnerships with the likes of Tesla and Volkswagen.

Emboldened by the success of Fleetlights, we challenged ourselves to consider how we could actually hack roads. In general, our roads are out of date, having been designed and built when they were far less busy and when pedestrians weren’t staring at their mobile phones. So, we launched the Smart Crossing, which is an adaptive road that morphs and provides guidance to road users in real-time.

These campaigns continue to change consumer perception of the Direct Line brand and support our mission to Revolutionise Insurance Again. At the heart of these were complex technology collaborations which is indicative of how important technology is going to be as we move further into the world of prevention.

Which trends are likely to have the largest impact on your brand?

ME: Whilst nobody knows when autonomous driving will become ubiquitous, the advent of driverless cars is one of the hottest topics on our radar at the moment. The good news for the insurance industry is that legislation requires drivers to still insure themselves even in an autonomous vehicle. There will likely be a reduction in the number of crashes, but the cost of repairs will go up. There have been cases reported where a near new autonomous car has been written off as a result of a relatively minor accident simply because the replacement part is not available.

It would be easy to put our heads in the sand about such developments. However, we are choosing to stay on the front foot and are part of Move UK, a government backed consortium looking at how to accelerate the uptake of autonomous driving in the UK.

The same is true of connected homes, where data and technology can be used to prevent bad things from happening. For us, this is the natural extension of the fixer positioning; preventing things from happening in the first place.

Is brand more important now than ever?

ME: Brands still act as a lightning rod for consumer decisions in a world where there has been trust erosion and I believe that brand has never been more important. The medium isn’t the message: the message is the message and many marketers seem to have lost sight of this. At Direct Line, we embrace mobile-first thinking in the customer journeys that we create, but from a targeting perspective we would describe ourselves as “digital conservatives”.

The key point is that Marketing 101 still applies and being curious about consumers evolving needs will never go out of fashion. I was fortunate enough to work for Bruce McColl at Mars for a few years and he used to say that “curiosity is the cornerstone for any great Marketer” because there’s always that insight just lurking around the corner.

"Brands still act as a lightning rod for consumer decisions in a world where there has been trust erosion."

Which brands do you admire or use as inspiration?

ME: I admire Maltesers for the way that they have led the diversity and inclusion conversation in their advertising. Depicting people with disabilities demonstrates bravery and they’ve been rewarded for it in terms of commercial performance. I love the fact they’ve had their strongest sales for a long time as a result of taking a bold step to be more representative of our society.

Another example that I always come back to as a symbolic brand is New Zealand Rugby. The core values of New Zealand rugby are of camaraderie and being humble. It is engrained in the players that they are merely custodians of the jersey that they wear and, proverbially speaking, they must leave it in a better place than they found it. New Zealand rugby has been one of the most successful sports teams ever, evoking passion and belonging and that makes it a tremendously strong brand and one to revere.

How has your brand department changed over the past five years?

ME: When I joined Direct Line Group six years ago, the Marketing department was one of low confidence, low competence, and low credibility. Our main message was “we’re not on price comparison websites”, which is akin to Walkers crisps saying, “buy us because we’re not available at Tesco”.

There was a complete lack of differentiation and, as a whole, the function was very narrow and not at all strategic. We then went through some quite substantial restructuring in 2012/13, which spawned new capability, new confidence and growing credibility within the organisation. This led to the relaunch of the Direct Line brand and that was a pivotal moment for us. We’ve organically added additional capabilities, such as Customer Experience, PR, Social Media, Insight, and Marketing Effectiveness and we’ve moved from having a communications focus to a customer focus.

We’ve built a best in class marketing function whereby we can deliver better results from a much reduced spend and the department is now a key cog in the wheel driving a much more customer-first business.

Where do you see the future of brand management in five years’ time?

ME: Marketing is very faddish, but overall, I don’t believe that it will change all that much, though arguably there’s an emerging deficit of holistic, channel agnostic marketers. Indeed it worries me a little that I’m seeing more digital marketers coming through that have never been involved in making a TV ad or managed a full scale ad agency. The companies that develop well-rounded marketers will be the ones that continue to prosper.

There are new models emerging all the time, but in the end, good old-fashioned marketing comes down to these three key steps:

  • Finding out what your customers’ need
  • Challenging the organisation to build the solution to that need
  • Communicating to customers’ that their need can now be met

It’s easy to lose sight of the first two steps when you think that competitive advantage lies in being digitally progressive through the third step. By staying curious about what consumers need, and not just about their media consumption, you won’t go far wrong. I’m confident that amongst the noise and the fads, the fundamentals of marketing won’t really change.

Mark Evans is Marketing Director at Direct Line Group.

Read more interviews in the Future-Proof Brand Series.

In June 2017, Marc Cloosterman and Laurens Hoekstra published Future-Proof Your Brand, a book that explores brand implementation and management, and the insights gained from our 25+ years of experience.