Progressive, which for years has filled the airwaves with lighthearted ads featuring Flo the perky sales clerk, is getting serious in its newest campaign breaking this week. In TV and digital ads, the car insurer will abandon its incessant discount messaging and adopt an understated approach aimed at pushing what executives say are the company's values of hard work, pride and dedication.
Flo is noticeably absent in the campaign, which is called "The Thread." But her white apron is not. The garment, which she has worn in 94 separate ads in the past six years, appears at the end of the campaign's first TV ad, which includes footage of people strapping on aprons as they head to work in various industries.
Flo is not retiring: She will continue as the centerpiece of Progressive's "Superstore" campaign, which along with other comedic spots such as "Rate Suckers," will still account for the majority of the marketer's media buy, said Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Charney. "Flo has made us a household name," he said. But "if you look behind the veil of 'Superstore,' there's a real company and there's real people behind it," he said. And "millennials and others are really looking at the company behind the advertising," he added.
The goal of the new campaign is for Progressive to introduce consumers to the "real company behind its popular, apron-clad icon," the company said in a statement, rather than making a hard sell. Still, the marketer and lead ad agency Arnold Worldwide took pains to avoid the typical conventions used in corporate-image efforts.
For instance, rather than spotlighting Progressive employees, the campaign will feature outsiders the company says shares its values. Initially, this will be executed through an initiative called "Apron Projects" that will be hosted on a dedicated website that will include videos of people "who, through their work, make progress by making things a little better," according to the company.
One video features Stephen Ritz, a high-school principal in New York's South Bronx and founder of the Green Bronx Machine, which teaches kids about urban gardening.
Another video spotlights a San Francisco start-up called Helios Bars, which invented special blinkers and GPS systems designed for bike handlebars meant to improve safety.
Progressive is not funding these startups or giving money to the people featured in the videos. And the company isn't asking for a direct response from viewers. Rather, Progressive simply wants to help these people "tell their story," Mr. Charney said, noting the subjects of the videos will be featured across Progressive's media properties, including its Facebook page. "We are just saying, 'Look we respect people like us,' " he said. "Progress is what we are all about."
The approach is another example of the car-insurance industry returning to its roots of emotionally tinged, serious advertising after years of spending many millions of dollars on flashy campaigns featuring quirky mascots and punchlines. Those strategies remain in full force, whether it be with Flo, Allstate's "Mayhem," or Geico's gecko. But marketers are complementing these campaigns with softer ads in an attempt to stand out in a category that spent a collective $2 billion on measured media in 2012, according to Kantar Media.
Allstate, for instance, recently added a touchy-feely campaign called "Good Life" to its media mix, with a simple message that "people live for good."
Nationwide last year ditched its geeky "World's Greatest Spokesperson in the World" character for emotional ads featuring voice-overs by Julia Roberts in an effort called "Join the Nation."
Progressive opted against a celebrity spokesperson for the first TV ad of its new campaign, which launches during programing including NBC's "The Voice," and CBS's "Big Bang Theory." Rather, the man speaking in the ad is Sean McBride, Senior VP-Creative Director at Arnold, who wrote the ad. Using celebrities "would be pretty typical of everybody else in the world," Mr. Charney said. Referring to Mr. McBride, he said: "He believed it, he was the first guy who read it to me. And it stuck with me."