March 02, 2010

Like banks, insurers have traditionally been happy to appear stodgy for the obvious reason that boring is good when one's assets are at stake. However, the stodgy image can hurt too, especially in times when the public clamors for reform in financial services, and when new modes of communication invite novel styles of communication. The challenge is to balance a reliable and respectable image with a fresh, engaging, and perhaps more informal tone.In their use of the Internet, insurers have begun to get comfortable with less conventional overtures, for example, Northwestern Mutual has reached out in a spirit of fun with its forays into Facebook, including a humorous recruitment-related app that invites users to "dress" a portrait of themselves with often elaborate and absurd apparel.

The Internet also affords opportunities for communicating in new ways in a serious vein. I was impressed by New York Life's recently launched GuaranteesMatter, which takes negative perceptions of the insurance industry head-on, explaining the difference between mutual insurers and their publicly held counterparts - and explaining why some valid criticisms of the latter don't apply to the former.

GuaranteesMatter manages to be edgy while reaffirming traditional values of community spirit and trustworthiness. The site could be considered an aggressive response to a market opportunity, during a time when consumers are justifiably wary of many financial companies. It is clearly in New York Life's interest in such a market to educate consumers about the distinctions between mutual and publicly held companies, and those that are financially conservative and more aggressive in their risk taking - potentially at the customer's expense. As a measure of the site's effectiveness, I would say that New York Life's demutualized competitors are probably not going to be happy about the points GuaranteesMatters makes, and the some of the ways it makes them. But visitors to the site are likely to conclude that the demutualized companies are merely reaping what they've sown.

I was less impressed by Progressive's new "social responsibility" site named Progressive Together. The site is no doubt a good idea, but one wishes it could have been executed without so obviously bowing to fashionable pieties with a vaguely collectivist odor. Chief executive officer Glenn Renwick's personal message manages to be more dignified than the rest of the materials at the site, and it includes a personable photo of the sporty CEO. However, the site as a whole uncomfortably unites self-serving content with a quasi-religious call for the visitor's conversion to the mission. The clickable illustration at the homepage is pretentiously titled "iconsciousness," a mysterious state of mind to which one gathers viewers ought to aspire. According to a press release, the site includes a providing "information and resources on how site visitors can personally make a difference."

Progressive has created a title called "social responsibility manager," held by one Wanda Shippy, who explains the name of the site: "We call our social responsibility site 'Progressive Together' because it reflects our commitment to work with our communities, business partners and customers to create a better future together."

Depending on how one reads it, this is an innocuous message about activities that should indeed be done, and no doubt their coordination is in good hands (pardon the phrase) with Ms. Shippy. However, this statement, along with the entire "Progressive Together" site vibe, strikes me as too familiar, too presumptuous. Such freedom with one's personal thoughts and concerns is all the rage, and one can imagine a hip, up-to-date marketing company recommending this approach to Progressive. Maybe they're right to, and maybe I'm rapidly turning into a sour old curmudgeon. But doesn't Progressive want to sell insurance to sour old curmudgeons too?

Frankly, I'm not looking to "built a better future" with my auto insurer, much as I might appreciate that they're trying to pollute less and give something back to communities where they make a profit. I've always considered the pursuit of happiness to be a private matter. And my recommendations for people wishing to be "socially responsible" are as follows: be considerate, especially to the very young and very old; mind your manners; work hard; don't go out looking like a slob; sweep your front step; buy something at the bake sale; aspire to be someone people are glad to be with; be prepared to make yourself useful in any situation; judge people by the content of their character; support your children financially and morally; obey the law; pay taxes and register for the draft. And mind your own business.Frankly, I'm not looking to "built a better future" with my auto insurer, much as I might appreciate that they're trying to pollute less and give something back to communities where they make a profit. I've always considered the pursuit of happiness to be a private matter.

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek ...