Shoot the Messenger: Is Progressive Threatening to Kill Off Flo?

Last Updated Mar 23, 2011 1:34 PM EDT

Progressive (PGR) did one of the dumbest things possible in December by creating a friend for Flo, its perky insurance pitchwoman: "The Messenger" is a road warrior-type who enthuses about insurance in diners and mattress stores; Flo only appears in his commercials as a bobblehead doll on his dashboard (video below).

Although it sounds trivial, Progressive screws with Flo at its peril: She was recently named the most popular current ad icon by readers of Entertainment Weekly -- besting the Pillsbury Doughboy and Budweiser's Clydesdales. She has 2.6 million Facebook friends (and only 1,500 haters).

The stakes are high because for some strange reason insurance is a "hot" advertising category in which the creative product is of an unusually high quality across competitors (in addition to Flo, think of AllState's "Mayhem"; Geico's Gecko, the cavemen and its Question Guy; and Oprah Winfrey's work for Liberty Mutual). Achieving this level of memorability isn't easy: Esurance axed Erin, its insurance-loving secret agent after she developed an X-rated life of her own among fanboys. Her replacement, "The Saver," is rather less interesting. And the State Farm Guy has problems of his own.

Here's how Flo stacks up against industry averages in the E-Score Character survey by E-Poll Market Research, which tracks the popularity of ad icons:
  • Total Awareness, Image awareness
  • Progressive's Flo: 49%, 53%
  • Insurance average: 37%, 40%
  • Corporate average: 31%, 36%
Flo outranks her peers by several percentage points on virtually all of E-Poll's other variables. Thus, diluting the Flo campaign with The Messenger seems like a huge mistake. For one thing, it's not entirely clear who The Messenger is, or why Flo even needs him. Progressive chief marketing officer Jeff Charney says:
With Superstore, consumers come to us. With The Messenger, we go directly to them. And, the Messenger highlights why you should shop around for insurance, while Flo helps you when you're ready to buy.
But his shades, mustache and the Flo doll in his car all suggest that The Messenger is a psychopath intent on hunting down Flo and killing her. Perhaps Progressive should shoot the messenger before it's too late.


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