The innovative insurance brands are beginning to win.

Even if the old way of doing insurance business is still working for your agency, it’s certainly not working as well as it used to. New technology, new competitors and new customers are creating new challenges for the modern insurance agency

Part of the solution lies in how we brand our insurance business.

Marty Agather is joined by Peter Van Aartrijk, founder and president of Aartrijk Associates, an insurance branding and public relations firm headquartered in Virginia, to discuss four ways to innovate your insurance brand.

Watch the video for the complete interview or download/read the transcript below:

Download Copy of Transcript


Marty: Howdy, Marty Agather, Agency Nation. And today I’m coming to you from the Big Eye Winter Meeting in Rancho Mirage, California. We’re here in this beautiful location and we’re interviewing my guest, Peter. Peter, introduce yourself to the group.

Peter: Hey, I’m Peter Van Aartrijk and we’ve done a lot of marketing work in the independent agent channel. And we’ve been working with agents, Marty, for 25 or 30 years on all kinds of branding issues. And we’ve been involved with the Big Eye a long time, too.

Marty: Yes, absolutely. And you are with, and don’t be shy, you’re with Aartrijk and Associates.

Peter: Aartrijk and Associates, and Aartrijk is actually a town in Belgium. And so we took the family name, and it’s a tough spelling, but that’s what branding is about. You want to be unique, right?

Marty: That’s exactly right. So for those of you who are wondering, there’s two A’s at the front of that, and a J, which does it.

Peter: Yeah, it throws people, big time. But it’s capital R and trike, like bike, R-trike.

Marty: Okay, R-trike, that’s how we pronounce it. That’s exactly right.

All right, so you and I were talking, and obviously we’ve known each other for at least an hour or two, right? So we were talking in the recent past about, sort of, how you are looking at branding these days. And one of the things that you’ve kind of identified is that there’s really, sort of, two widely separated branding methodologies. One is sort of boring and run of the mill, and the other one is a little more innovative and really going to help your organization. You want to give us a little bit of your thoughts on that?

Peter: Yeah, I will. The two concepts are innovative brand versus status quo brand. There’s about 3,000 property casualty insurance companies in the U.S. Most of them use independent agents. And there’s how many independent agents, 40,000 of them?

Marty: Yeah.

Peter: Agencies, I should say. And a lot of them are stuck in status quo, which essentially means that they are not growing, or growing very slowly. They have average name recognition, or below average. They are doing a good job in their world, chugging along. The problem is, in this day and age, average is not going to cut it. And in fact, I think that they are slowly, slowly circling the drain. They may not be aware of it, and it sounds harsh but, you know, you have to hit people over the head sometimes. But the small subset of those 2,000 or 3,000 P&C insurance companies and the 30,000 or 40,000 independent agencies, a small subset are doing some really innovative things. And we call those innovator brands, and that’s not just unique to our business. I mean, you look at any customer segment, B to B or B to C, and you can tell the innovators. They are just doing some things that are really interesting.

Marty: So, when you look sorta, what do you think separates one of those average brands from an innovator brand? What are some of the characteristics that you see that you believe help those agencies, those businesses, get out of their own way and really start to create brand value?

Peter: The biggest one. . .There’s four main categories. The biggest one is leadership. Our industry is desperate, desperately in need of leadership. It is pretty scary. And there are a lot of good insurance technicians in our business, and this is a tough business. You know, you have to get things right, and that’s why we have insurance education. You got to know what’s in the policy. You know, you don’t want to get sued and give wrong advice. Risk managers, that’s a terrific field to be in. But that kind of transactional leadership is not enough. It’s not enough to be technically sound. You have to have transformational leadership, not just counting numbers and managing by objectives and all those sorts of things that happen. You have to be able to transform organizations to take it to the next level, and transform careers. It’s why smart agents early on were doing things like, “Hey, CSR, you can also sell. Did you know that?” “Oh, I’m not a sales person.” “Yes you are, and we show you how to do that.” And people were like, “Oh, wow!”

So, in the independent agency, you need to have kind of a vision of where you want to go. So transformational leaders say, “Here’s the better world that we envision here. And we have to do some things to get us there, but here’s the road we’re going.” Again, if you’re a status quo brand, you’re not thinking that way. You’re thinking, “Well, we’re just chugging along and this is what we do. We’re a jack-of-all-trades agency, you know. There’s no niches.” You know, transformational leaders look for niches in things. They are smart about technology, obviously what’s going on with the social revolution. They are all over that. So that’s the big one, is the lack of leadership. It’s pretty appalling, actually, Marty.

Marty: There was a book that came out probably 15 to 20 years ago, Michael Gerber, “The E Myth“. Do you remember that one?

Peter: Yeah, a great book.

Marty: Absolutely, and the point there was that many of us got into business because we love what we do. But unfortunately, we’re technicians, rather than that leader that you’re talking about. And I think that’s a huge, huge piece.

