Esurance stakes claim in auto-insurance biz

Premiums pile up amid national TV campaign with animated ad icon

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mfrazier@crain.com

Online insurer Esurance is the new kid on the block in the competitive auto-insurance space, where ad spending tops $1 billion a year. Could this tiny upstart, a survivor of the dot-com bust, be the next Geico?

With ads featuring Erin Esurance, an animated character with distinct pink hair and green eyes, the San Francisco company is taking a similar path with its marketing strategy, standing out in a sea of creative sameness by creating an appealing persona capable of making the jump to pop-culture relevance.

And it's making stellar gains … la Geico in its heady earlier days. It's growing premiums written-the industry's measure of growth-an average of nearly 70% year over year and has racked up 350,000 customers since writing its first policy in December 1999, primarily targeting savvy online consumers with an average age of 35.

Like its competitors, Esurance has upped ad spending, launching its first national TV campaign in 2006, produced in-house. (Media planning and buying have been handled by Havas' MPG since mid-2005). It's more than tripled measured media spending from $27.5 million in 2005 to $86.4 million in the first nine months of 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

As Esurance has grown, so has its marketing division, which numbers 40 at the 1,500-employee company.

Founded in 1998 at the height of the dot-com craze, the company spent its entire budget on paid-search and portal advertising until 2004. "We saw we [were] going to need to expand into off-line channels to keep growing as rapidly," said John Swigart, chief marketing officer.

Erin Esurance was created by Kristin Brewe, the company's director-brand and public relations, along with San Francisco's Wild Brain animation. The character emerged from creative first used in online ads. "We were running tests of different creative online, and ... the cartoons were the most effective," Ms. Brewe said. Also, animation could be far cheaper than a live-action commercials.

"She's an iconic figure now," Mr. Swigart said. "We don't even need to have our logo and name for outdoor campaigns; we just use her green eyes and pink hair, and that's enough to mean Esurance."

Esurance tracked brand awareness closely when the campaign launched, and claims it is the most-recognized brand after the big four-State Farm, Allstate, Progressive and Geico.
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