When Reality Meets Marketing – A Cautionary Tale

Full Disclosure: I am a Non-Exec Director of MESH, mentioned here.

In his speech to this year’s MRG Conference Phil Smith, DG of the UK advertiser association, ISBA made the point that advertising isn’t quite as powerful a force as its creators like to think.

Phil quoted my old mentor, Simon Broadbent who said: ‘Advertising is, to the chagrin of many advertisers, rather a weak force whose effects are often hard to see.’

Even the best advertising struggles against the headwind generated by a poor consumer experience. The work of MESH and the IPA to stress the power of total brand experiences, including owned media channels is timely.

Too many business leaders don’t join the dots. They assume that the act of communicating certain values via glossy ads somehow absolves them from the responsibility of living those values every day.

Direct Line car insurance is one of the UK’s better known marketing success stories.

From the iconic red telephone to more recent commercials featuring Winston Wolfe the company’s ads are well-crafted and well-known.

Furthermore, they have been at the forefront of paid media effectiveness analytics, championed by Sam Taylor.

But inevitably real life and marketing promises collide, and so at this point I’m going to revert to a personal tale of a man, his wife and their insurance company.

My wife and I both have a car. For convenience we use the same insurance company.

A few years ago, the company we both insured with was acquired by Direct Line Group. We didn’t notice – until the price of our policies went up, lots.

We decided to move to a small company called By Miles who track the miles you drive, and (in part) charge by the miles driven (neither of us does many miles).

By Miles was a disruptor. They did things differently to my earlier insurers. For one thing they answered queries. They had a handy app to record the miles driven. They were friendly and didn’t use chatbots. They were rather fun (if an insurance company can be fun).

They talked on their site of their values – or virtues.

Then By Miles was acquired by Direct Line Group. All will continue as before we were told.

Not quite. Talk of virtues seemed to vanish for a start.

Then By Miles informed me that they could no longer insure my car, a year-old hybrid, bought new, with a factory fitted immobiliser, an added tracker and a bright yellow steering wheel lock.

Nothing had changed at my end. I’m in the same house. I haven’t added any new drivers. I haven’t had any convictions nor any accidents. I’ve not made a claim.

So why was my cover cancelled with three weeks’ notice? No-one seemed to know, beyond blaming anonymous underwriters and hiding behind the ‘we’re only a small company’ schtick which given the Direct Line acquisition isn’t even true.

As a consumer my relationship is with the insurance company. If a third party like an underwriter decides not to cover a make or model, I feel their concerns should be explained to those impacted, or even made public in the interest of encouraging harder-to-steal or safer cars?

My enforced search threw up about 100 companies prepared to insure my car. It’s clearly not that weird. The only ones I found that refused me were Direct Line Group companies.

Naturally nobody has to do business with anyone. Any company has to consider multiple risk factors, but I would contend that this is when good communication minimises brand harm. I’m sure anonymous underwriters couldn’t care less about such things, but consumer-facing businesses like insurance companies should.

We decided to cancel my wife’s By Miles policy and explain why (it’s just easier to deal with one company). This certainly caused a reaction, primarily of surprise. Why would I do such a thing?

I wrote personal emails to the leadership team at Direct Line Group asking them to explain why I had been cancelled. Maybe I shouldn’t consider that marque of car again?

Zero reply from anyone – not even those with ‘Customer Relations’ in their job title.

The (comparatively new) By Miles CEO and CMO didn’t bother replying either.

The By Miles service team did forward my concern to their complaints team. I was promised a response within 72 hours. That was on November 20th, and there’s been nothing.

Direct Line has spent years building their reputation, through their marketing efforts. It took minutes to destroy it, certainly through the opaque underwriter system but also by not using their owned media channels well (or indeed at all).

I’m not arrogant enough to claim I’m any kind of influencer when it comes to which insurance company anyone should use.

But I know I won’t be using any Direct Line brand again – however good their advertising and however much I admire Sam Taylor’s work.

Direct Line’s 2022 Annual Report states:

“Our mission is to be brilliant for customers every day. Our vision is to create a world where insurance is personal, inclusive and a force for good. Our purpose is to help people carry on with their lives giving them peace of mind now and in the future.”

It goes on: “The Group’s financial results fell below expectations in 2022…”

  1. I can remember a Jeremy Bullmore article in Campaign magazine from many years ago (I still have it in a file somewhere) that stated that everything a brand does or says should be classified as marketing. What is the point, one might ask, in spending millions on one part of your marketing and then letting yourself down by not spending a fraction of that on another part?
    It also beggars belief that before buying another brand you don’t do the ‘due diligence’ on what made that brand worth the money you paid for it? Direct Line obviously didn’t do that because all the effort put in by ByMiles has been thrown out with the bathwater.
    Perhaps it was bought in order to shut it down because it represented some sort of threat?
    Whatever the reason they now have spend a great deal more to win two new customers to replace the Jacobs they’ve lost.
    Again a basic marketing tenet is ignored.

  2. Thanks Richard. I did notice that the By Miles Founder left not so long before the DL acquisition was announced so you may very well have a point.
    Meantime the unquestioned power of The Cog Blog has generated precisely zero reaction from either Direct Line or By Miles!

  3. Hi Brian, another great read and rings so many bells. My background is in brand development and advertising but one has always known that brand experience is crucial for advertising to have any credibility. Maybe you should send the blog to Sam Taylor?

  4. I also had a bad experience with Direct Line this year. When my quote to renew my car insurance with my existing supplier went up by 81% I remembered the DL advertising and asked them (among others) for a quote. It came back double what my incumbent was offering yet the DL ads had convinced me that they represented good value so I was very surprised. Needless to say I did not go with them! As you say when the experience doesn’t live up to the marketing it’s far worse than if they hadn’t said anything in the first place.

  5. Thanks Hilary – I did tag Sam on the LinkedIn post.
    And thanks Carole, it’s sad to see such mismanagement of a brand at scale.

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