CMO of the Week: Liberty Mutual’s Jenna Lebel
Liberty Mutual in early 2019 debuted a new mascot duo to help get their advertising messages out: LiMu Emu (yes, an actual emu) and Doug (a human man), a pair who the company said are passionate about saving people from overpaying for insurance.Created by the brand’s agency, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, the campaign was the latest in a series of more humorous and light-hearted ads that Liberty Mutual was using to stand out in a crowded category. But when COVID-19 struck earlier this year and Liberty Mutual needed to communicate more serious messaging around a customer relief refund, Chief Marketing Officer Jenna Lebel put the duo on hold to strike the right tone.
Liberty Mutual in early 2019 debuted a new mascot duo to help get their advertising messages out: LiMu Emu (yes, an actual emu) and Doug (a human man), a pair who the company said are passionate about saving people from overpaying for insurance.
Created by the brand’s agency, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, the campaign was the latest in a series of more humorous and light-hearted ads that Liberty Mutual was using to stand out in a crowded category. But when COVID-19 struck earlier this year and Liberty Mutual needed to communicate more serious messaging around a customer relief refund, Chief Marketing Officer Jenna Lebel put the duo on hold to strike the right tone.
Liberty Mutual’s customer relief fund was created to give a percentage of premiums back to customers amid COVID, a time when people were watching their dollars more closely. “Given that it’s a more serious message, and given the tone of the country was more somber, we felt that LiMu and Doug were not the best to deliver that message,” said Lebel. “We thought about who could deliver this message. And the reality is that we have this other campaign from 2014, Truth Tellers, that has this iconic Statue of Liberty setting that stands for so much and has been around so long that we felt that was the best way to deliver that message.” That campaign ran for about two months, but the more lighthearted ads with Doug and the LiMu Emu are back in rotation.
Humor, Lebel says, helps the brand stand out in a very crowded category with brands like State Farm and Allstate and Geico, all of which spend considerably more than Liberty Mutual. But beyond humor, the brand also knew it needed to be unique in what it offered customers, so it landed on customized coverage.
“We repositioned a few years ago to be focused on customized coverage so that you only pay for what you need,” sayd Lebel. “When it comes to purchasing insurance, people want good coverage at a good price. We did a ton of research around that to get at that service -- asking about believability, what is a method by which you can get to a good price while retaining good coverage -- and that’s where we got to this idea of customized coverage where you pay for what you need. That’s sort of a white space in the category if you think about how the other brands are positioning themselves in the market. We’re talking about good coverage at a good price; we’re not just saying we’re the cheapest.”
Lebel has been at Liberty Mutual since 2014, when she joined the company to help build up its social media practice. Since then, she’s climbed the ladder into digital marketing, brand marketing, and finally, into the CMO role, which she took on in August 2019.
Brand Innovators caught up with Lebel from her home in Brookline, Mass., just over the city limits from Boston, to discuss bringing more work in-house, own the brand’s media plans have changed and why Liberty Mutual kept its humorous ads amid COVID-19. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been at Liberty Mutual for about 7 years now. What brought you there in the first place? Was becoming CMO your goal when you got there?
I always knew I wanted to be in communications and marketing. When I was a kid, my dream job was to be like Katie Couric. But then I fell in love with marketing and went to school for communications, marketing and psychology, which paired well together. Then I went and got my masters in integrated marketing. At that point I knew I wanted to be a CMO, and it just was a matter of finding the right opportunities to get there.
I started out at a social agency, Likeable, based in New York and I helped open their Boston office. They were ahead of the curve and felt Facebook was going to be the next marketing vehicle, so they started on that as soon as Facebook allowed people outside college on the platform. They were entrepreneurs and they made the right bet about that.
I loved the experience there, because you get a lot of exposure and wear a lot of hats. But I always knew I wanted to get to the brand side of things. I always said I wanted to be at a challenger brand because you get to build things from the ground up. There is no formal blueprint because you're figuring it out as you go. So I joined Liberty Mutual in a social role to help them with social and they were a little old school at the time. So I was building a foundation for social, and helping get everything set up.