Peter: Yeah, I know. And the thing is, if you’re good at something technical, in this case you’re good at what’s in the insurance policy, what coverages people need. That technical skill does not translate into a business of people doing technical things. And that’s why so many. . . and this happens in carriers, too, where you have underwriters, actuaries, rising through, you know, I’m in charge of the field. They are rising through the company and all of a sudden they’re CEO, you know? You’re an agent. You’re good at selling insurance, and suddenly you’re an agency CEO, which is fine. It’s entrepreneurial world. But if you’re not the person to be that transformational leader and transform your organization to where we need to be, then hire people to do it. Hire an operations person, hire a new CEO who can come in and make those changes that are required. It’s okay to be scared about it, if you’re not the one. I used to talk to a good friend of mine and he’d say, “If you’re scared, say you’re scared.” So if you’re not the person to make the change, who will be? So leadership is the first thing.

Marty: And one of the challenges, I think, that many agency principles have is they are beyond their capabilities, but they are running as fast as they can to keep moving. And so, therefore, they don’t know what to do and how to get out of that trap. And ultimately, they are impacting their own retirement, because they’re not growing their business to the way they could to create the value when they want to exit the business.

Peter: Exactly, yeah. So I think if I had to pick one differentiator, and you know what, the agents that are listening to this, watching this can probably say, “You know, I have 12 companies in my shop,” or whatever it is, “I know which ones are innovating.” And probably most of them are just doing the same old, same old. And you know what? It’s okay to do same old, same old, but that’s how you pay the bills. But what are you going to do next? Because I think our industry is ripe for major transformation and it’s going to come from the outside: Google, Wal-Mart, Amazon. They are going to come at us. And even if you’re an agency that doesn’t really care that much about personal lines, or you have a little box and you’re not growing, 50% of the entire PNC premium world, even personal auto alone is 35% of it. So you’re just going to say, I’m not going to worry about the 50%? That’s crazy. 

Marty: Yes it is.

Peter: It can’t just be commercial lines. So that’s number one, transformational leadership. The second one, and I think these all stem from that. If you have the leadership, these other things are going to happen, is culture. We have to create an environment where the young people coming out of college that are coming out of their first jobs are going to look at our industry and say, “This is an awesome place to work.”

And I’ll tell you a quick story. I was talking to an agency owner and he said, “I tried to convince my son to work here. And my son said to me, ‘Dad, why would I work in your agency? It looks like a nursing home, and it smells like a nursing home. Why would I work there?'” And it just hit him over the head, because-

Marty: Wow, that’s powerful.

Peter: Yeah, I know it sounds harsh, but if you go into a lot of agencies, just start with their websites, okay? That’s first, that’s your online office. Does it look like something that others would like to go to? A lot of them just don’t. And so I would love to have my own show. I love Agency Nation, and I’d love to have my own show called, Extreme Agency Makeover.

transformational brandsMarty: Well, and we’ve talked a little bit about that. And so this father who got this, you know, raw, unfiltered commentary from his son. Did he, has he grasped onto that and tried to. . .

Peter: Well, he couldn’t convince him to come to work there, but he started to make some changes in the agency to make it a more attractive place to work. Again, I know it sounds harsh, but you have to look at everything when it comes to culture. You have to. Because the millennials, 95 million people, the largest generation ever. The baby boomers are about 60 or 65 million. Ninety-five million millennials, they’re going to take over this industry if we get out of their way and let them.

So what do they see from the outside when they look at agents and carriers? What do they see? Do they see male, pale, and stale? Do they see something that looks exciting? Innovator brands are doing things to create internships and bring in young people and mentoring. Because baby boomers, like me, we went to work, nose to the grindstone, figure it out. Here’s your job. Here, do your job. And we did.

Marty: Yeah.

Peter: That’s how we were. Millennials are different. They need guidance, they want to work in a positive culture. They want to know, “Okay, what’s next for me here?” They are not going to want to work in a nursing home.

Marty: And more importantly they want to have an impact. They want to be appreciated for what they’re doing, whereas you and I probably did a lot of scutwork for a lot of years, and were happy to get a paycheck.

Peter: That’s right. So they’re going to, you know, going want to work part of the day in Starbucks, maybe at home. Maybe they don’t want to do 9:00 to 5:00. They come to the office, they want nice clean technology, they want bright lights, they want a place to come in and it’s like a positive experience. They will not put up with what baby boomers put up with.

So CEOs who are strong and care about culture are constantly nurturing the staff and don’t leave things to chance. And I would love to do another segment in depth on culture alone. Because I think that branding from the inside out is so critical. If you don’t live the brand on the inside, if your staff does not believe in where the place is going, you can’t possibly do advertising and scream from the mountaintops about how great you are. It’s not going to work. Because the last mile, which is who answers the phone, and all that sort of stuff . . .

Marty: Or how your website looks, or when they walk. . . Heaven forbid they walk into your agency, if it scares them, any of those things, they are gone.

Peter: That’s right.

Marty: They’ve got too many other options.

Peter: And we’re so caught up in stuff, like the policies and the stuff. We forget that consumers really don’t care about the stuff. They care about the stuff around the stuff, if you will. They care about, like, trust and loyalty and those kinds of emotional things.

I read a good book called “A New Brand World“-

Marty: Okay.

