What insurance advertising is getting right (and what banking could do better)

Dan White, marketing expert & illustrator
Background

I recently teamed up with Zappi to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of advertising in the telco category). We found that to be a mixed bag. Telco ads generally do a good job at communicating product features and generating immediate purchase interest, but are weaker at engaging consumers to build long-term brand memories. 

We wondered whether advertising in a parallel service category, finance, would show a similar pattern. To find out, we used the Zappi Amplify ad system to obtain consumer feedback on 60 finance video ads in the US that aired in 2022 or 2023. A full list of brands whose ads were in the research can be found in the appendix.

Zappi’s approach includes a set of seven metrics that have been validated against in-market sales effects.

The project was designed to tell us:

  • How finance advertising stacks up against other categories

  • Where finance ads tend to perform well and where they fall short

  • Which brands are making the most of their advertising investment

  • The ingredients of an effective finance ad

  • Why strong/weak ads perform the way they do and how they could be made more effective

Here’s a summary of what we discovered.

Overall conclusions

Finance advertising in the US under-performs other categories. However, advertising for insurance brands differs hugely from banking and credit cards both in terms of creative approach and effectiveness.

Most US insurance brands feature ‘brand characters’ in their advertising. Many of these have become household names thanks to many years of advertising investment. These campaigns do a good job at keeping the brand salient in the minds of potential customers. Insurance may seem a dull topic at first glance, but insurance brands have found engaging ways to highlight why insurance is a good idea. Humor is often leveraged to great effect.  

Advertising for US banking brands, however, is generally less effective. Perhaps the subject of banking is fundamentally less interesting than insurance? Or maybe banking brands simply have not yet found strong creative routes to generate similar levels of engagement?

Insurance advertising: Winning with humor and brand assets

‘Distinctive Brand Assets’ (DBAs) are graphics, slogans, sounds, characters, or any other sensory elements that are unique to the brand and have become strongly associated with it through repeated use. US insurance advertising excels in using DBAs. 

It all started in 1999 when GEICO started using an animated gecko in its advertising. The Aflac duck appeared a year later. In 2008, Progressive introduced a character called ‘Flo’ who has now appeared in more than 150 ads. The fictional sales representative has attracted a large social media following and is now the voice of the company’s chatbot. Over recent years, many other US insurance companies have introduced their own brand characters.

Our analysis shows that advertising that’s rich in DBAs —  including brand characters, colors, jingles and animated logos — is much more effective than advertising that doesn’t. It scores significantly higher on brand recall and emotional appeal. Building DBAs is one of the best long-term investments an advertiser can make. Check out ‘Distinctive Brand Assets’ by Jenni Romaniuk to learn more about the impact DBAs can have on a brand’s long-term success.

Allstate ads feature a character known as ‘Mayhem,’ inspired by Harvey Keitel’s portrayal of Mr. White in the cult movie Reservoir Dogs. In every ad, the menacing character causes carnage, reminding the viewer why insurance is essential. One of the recent examples we researched scores exceptionally well on measures of branding and attention.

Farmers Insurance uses a character played by well-known actor J.K Simmons. The ads consistently emphasize the risks of cutting corners and compromising on quality. This recent ad is a great example of the campaign and was among the top performers in our study. The Farmers Insurance ads consistently score significantly above average for unaided brand recall (71% vs 65%) and the top mentions of what made people realize they were Farmers ads were J. K. Simmons and the jingle.

Jake, a real-life State Farm employee, featured in the brand’s advertising from 2011. He retired in 2020 but the character lives on, played by an actor (who happens to be more athletic and attractive than the real Jake). The campaign continues to perform well. In fact, this ad was the top performer in our analysis. The character is called out by most people as the reason they knew the ad was for State Farm.

Humor plays an important role in many of the category’s best ads. Looking at all 60 ads in our analysis, eight out of ten of the top-performing ads were insurance ads using humor. 

While humor has little impact on the persuasiveness or emotional power of the advertising, it tends to make it more memorable, and this drives significantly higher overall effectiveness.

Banking advertising: A mixed bag

US banking ads are much less effective overall than insurance ads, pulled down by lower brand recall and emotional response. Several banking brands have tried to leverage the power of humor, but this has often fallen flat.

For example, people found the humor in this Capital One ad irritating and distracting. It is one of the weaker ads we tested, despite featuring so many celebrities. The ad is so overloaded with content that neither the brand or message come through.

