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Deep Dive 15 Nov 2021 - 8 min read

NRMA brand turnaround: Why Brent Smart, The Monkeys won 2021 Grand Effie; Brand Finance puts $300m lift on brand value after four years diverting 70% of budget from retail, tactics

By Paul McIntyre and Sam Buckingham-Jones
IAG CMO Brent Smart, The Monkeys CEO Mark Green, The Monkeys CSO Fabio Buresti

L-R: Brent Smart, Mark Green, Fabio Buresti. "A lot of marketers fall for the quick wins of performance marketing, which lets you show a really quick ROI in the first six months. You need patience to build a brand..there wasn't an instant turnaround."

NRMA Insurance was facing material challenges when IAG CMO Brent Smart returned from New York and appointed Accenture’s The Monkeys, without a pitch, in an early, Australian text book example around the business impact of investing long-term in brand. They were unwaivering from the get-go about ending M&C Saatchi’s “Mr Confidence” and returning to “HELP” in late 2017, according to a redacted Effie submission seen by Mi3. A series of brand-led campaigns took out the Advertising Council’s Grand Effie Award last month for returning the ailing insurance company to category-leading growth. But just how bad were things at NRMA Insurance, and how and why did it return to a 20-year-old idea? Smart and The Monkeys’ CEO Mark Green and Chief Strategy Officer Fabio Buresti get brutally honest.  

This is creative-led effectiveness – not media-led effectiveness… not about how much we’ve spent. It’s about having incredibly well-branded, and incredibly strong emotional stories that connect with people.

Brent Smart, CMO, IAG

What you need to know:

  • IAG CMO Brent Smart and The Monkeys’ CEO Mark Green and strategy chief Fabio Buresti say their 2021 Grand Effie win was four years of what many would say was a risky obsession with brand building. 
  • Mi3 has reviewed the Effies submission. While the key business numbers were heavily blacked out – but not to Effies judges - the document details a ‘once iconic brand struggling for relevance’. 
  • NRMA Insurance was charging fewer customers more, meaning revenues looked healthy but future prospects were flatlining. The return to HELP and its multiple campaign executions turned that around. 
  • Smart says he knew when he took the role it would be a “turnaround job”. He proposed a roughly 70/30 split favouring brand spend over performance. NRMA’s product and price didn’t change, ad spend had decreased in previous years, and yet the campaign helped deliver category-leading growth, he says. 
  • To ensure there was early robust measurement to track impact, IAG enlisted Brand Finance to benchmark the value of the NRMA Insurance brand - its value has increased $300m over the past four years. 
  • The NRMA Insurance brand is now on a growth trajectory and is expanding nationally.

 

NRMA the perfect case study

The campaign crowned Australia’s most effective at this year’s Effies was the culmination of four years of brand spend, reversing slashed media budgets, a broader insurance market that treated customers like ‘fools’, and an iconic brand that had lost its way. 

Mi3 has reviewed a heavily redacted copy of the submission from IAG Chief Marketing Officer Brent Smart and The Monkeys’ Mark Green and Fabio Buresti that took out the 2021 Grand Effie Award. It is an enlightening document that paints a dire picture of the NRMA in early 2017. 

NRMA Insurance is in many ways an ideal case study. Smart acknowledges it took Les Binet and Peter Field’s work on short- and long-term marketing and the work from Ehrneberg Bass on “mental availability”  and put them into practice: on brand building the Effie submission points to NRMA investing big on brand building – around 70 per cent, and the remainder on performance marketing. It paid off in spades, turning a brand that was, by its own admission, haemorrhaging market share, into a market leader that was growing. The company has had more than 30 months of growth since the campaign began. 

“When it was first published in 2013, [Binet and Field’s] The Long and Short of It represented a sort of enlightenment moment for marketing professionals by using data to prove that the instincts of the world’s best brand-building marketers were, in fact, effective,” the Grand Effie winners’ submission reads. 

“Some 16,983km away, a newly appointed CMO in Australia had the conviction to convince his board to overhaul the marketing model around a 70/30 split favouring long-term brand building.” 

A powerful argument against competing for customers via performance tactics and channels was that 79 per cent of motor insurance customers don’t get a quote, they don’t search, they don’t shop around, they just pay it.