Then I moved to a digital marketing role, focusing on insourcing. We’ve been on a multiyear journey to in-source both the media buying and the creative, starting with the digital side of things. Then I moved into brand and integrated marketing, overseeing strategy and management as well as broad reach advertising.. It was really focused on launching our own branded characters LiMu emu and Doug, and making sure our advertising was as effective as it can be. We also repositioned the rband during that time to be more focused on customized coverage to only pay for what you need. Then I moved into the CMO job.
Those characters came on board after you hired Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Right?
We RFP’d back in 2018 and the charge was to help us develop our own branded characters.
Why did you write RFP that specifically requested character development? Was it because other companies in the space had them?
It’s funny, if you look at our category it’s so interesting that we’re marketing a product that’s not tangible. We’re basically marketing a promise, which is that we’ll help you get back on your feet should you face a setback. We see in the category that in order to make sure we’re establishing that brand linkage, you have to rely on brand cues in the form of taglines and jingles and characters to make sure that the brand is top of mind and being remembered. So that’s why we did it.
Before we used the statue of Liberty to do that, to make that connection, in our previous campaign. But there are limitations with that, because we felt the Statue of Liberty can only really be a backdrop because we have people in the foreground, so we wanted to complement that with branded characters who can be a sort of physical representation of our brand.
How have you been approaching diversity at Liberty Mutual?
Diversity and inclusion is at the center of everything we do. We have a chief diversity officer and a diversity & inclusion office that’s been around for several years helping us with talent recruitment, creative an inclusive workplace, making sure communities are supported
From an advertising perspective, it’s been so helpful to have that D&I team working with us because we bring them in on the advertising process very early. As soon as Goodby is developing a script, we bring the D&I team, as well as PR and legal of course, in to really just keep our eyes open. I wish the marketing dept was more diverse but we’re working on it. Even advertising in general can stand to improve its diversity. Our D&I team is looking at the scripts themselves, the messages we’re using, the talent, the casting, they review the casting specs and the actual casting videos and selections. That has prevented us from going down a path that may result in things that can be perceived as offensive.
How has your media mix changed this year?
If you were to ask this a year or two ago, I'd have a different answer. Our budgets are very fluid, even across digital and TV -- not just within them. That allows us to take advantage of opportunities when we see them. We monitor trends and behavior as we see more people use streaming services and connected TVs more. We've been heavily investing there, making sure we’re augmenting the reach of linear TV. COVID has accelerated that. Streaming numbers are up substantially, so we’re monitoring trends making shifts to capitalize on these trends.
Are you moving spending away from any media and into another?
COVID accelerated this too because we were invested in live sports, so we took advantage of some cancellation options, as sports went away for a while. So we shifted those into streaming space, testing more on Hulu, Roku and YouTube.
How are you approaching sports?
We don't have any formal sponsorships, so right now it’s just our TV buy that we’re managing versus a sponsorship, which in my opinion is a better place to be in than if you had a sponsorship and those sports don’t take place.
Many brands are looking to build in-house operations. How are you approaching your in-house agency, and what do you still rely on external agencies for and what are you building internally?
We started around 7 years ago when I came in. Some places we started were creative, specifically email, direct mail and digital. And on the media side we started focusing on social first and then all other digital buying.Our internal creative agency is called Copper Giants and about 80% of all consumer-facing marketing is done by our internal agency. The part that’s done externally is TV, some radio and some direct mail. On the media side we’re doing all the digital media buying in-house. We still use Initiative for TV, radio out-of-home and some broad reach opportunities.
It’s been a win-win. There’s a cost savings associated with it by having people do the work internally and not having to pay a premium to an external agency. There’s also speed and efficiency gains as well. We’ve been building out more recently some of our video production capabilities as we spend more in video space.
What do you envision for Liberty Mutual’s corporate employees -- and more specifically, the marketing department -- in terms of work life long-term? Do you think employees will be working from home permanently, or have the option to? Or would marketing employees be able to work from home partially, or would that be too challenging long-term?
Marketing has always been flexible when it comes to working from home. I think we’ve demonstrated that we can continue to drive business results while working virtually. Coming out of this, I see us continuing to be extra flexible and allowing more remote working. We are looking at tools to continue to allow and improve upon collaboration and creativity in a virtual setting.
Maureen Morrison is a strategic advisor and editorial consultant for Brand Innovators. She is the founder of consultancy Irving Park LLC, based in San Francisco.