Take Risks, Tell Stories and Other Marketing Lessons From Progressive’s CMO

Jeff Charney also spoke with Adweek about the company's iconic spokesperson, Flo

Adweek caught up with Charney at the ANA Masters of Marketing Conference.
Headshot of Diana Pearl

At last week’s ANA Masters of Marketing Conference, marketers talked about a changing industry, one that faced new challenges while still reckoning with old ones.

But Jeff Charney, Progressive’s CMO, did not bring that gloom to his Thursday morning presentation, the first of the day after ANA CEO Bob Liodice. Instead, he brought music.

By the end of his half-hour talk, the entirety of the ballroom at Orlando’s Rosen Shingle Creek hotel was on its feet, singing along to Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” But before the music started, Charney spoke about the realities of the marketing industry and how marketers need to take more risks to get out of ruts, self-imposed and otherwise. Adweek caught up with Charney after his presentation to discuss taking those risks, Progessive’s famed spokesperson Flo, how to get your marketing message across and more. Here are five key takeaways from that discussion:

Take risks

This is Charney’s marketing M.O. He claimed the marketing industry has gone into something of a “creative hibernation,” and taking chances—calculated ones—are the way we can snap out of it. Fear, he told Adweek, has been the driving motivator behind this lack of risk in recent years. But conquering that fear doesn’t mean diving into the deep end without any preparation. Doing your research and looking at the data is key to crafting a marketing message, particularly one that will resonate.

“Your company has to be brave,” Charney said. “People are scared. This is a very polarizing environment, and you’ve got to understand the marketplace and most importantly, do creative that’s insight-based. If you do it insight-based, it’ll always work.”

Tell stories

This is how to get people invested in your marketing, Charney said. “If the story is compelling and the concept is compelling, then people will buy,” he said. “Hitting people over the head with buy, buy, buy is not the way to do it. They’ll buy if you’re telling the right story that relates to them. It’s relatable versus jackhammer.”

Create characters

When you think Progressive, you likely think of Flo, a character who has appeared for years in the company’s ads as a cheery salesperson. Since her debut in 2008, she’s become something of a marketing icon—she even has her own Twitter account. Charney said having a character like Flo has been a real advantage for Progressive because it builds brand recognition and engagement. “Over time, you identify with these characters,” he said. “You tune in no matter what because you’ve had grown up with them.”

Switch it up

Though Flo is a powerful tool for Progessive, Charney said he tries not to overuse her in order to keep things fresh. The brand has also introduced new characters, like Jamie, another salesperson, to “take the load off.” Deciding when to use Flo, Charney said, is “like a chess game of putting your character in the right place at the right time and context.” He added that Flo doesn’t need to be in every piece of marketing because she’s gotten to a place where “she’s at the center of the pop culture table.” People know her and recognize her even without constant reminders.

Keep the content central

Unlike some of their competitors who’ve made access to their spokespeople more readily available—think Geico’s Cavemen show for ABC in 2007—Charney said Progressive tries to keep its characters restricted to the marketing. There are constant requests coming in for interviews with Stephanie Courtney, the actress and comedian who has played Flo for a decade. But the brand resists those requests, not wanting to take away from her portrayal of the character. “We want people to identify with the character, not the person behind the character,” he said. “It’s the scarcity model. We want to keep people guessing.”

@dianapearl_ diana.pearl@adweek.com Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.