Peter: About the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz. And he was going on a tour and he stopped in one of the local Starbucks outlets. And the barista, as they call them, says to him, “You know, I used to think that we were . . .

Marty: Now, did the barista know who he was?

Peter: Yeah.

Marty: Okay.

Peter: He knew who he was, yeah. And he said, “I used to think that we were in the coffee business serving people, but we’re not. We’re in the people business, we just happen to be serving coffee.” A lot of people who are in status quo thinking are thinking they are in the technical side. We’re in the insurance business and here are our customers, you know? Instead of saying, “No, we’re in the people business. We just happen to be serving insurance.” Maybe the next day it might be risk management advice or employee benefits, or whatever. It’s not the stuff. People don’t want to be a number. So I think driving that culture is key.

Marty: All right.

Peter: The third one is brand.

Marty: That’s where I was going.

Peter: Yeah, and I have this Seth Godin. I don’t know if you know Seth Godin.

Marty: Sure, absolutely. Not personally, of course.

Peter: Right, but he’s somebody that’s in the social circles and does a lot of commentary. And I’ve done a lot of work on brand, writing about brand, but I love this quote from him. “If the consumer doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection, or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that customer.” The difference between status quo . . .

Marty: Now hang on, because I want to make sure that our audience understands. “Pay a premium” is not paying their insurance premium.

Peter: Right.

Marty: If they are not willing to pay a little bit of extra to get what you’ve got, right. Or what was the two? Pay a premium.

Peter: Spread the word.

Marty: Spread the word.

Peter: Or make a selection.

Marty: Make a selection.

Peter: So in other words, buy. And good brands can charge more, or like the price isn’t part of the equation. So that’s why that’s important. But spread the word, I love that one, too. Because in this day and age, the pipeline, which everybody thinks in the old days, our days, you throw a bunch of leads in a big funnel and they pop out.

Marty: A great big funnel, right. And hopefully one or two drop out the bottom.

Peter: Right, but there is no funnel. The funnel. . . They are finding out about you well before you even know.

Marty: That’s exactly right.

Peter: They have already been to your website.

Marty: Mm-hmm.

Peter: So agents say, “Well, we’ve got a lot of referrals. We don’t need to do digital marketing, we’ve got referrals.” Okay, what happens when they go to your website? Are they even calling you? So what opportunities are you losing because you’re not creating this social environment?  But, anyway. So I-

Marty: So we have the first three.

Peter: Yeah, brand. And then the final one, which you guys know quite well about, is social. And social media is probably a word that’s too limiting. It used to be this big, broad thing. And probably more like digital marketing would be a bigger bucket. We could talk about that later. But I think, you know, every brand is a media company. Every agency, every carrier, should be leveraging this new consumer, how they think and get into a career.

Marty: I might even take it one step further and say every individual in the agency or company is a branding entity as well.

Peter: Yes, that’s right. So you have the corporation, then you have the people within it. And innovator brands have figured this out, and they are empowering their people to be themselves. You know, why do we put on this professional insurance hat and say, “Well, I’m a professional insurance agent?” And they get all nervous and scared, and, “Well, this is the policy.” And then they go online and they try to be that. It doesn’t work like that, because it’s not authentic. People don’t want that kind of person.

Marty: You know, I have an expression that says people have very strong BS detectors. And if they know that you are being fake, whether it’s in your business dealings or online, they’re going to sniff it out really fast.

Peter: They will, they will. And so what innovator brands do, is they know that it’s not just a tinkering with LinkedIn or Facebook. It’s really being a social business, which has a lot of components. But I think if you empower your people to get involved, it’s fun. They can be themselves. And if you don’t trust them, why are they working there anyway, you know? And speaking of trust, it’s trust, quality, education, and time. Those four components are what should go into every, what innovator brands already know.

And so trust is important, that’s what trust in choice is all about. That’s why it’s such a key word. People trust brands. Quality is that every interaction should be of high quality. So that means, you know, and that quality service does not mean answering the phone really fast, you know. That’s not proactive service. Education is where you are putting things out there to bring people along and educate them about the agency. That’s important. Not sold necessarily, not salesy, but educate me. That’s why social is so important. And then time as in save me time, don’t take my time. Because people don’t have time anymore. Who has time anymore? I don’t have time to call you back. I don’t have time for a telephone tree. I don’t have time for an email that takes a week to get back to me. So those are what innovator brands are doing, big difference.

Marty: Excellent.

Peter: Yeah, so if you find your. . . So the thing is, again, leadership. Who’s at the top is probably the most important thing. If anybody cares, has made it all the way through this video, it’s time to really examine the kind of leadership you have in your organization. Because transformational leadership is what innovative brands are doing, and our industry needs more innovation.

Marty: Excellent, Peter. I’d like to thank you for your-

Peter: Thank you, Marty.

Marty: Knowledge today. And we’d love to have you back if you’re willing to spend some more time with us in a future day.

Peter: Love to. Thanks Marty.

Marty: Excellent, thanks. Thank you very much.


There is no doubt that the business of insurance is different today from any other time in history. As Peter says, “This industry needs leadership.” We need leadership to innovate the insurance brand and change public perception of what we do.

Are you going to be a leader?

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