It all started with five unscripted words.
Back in 2007, Progressive Insurance’s brand recognition was somewhere between zero and being mistaken for Progresso soup. The company needed an identity and, working with its ad agency Arnold Worldwide, came up with the concept of the superstore. If most people thought shopping for insurance was hell, the superstore–all gleaming white, neatly ordered shelves–represented heaven. Not only that, but its rows of boxes labeled for car, home, and other types of insurance made tangible a product and sales process many found confusing.
In the campaign’s first-ever ad, aired on January 14, 2008, a customer says, “Wow,” impressed with all the extras that come with his savings of more than $350. A cashier named Flo echoes his enthusiasm and says, “Wow! I say it louder…” And that was it.
“When she said that, we realized she really had something special, she was a character with real character,” says Progressive CMO Jeff Charney. “That character was completely unplanned, but we saw it and we jumped on it. She became the center of this ad sitcom. It took us a couple of spots, but we started to move the focus on her.”
Iconic brand mascots are in many ways a hallmark of a bygone era. The Glad man. The Energizer bunny. The Dell dude. And we all know what happened to Jared from Subway. Aside from breakfast cereal, the life-spans of these characters are short to nonexistent. Flo is an outlier. In the decade since her debut, Progressive’s business has more than doubled from $13.6 billion in 2008 to nearly $30 billion today. According to the company, its growth rate over that same time period, which accelerated to 21% in the company’s most recent quarter, has been roughly double that of the property and casualty insurance industry as a whole through the most recent year-end.
Another sign of brand mascot success? Imitators. Meet Lily from AT&T.
And Jan from Toyota.
Who is Flo?
Part Leslie Knope, part Kristen Wiig Target Lady, not quite either, Flo has become an iconic brand mascot not for crazy antics or over-the-top humor. She’s relatable. She’s funny, but more goofy aunt than brand mascot.
“Flo humanizes insurance, something that can feel pretty impersonal,” says VCU Brandcenter professor Caley Caldwell. “We are paying for something we hope we never need and if we do need it we want to believe that it will be easy and human. Flo seems like the kind of person we would hope to get on the other end of the line to help us through an unpleasant situation.”
She’s played by Stephanie Courtney, a veteran of L.A.’s famed Groundlings Theatre, an improv and sketch comedy group that has graduated a laundry list of stars, including Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, and Lisa Kudrow. As is often the case with actors who play brand mascots, Courtney does not give many interviews (Progressive did not make her available to Fast Company). But in 2016, she told USA Today that Flo was inspired by her mom. “What they were looking for was basically a friendly neighborhood waitress; she is super friendly and nice, almost to the point of madness, and I was like, ‘I can do that.’ I went straight to my mom and I credit her with Flo’s personality. I said, ‘Yes, I can become Jane Courtney’!”
Courtney, 48, has also appeared in movies like Blades of Glory and Netflix’s GirlFriend’s Day, and TV shows like Mad Men, 2 Broke Girls, and You’re the Worst.
But to most of America, she’s Flo.
“Stephanie is a very gifted performer and she has a fundamental likability, vulnerability, and normalcy,” says Arnold Worldwide executive creative director Sean McBride. “Even when we ask her to be dry, she has a really nice way of making it feel like a human moment.”
Flo Meets World
The first two years of the campaign took place exclusively inside Progressive’s fictional superstore during Flo’s never-ending shift. But for those working on the campaign, the biggest move was taking Flo out into the real world.
“For a long time, the formula was someone would come into the store, Flo would tell them a joke, and they’d leave,” says Charney. “It would’ve been easier and cheaper to keep her in the store, but we took her out and it was hugely successful. We realized people wanted to follow her wherever she went.”
Her first venture out of the superstore was in a dream sequence of a customer and avid outdoorsman called “Best Day.” The reaction to the spot convinced Charney and his team they were on the right track.
Flo has attained a status most advertisers desperately crave: becoming a part of culture. There are Flo Halloween costumes, she’s been name-checked by Ellen and Drake, and it all has come not as a result of flashy hype, but steady consistency. “It was a big moment when she physically left (the superstore),” says McBride. “But once she became cultural, which happened much to our delight, then a lot of inspiration became more about culture and the world, and how this hyper-insurance nerd would interact with it and see it.”
Brendan Gibbons has directed all the Progressive spots for the last six years and says moving Flo out into the world added a depth to the campaign, allowing them to play with different genres and styles. “It’s a subtle thing, but the brand itself, through this character, has a self-deprecating quality to it that really connects with people,” says Gibbons. “You can see this character has lived in old-timey genres, soap opera, game show, rom-com, every visual, cinematic world. This campaign holds airtight together while it’s all these different things.”
Knowing What Works
Another key to Flo’s success, according to Charney, has been the company’s control of its media buy, and how they analyze the data behind how people are reacting to Flo in any given commercial or online ad.
“Most brands do the creative, then buy media through an agency,” says Charney. “We decided to buy our own media because we’d get better deals and put the character in the right context.”
His team meets regularly to see what the numbers are telling them and decide where to invest the marketing budget, and whether or not a new spot or character is performing. There was once a character named Brad, a bit of an arrogant guy that the data told them to dump pretty quick.
“People hated him too much,” says Charney. “So that was a character we thought would work but he didn’t last.”
In terms of Flo’s longevity, Charney says the key has been the brand’s constant attention to the data, and balancing Flo with a collection of side characters strong enough to not overload the brand’s star. Right now the brand is shooting its 40th round of spots, and each round has four or five different ads.
“I’ve got the No. 1 brand icon now and we want to stay there,” says Charney. “If you think about Q scores, if you see Flo 15 to 20 times a month, multiply that by 10 years–I don’t care if you’re Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Ellen DeGeneres–whoever it is, if they’re trying to sell you something, you’d probably get tired of that person. The data is showing us the opposite about Flo. That’s a very difficult thing to achieve.”