Even Without Live Sports, State Farm Stuck With TV During the Pandemic

The insurance giant's CMO on finding unique opportunities with networks

Jake from State Farm has been a fixture on television in the last six months. State Farm
Headshot of Ryan Barwick

The rescheduling of professional sports in the spring due to Covid-19 brought fans a cornucopia of content in the last several weeks: the NHL’s Stanley Cup was finally awarded in late September, the NBA Championship came three months late in early October, and the culmination of Major League Baseball’s shortened run coincides with the first five weeks of the NFL season.

And one brand spokesman seems to be in the middle of it all. Jake from State Farm has become nearly as recognizable as his campaign’s co-stars: future hall of famers Chris Paul, Aaron Rogers and Patrick Mahomes.

State Farm, alongside competitors Geico, Progressive and Allstate, has long relied on live sports to convey its quirky campaigns, infusing humor and levity into the bone-dry insurance industry.

If a brand can afford it, there’s no place better to catch those eyeballs than sports. During the first four weeks of the NFL, insurance companies made up three of the top four brands among TV ad impressions (Geico was place, with Progressive in third and State Farm in fourth) earning 620 million impressions, according to iSpot, which tracks national TV ads.

“It’s the last bastion of live television; there’s just a lot of passion,” said State Farm CMO Rand Harbert, who’s been with the company in some capacity since 1992. 

When the pandemic pulled the proverbial rug out from under live sports, State Farm had to get creative. While certain industries were forced to curtail their spend, insurers actually increased their marketing budgets, dropping an additional $95 million between April 1 and Sept. 30 vs. the same period last year. (With fewer drivers on the road in the spring, insurers were paying out less in claims.)

“We went back to traditional media, asked, ‘What are the opportunities here? What are the opportunities that are unique and can put our brand in a unique place?'” Harbert said.

The brand’s “Being a Good Neighbor” campaign, in which State Farm gave customers an average of 25% off their policies, netted nearly 90 million impressions on the Today show and Good Morning America alone between March 17 and April 30. “Everyone’s glued to the news,” Harbert said about the early days of the pandemic.

It didn’t take long for those unique opportunities to arrive: State Farm made a splash as one of the presenting sponsors of ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance. The brand used the high profile opportunity to roll out several deepfake commercials featuring former SportsCenter personalities, which Adweek dubbed an “MVP Performance.”

While the documentary was originally set to air during the NBA Finals in June (which just concluded on Sunday), State Farm and ESPN made the deal during the first few weeks of the pandemic. It quickly became ESPN’s most-watched documentary, averaging 5.6 million viewers in live plus same day ratings. State Farm also sponsored the NBA’s Horse shooting contest, which aired on ESPN, and Disney’s Family Sing-Along which aired on ABC, both in April.

Without live sports, State Farm decreased its TV spend from $307 million in 2019 to $283 million this year, but racked up an additional 1.4 billion impressions.

“They were able to do this successful strategy in the midst of Covid-19 when not only was there a recession, but sports and live events sort of vanished underneath their feet,” said marketing consultant Tim Shea. “I think that was a very deft.”

Now, with live sports back, Harbert has a less challenging problem on his hands.

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@RyanBarwick ryan.barwick@adweek.com Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.