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Direct Line CMO: driving innovation in an unlikely industry

insurance innovation insurance innovation
Photo credit:

Thomas Hawk

Mark Evans' marketing strategy boils down to one thing: keep your employees happy, as they can sell or sink your online presence - and its the former that Direct Line is enjoying.

“We were a phoenix emerging from the flames…”

It’s not everyday an insurance company is described as vividly as a mythical creature, but the transformation of insurance and financial services provider Direct Line over the past three years has been impressive.

Its CMO Mark Evans took the marketing helm of the company as an opportunity to rebuild something from the ground up.

“The company has come from the dark days in the previous ownership, when we were part of RBS, which ended with a flotation and a complete idea overhaul which raised our confidence.”

That overhaul is closely linked to their new and simple, but effective, marketing strategy that places their customers and staff as central to their operations – and places hassle as the enemy.

“For us, customer centricity starts from well established values that have been agreed throughout the company, knowing exactly what and who matters to us and acting accordingly, acting right.”

And Evans and his team have tried to act in that mindset for the past three years, knowing all too well the trend for customer centricity would only develop and mature.

His unofficial mantra became “any marketing activity that doesn’t start with the customer in mind is vanity.”

It’s a bold statement that has reflected the perseverance of the Direct Line team and their new brand approach, making some “big headline promises” in regards to relevancy, customer access and authenticity – all in the name of insurance innovation.

These are all values that other brands are adopting, of course. In a time where it is so easy for companies to be called out for not delivering on their promises, what has Evans and his team actually done to reward their customers?

“Our strategy goes all the way through our organisation and we’ve done a couple of pioneering things: one that’s unique to this industry was removing amendment fees when someone changes their car, or home, or has another child. This would usually cost around £50 ($77) and it would have been charging our most loyal customers, it didn’t make sense under our new strategy.”

It’s easy to forget though, amongst the paraphernalia of discussions surrounding the customer, some of the most important people linked to your brand: your staff.

For Evans, it wasn’t easy to forget; “they are essentially 10 000 people who have the potential to either make the experience with Direct Line great, or not so great.”

How you treat your staff creates a cause and effect process that ends with the customer he goes on to say, and there are certain things a company can do to make sure internal voices are heard, as well as the external.

“We’ve got an ideas lab process that we began to make sure we were engaged with all staff and in the first two weeks we had over 1000 suggestions. So even though it’s a relatively simple point, do as your staff as you are meant to do with your customers.”

It comes as no surprise that Evans once again introduces an old marketing tool to their insurance innovation plan such as staff engagement; it starts to become clear over the conversation that he focuses only on the simple methods, a rare attribute in today’s heavily tech-driven world.

Whilst other CMOs are becoming increasingly data driven in their quest to see incremental gains quarter on quarter, and push for the latest smart analytics to keep track on their customer engagement, Direct Line have heavily utilized something else.

“It’s not cutting edge, but social media has become the platform where consumers voice their problems, gripes and concerns, and we can turn this into a huge opportunity for us to prove what happens when you take the time to look after your staff, your brand voice.”

It’s true that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest have all become forums in a way for customers to discuss their relationship with a brand to their followers, or otherwise directly contact that company.

It has effectively streamlined an old relationship, for better or for worse.

For Direct Line, the former applies: earlier this year Harvard Business Review published a list detailing 50 of the most empathetic companies on Twitter and Direct Line Insurance Group came out on top, by quite a margin.

Corporate tweets aren’t just promoting a brand or solving a problem: they are supporting, engaging and caring for customers throughout their journey.

Evan’s insurance innovation strategy realised this three years ago, and through careful explanation, Direct Line’s mission is easily visible through the conversations had between operator and customer.

“Just yesterday a customer was discussing changes to their insurance because of their on-going cancer treatment, and the team member, without instruction, ordered a bunch of flowers for that customer to be delivered to their home address – it makes the hairs on my neck stand up.”

That element of humanity within a corporate’s engagement is easily recognizable and makes it that much easier to curate a lasting relationship with a customer.

The third element of Evan’s marketing troika provides the company with a common enemy, a process that needs minimising with every transaction: hassle.

“When you’re in the insurance business, it’s usual to hear people calling it a chore, something they want to be quick and simple, so we’ve made it our mission to minimise hassle in every communication and every proposition we enable.”

Purifying and distilling a company in such a way can only happen effectively if there is a degree of alignment internally, and Evans credits Direct Line staff for making these adaptations as smooth a process as possible.

“This is all marketing 101 though, it’s all simple, it’s all well-known ideas that we’ve put into practice.”

What about technology though? Or data analytics? Surely Direct Line have to be pursuing a way to keep up to speed with insurance innovation surrounding their environment?

“It’s a bit of paradox that when I talk about social media, I don’t really care about the technology; it’s the way in which our people show up as human beings which is important and isn’t as talked about as much I think. Away from that platform, however, and looking into the deeper aspects of the company, there is a sweet spot, or an intersection of people and technology that needs nurturing.”

Many now understand that that sweet spot in insurance innovation is represented by the CMO, and their new responsibilities.

As well as understanding their audience and customers, and unveiling marketing strategies based on that knowledge, every CMO today has to have a sound grasp of the data insights that are now integral to measuring and iterating campaigns.

Which is just the beginning of their challenge.

A wider issue facing CMOs isn’t themselves getting up to speed with technology, but their staff.

“We always have to ask whether [prospective team members] can interpret and interrogate data, and in our experience they largely can – numeracy is a perception gap largely. But that isn’t to say there isn’t a real gap in this industry; the aim is to build a data society and so we want to get more brilliant data people involved to help us organise our part to play.”

Curating a data enabled team and applying digital innovation to marketing campaigns is “a powerful thing, and so I see my role as the intersection of [technology and people] which is the sweet spot.”

However, each industry will require slightly different remits for its CMOs; data isn’t a new topic in insurance innovation, and Evans knows that for him and his colleagues in this sector, the task is made harder.

“It’s slightly different for us in that insurance is a very technical profession…”

In the UK, the average premium for car insurance policies is £367 ($550). However, Direct Line recently paid out a claim of £19.4 million ($29 million), from a 17 year old who crashed and places his three passengers into wheelchairs for the rest of their lives.

“…[insurance] isn’t metal and plastic, it’s life and limb, and as people survive more devastating injuries for longer periods of time, so there is an unknown part of this industry that can’t really be found elsewhere.”

On that basis, Direct Line “has always been a big data company, because that’s what we have always used in our profession.”

Which explains why Evans has put so much effort into improving their social media presence. Direct Line, and seemingly other insurance companies, have found themselves in the opposite position of most of the tech world: the rise of data hasn’t been met with the same awe or pivot, but the improvement of customer engagement has, and so for insurance innovation to occur, it may need to do so in a different way to other industries.

“In essence, we have to think about our social and digital content and the journey that we’re on in delivering this [innovation], and despite our successes I think we’ve got a lot further to go.”


Hot Topics spoke to Mark Evans at the Centaur Festival of Marketing, London.