Norwich Union has come a long way since it numbered Isaac Newton and Walter Scott among its customers. With a major rebrand to communicate to 50 million customers, it turned to its greatest resource for help. Gareth Mason explains…
Back in 1797, Seth Wallace, New Buckenham’s blacksmith, took out insurance against fire for his house and premises. Norwich Union’s first customer was supported by the £27 of capital raised by its founder Thomas Bignold, but two centuries later, it is the largest insurance group in the UK and the fifth largest in the world handling £359 billions of funds. With this expansion, Norwich Union was too parochial a moniker for a firm operating in 27 countries so in 2008 the company became Aviva – the name already adopted by 17 of its affiliates overseas.
Norwich Union moulded its message with the help of a research method called Customer Councils. Its partner was Branding Science a London-based research agency, which had first developed the method in the pharmaceutical industry.
Working with Aventis, which was testing a drug for treating osteoporosis, Branding Science had brought doctors and pharma staff together to build trust and understanding between two groups that often circled each other with suspicion. Peter Caley, the Branding Science managing director, who first come up with the idea for the councils felt that bringing such groups closer could only result in a win-win situation for all – a process he describes as ‘value innovation.’
Doctors were divided into four groups depending on their attitude towards diabetes treatment. Each group included a member of the Aventis marketing team. The first council was held at RAF Cosworth with the follow-up held three months later at the Royal Agricultural Hall. The results significantly influenced the direction of Aventis’s marketing. Wanting a closer engagement with its customers, Norwich Union was attracted to this method when it met up with Branding Science at a trade fair. Initially, Customer Councils were used to communicate changes in policy for a mainly older range of customers.
Helping customers help themselves
Nigel Spencer, Head of Marketing Insight, Aviva UK picks up the story. ‘We first tested the concept in our equity release business. It’s a product aimed at retired homeowners. We found the over-70s difficult to research through traditional focus groups and telephone interviews.
‘They didn’t like the formality of a focus group and struggled to deal with complex telephone surveys. Customer Councils allowed this audience to be relaxed, comfortable, and engaged enough to talk about sensitive matters of health, inheritance, family, and money. We then used the format with IFAs specialising in equity release, showed them footage and findings from customer research and then worked with the advisers to construct products and processes to make it easier for customers to decide whether to take it up.’
The success of the program persuaded Norwich Union to use Customers Councils for its Aviva rebrand. Two waves of councils were held in London, Manchester and Newcastle between May and October in 2008. They were held respectively at Craven Cottage and City of Manchester football stadiums, and an opera house. Tours of the locations and a full meal were included.
‘The sessions were light on prompts,’ says Spencer, ‘and really facilitated discussions built around a question such as “What advice would you give to Aviva in making this change?” Later, we presented the communications plan and asked for feedback, or present TV scripts for comment, or show internal communications video. It can be summed up as a one question, 30-minute discussion with a facilitator and some Aviva people. This always included at least two senior directors such the group CEO, UK general insurance CEO, brand director, or marketing director from our main UK businesses.’
The councils consisted of 30 customers, 20 from Norwich Union, the rest from competitors. Each session lasted three and a half hours, alternating between whole group discussions and smaller groups. A DVD was made and circulated among Aviva’s top brass featuring highlights of the group discussion and individual customer interviews.
Spencer continues: ‘Early engagement is one big advantage and having senior decision makers sitting with customers. The councils work best when you’re not really clear of the solution yourself and want input to shape your thinking. For example, when briefing 30 customers on the rebranding to Aviva you get to test your answer when they question your reasoning. And customers very quickly see through corporate rubbish.’
The findings informed the company’s unfolding publicity.
‘On the equity release side, we ended up redesigning our product, our marketing material and our sales processes to make it more human, less threatening. This was three or four years ago and we remain the number one provider of these products by market share.
‘For the rebrand work, we built the customer feedback into our communications programme and strategy. We asked the council members to write the messages and while our marketing teams crafted it, Aviva customers wrote the heart of our communications.’
Aviva, not España
‘We wrote to all of our customers – around seven million – explaining what we were doing and why. We addressed concerns such as whether Norwich Union had failed, or been taken over by a Spanish company. This was December 2008 – soon after several big trusted financial services brands had failed. We wrote to them before our advertising campaign, directing them to a website with previews of our adverts. We had never shared information that previously would have been considered confidential.
‘We changed our approach to evolving our logo including the shift from “Norwich Union soon to be Aviva” moving to “Aviva, the new name for Norwich Union”.’
The company’s advertising drew attention to other favourable name changes such as Leningrad changing back to St Petersburg, Arpanet to Internet, and Brosnan to Craig.
‘Our TV advertising focused on the name change – establishing it in our customer minds, before explaining what Aviva stood for. Having filmed and direct customer engagement helped our PR work inside and out. We shared the insights with our business partners, brokers, and intermediaries, reassuring them the change to Aviva would help build rather than damage their business. Four months after the rebrand, recognition and awareness for Aviva matched those of the long-established Norwich Union brand and it was all underpinned by the councils’ voice.
‘The customers involved became real advocates. A man in Newcastle was so keen to contribute to a London session that he took a day’s holiday to travel down and then set off home again at 4am because his boss wouldn’t give him two days off!
‘Another thing that came out was seeing people’s confidence and sense of well-being impacted so greatly by the credit crunch. As we had got to know them as individuals you could see how much their attitude and behaviour changed. We built this change into our 2009 messaging because we saw it happen.’
It’s all in the name
Kay Martin, director of marketing services at Aviva commented on the results. ‘The TV ads that have aired since late 2008 and early 2009 were shaped around the feedback from the councils. Customers wanted to hear that the change of name was exactly that – just a name change. Our brand tracker shows that spontaneous awareness for Aviva increased to 14 per cent in January 2009 from 4 per cent in December and consideration also increased significantly up to 25 per cent from 11 per cent in December. For Norwich Union, this was a great success.’
John Kitson has the final word. He is the sales and marketing director for Aviva UK General Insurance and an enthusiastic advocate of the councils.
‘Of all the research I’ve done, probably none is more important, comprehensive or free flowing than this. We started when the rebrand was in its infancy before the recession bit hard. And then we listened to those customers while their world changed. Tracking those changes in attitude was incredibly valuable and the nuances we picked up shaped the communications strategy 100 per cent. The research insights were the foundation stones of everything we did. I've never before been involved in something so comprehensive and scientific and yet intuitive. It’s a remarkable success completely fuelled by research. That doesn’t often happen in Financial Services!’
Mike Pepp of Branding Science ran the customer councils on the Aviva rebrand. He explains their value as a marketing tool: Usually in market research, the researcher is intimately involved with the marketers having a relatively limited role. At the conclusion, the researcher gives a debriefing that summarises the key findings. The marketers miss out on the customer experience. With customer councils, they take away a much better understanding of the customer group. It is a very different encountering an angry customer than to be told that customers respond angrily to an initiative!
‘Because the marketers and customers are in the same room, the councils are an opportunity for exchange of ideas. It also transforms the moderator role to one of facilitating an encounter between a marketer and their target customers. The moderator is no longer the voice of the company, but an intermediary allowing them to access and directly inform senior members of the client company.
‘The difference in outcome from normal research is the immediacy with which marketers understand their audience. They come to have personal experience of the audience, their attitudes, and ways of expressing themselves. It’s like the difference between glancing at an A-Z of central London and spending an afternoon walking around the streets.
‘I don’t think there are any pitfalls so long as everyone is prepared to encounter customers as equals and genuinely share with them. Councils will not be productive if there is little intention to take customer opinions into account.’
Research Magazine 2010