This Chase ad with comedian Kevin Hart and basketball star Stephen Curry also struggles. Again, the humor doesn’t resonate with the audience and makes the ad hard to follow.

The humor in this Wells Fargo ad also fails to hit the mark, leading to low scores across the board.

Humor is highly subjective and what works varies hugely by target audience. If you’re planning to leverage humor in your advertising, use qualitative research or pre-testing to make sure it is appreciated as intended.

The two best performing banking ads use a different approach to generate attention. They aim to evoke warm, positive feelings.

Chime tells an uplifting story about someone starting their own small business — mainly through visuals and musical cues. It achieved high scores on measures of emotion, attention, persuasion and the highest score on brand appeal. Telling a story in a charming way holds people’s attention and makes them more likely to remember the brand and connect it with positive feelings.

This Nationwide ad also performs extremely well. The captivating song and the beautiful singing draw people in and help make people feel happy (35% vs 49% norm) and emotional warmth (30% vs 14% norm). The ad also achieves strong branding because the brand name and slogan are neatly integrated into the lyrics.

The weakest banking ads adopt an old-fashioned advertising format involving a near continuous ‘voice of god’ on top of a visual montage. Here are some of the worst offenders:

  • Mastercard: The audio design and editing of this ad are strong, but they are not enough to compensate for having a disconnected voiceover that people struggle to make sense of.

  • Visa: This ad has a very similar tone, style and content to the Mastercard ad. It too uses a disconnected voiceover and scores equally poorly. The fact that these two ads are so similar, and perform so badly, reminds us of why distinctiveness is so important to ad effectiveness and brand success.

  • PNC Financial Services: This ad is particularly poor because the visuals and words are poorly linked and synchronized, and this audio-visual dissonance means people can only take in what they are hearing or what they are seeing, not both. In reality, most people switch off and take in neither.

The findings from our analysis show once again that the ‘voice of god’ approach is rarely impactful. Ads that tell their story using a character’s voice, or primarily through visuals and music, tend to be much more effective.

The best performing ads in the US finance category tell their story from a character’s point of view.

For example, in this SoFi ad, the visuals drive the story. The voiceover spans just seven of the ad’s 30 seconds, allowing the lead character and her story to take center stage.

This Acorns ad is also remarkably engaging. It’s hard not to listen to what a squirrel is telling you about investing (especially when he sounds like Christopher Walken).

On the whole, however, finance brands haven’t found their rhythm, and most are wasting a lot of media money on sub-par advertising.

Summary

Our analysis of advertising in the US finance category highlights some wider truths about advertising:

  • Investing in Distinctive Brand Assets will make future advertising more effective.

  • Humor can enhance advertising effectiveness, but research is needed to make sure it resonates with your target audience.

  • Ads with a ‘voice of god’ voiceovers are rarely effective. Hearing a character tell their story or telling the story through visuals and music tend to be much more effective.

  • It’s not easy for a brand to strike out in a new direction with its advertising and be successful — but the insurance sector shows that it can work well. Creating distinctive, memorable advertising can lead to huge rewards. Which finance brands have the bravery to do so?

If you would like to see the results in detail or discuss how the learnings could be applied to improve the effectiveness of your advertising – within finance or other sectors – reach out to Zappi. You can also contact me directly at: dan.j.white@me.com.

About the author

Dan White is a marketing expert and illustrator with 33 years’ experience in brands, advertising, and market research. He has worked with many of the world’s biggest brands and advised on over 500 advertising campaigns. His summaries and illustrations have influenced hundreds of thousands of marketing and insights professionals through his social media activities and three best-selling books. In this piece he draws on his experience of the challenges faced by market research of the past in delivering what insights teams and marketers need. And he looks at how much more impact the industry could have today if it embraces recent advances in technology.

Appendix

Brands included in the research:

Acorns

Allstate

Ally

American Family Insurance

Amerisave

AMEX

Bank of America

Capital One

Chase

Chime

Citi

Credit One Bank

Experian

Farmers Insurance

Geico

J.P. Morgan

Lemonade

Liberty Mutual

Mastercard

Nationwide

PNC Bank

Progressive

Sofi

State Farm

Tally

The General

U.S. Bank

Visa

Wallethub

Wells Fargo

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