LONDON (AdAge.com) -- Car insurance aggregator sites are not usually the kind of marketers to inspire a nation's affection, but with the help of an aristocratic meerkat named Alexandr Orlov, Comparethemarket.com has become part of British pop culture while turning around its own fortunes.
First appearing in a TV campaign early this year, the cravat-wearing Alexandr Orlov spiels in a heavy Russian accent to the British public from his office in a "swanky" part of Moscow. He runs a website that compares meerkats, and is fed up with time wasters sniffing around his website looking for cheap car insurance. His catchphrase, "simples," has become part of the vernacular -- it is already included as a "buzzword" entry in the Macmillan Dictionary -- and there is a Facebook campaign to have it included in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Alexandr came from very humble beginnings: A cash-strapped marketer briefed London's Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest to find a way of side-stepping the high cost per click on the word "market" (which is more than $8). Any search on the word "meerkat" leads you to the Comparethemarket.com site (although they also set up a meerkat comparison site for fun). The campaign has driven down Comparethemarket's cost per acquisition by 73%.
During a pitch to retain the business, VCCP, part of Lord Tim Bell's Chime Communications Group, came up with the idea of playing with the word "meerkat." It was similar to "market" but only cost 8¢ per click, and it also offered up more creative potential.
Adrian Coleman, a founding partner of VCCP, said, "It's very much a sign of the communications times. It used to take a year for a campaign to get traction, but with the advent of Facebook and Twitter, it's snowballed. Obviously it's a good campaign that's engaged people, but the media has helped generate momentum."
Alexandr has more than 500,000 fans on Facebook, 26,000 followers on Twitter and 50 marriage proposals under his belt. He is rumored to be releasing a single at Christmas, and his fans are clamoring for him to be replicated as a cuddly toy they can call their own.
More traditional media has also played its part in Alexandr's popularity. Visits to meerkats at zoos have rocketed, and the BBC recently broadcast a news story warning people that meerkats do not make good household pets (one woman had spent £1,000 on a pair) because they like to live in big colonies and burrow underground.
The "Meerkat" campaign achieved all of its 12-month objectives in just nine weeks, sparking national newspaper headlines such as "Meerkat mania" and "Meer we go again." Spontaneous brand awareness almost tripled from the lowest in its category at 20% to the highest at 59%.
Despite having the lowest marketing spending of all its competitors (around $25 million), traffic to the website increased by 400% and there was an 80% increase in the number of quotes given out.
Comparethemarket.com's market share jumped 76% between January and August, while its rivals in the category all saw market share plummet. According to online-intelligence company Hitwise, MoneySupermarket.com was down by 25.2%, Confused.com by 5% and GoCompare.com by 31.8%. GoCompare has responded by launching a campaign featuring an opera singer called Gio Compario who sings about insurance.
Matt Willifer, ex-planning director of M&C Saatchi and chairman of the Account Planning Group, said, "Comparison sites are traditionally a fairly poor creative category, and there's been a debate about whether that really matters. The obvious requirement is to lodge the name in people's minds, and often you can do that just by being annoying and pervasive. It's interesting that the 'Meerkat' campaign is creatively so much better than its rivals, and that Alexandr has transcended advertising to become an entertainment property."
Jason Lonsdale, international planning director at Saatchi & Saatchi, said, "They've done something unexpected and a bit bonkers, and it's paid off. A campaign based on talking animals and a pun sounds like a terrible idea, but it works. Increasingly we live in a world where advertising is made by committee and focus groups, so it becomes very anodyne. The big lesson in this is to take some risks and be brave."
And if you're looking for a logical explanation, don't bother.
Gareth Goodall, head of planning at Fallon, drew a comparison between the meerkat and his own agency's "Gorilla" spot for Cadbury. He said, "Both are in a category where the rational-persuasion model doesn't work, so you just have to trust in the power of creativity."