Brent Smart

The NRMA needed HELP

The point of the Effies is to clearly demonstrate a campaign’s effectiveness. In other words, going from ‘great’ to ‘greater’ isn’t enough – there has to be substantial change. And with NRMA Insurance, according to the judges, there was. 

The brand was in decline and in real trouble. 

“The NRMA Insurance business and brand were tanking,” it begins. “The once iconic brand was also struggling for relevance… NRMA Insurance was dealing with long-term customer decline that had been a perennial issue for 8 long years.” 

The submission pulls no punches, slamming the brand’s position prior to 2017 – and heavily criticising competitors for trivialising human beings going through vulnerable moments and portraying them, almost universally, as “hapless fools”. 

But all was not well at NRMA Insurance either. Its brand strategy lacked “warmth, empathy and authenticity”. “It was so bad, the staff had become disenchanted with the brand they represented,” the entry says – Smart tips the hat to Buresti’s work on writing the submission.

Add to that a general, nationwide malaise towards the insurance sector, which, according to some metrics cited in the submission, was more distrusted than banks – and banks were about to go through a Royal Commission. 

“Our competitors had completely missed the mark,” it reads. “The category was (and continues to be) an all-out comedy show – using hyperbolic humour that portrayed customers as hapless fools, rather than vulnerable people needing genuine help. It was no wonder Australians distrusted their insurers.”

We have absolutely increased the value of the brand, not theoretically, but in hard numbers that accountants can account for.

Brent Smart

In late 2017, NRMA Insurance binned its former ad style, which featured a besuited man called “Mr Confidence” in high risk situations, and instead ran a 100 per cent brand ad urging Australians to drive safely over Christmas. It was the first step on a long road. 

“With a media budget that was so significantly slashed, and with a business that was desperate to see an immediate sales effect, committing to this split was a brave step to take,” the IAG-Monkeys’ submission to the Effies reads. “But once it was, we just needed to identify what the core focus of that long-term brand-building would be.” 

They set themselves four goals, according to their Effies submission: 

  1. Return NRMA Insurance back into positive customer and market share growth,
  2. Increase the financial value of the NRMA Insurance brand,
  3. The communications objective needed to drive consideration, cut-through, recognition, reputation and trustworthiness,
  4. The social objective was to increase engagement with NRMA Insurance.

Performance? Not this time. Most Australians don’t shop around, they just renew 

Former Saatchi & Saatchi New York CEO Brent Smart is blunt about his work: he didn’t expect to get the role at IAG. “I’ve never been a corporate CMO before,” he says. “I’m pretty different to most financial services CMOs.” But the job was obvious, even to an outsider. “How do we stop the decline? How do we get this big, iconic market leading brand back to growth?” he says. “I knew it was a turnaround job.” 

The key stat that surprised Smart came from Roy Morgan. When the average Australian gets their insurance premium, 79 per cent just pay it. “They don’t get a quote, they don’t search, they don’t shop around, they just pay it,” Smart says. 

This was a powerful argument against competing for customers through performance channels. At any one time, there was only about 20 per cent of the market actually interested in looking at insurance. Any performance dollars are targeting a small portion of the total market, while brand spend has the potential to reach many more. 

“The other 80 per cent who aren’t in the market today, they don’t care about that stuff, they’re not thinking about insurance,” Smart says. “So you’ve got to find a way to engage with them emotionally.” 

The Monkeys knew the brand was lost

Back in September 2017, Smart appointed The Monkeys to IAG’s account without going to pitch, moving away from incumbent, M&C Saatchi.

It was their first tango – a meet and greet after Smart returned from the US – that convinced him The Monkeys immediately got the strategic imperative.

Smart and Mark Green, CEO and co-founder of The Monkeys, and Accenture Interactive’s ANZ lead, had both worked on NRMA nearly 20 years earlier at Saatchi & Saatchi. Before Smart revealed his thinking, Green said the NRMA needed to “get back to HELP”. It was clear to the team at The Monkey’s that the NRMA brand had lost its way. 

“It was at its best when it did stand for ‘HELP’ and following the demerger of the insurance business and the road service business, it moved away from HELP,” Green says. “And I think that was always a big mistake from a marketing standpoint.” 

Smart thinks many marketing teams and companies are dismissive of corporate history.  

Fabio Buresti, the creative shop’s Chief Strategy Officer, agrees. “From the outside, it’s hard to know the numbers, but you could tell the brand was lost,” he says. “As Smarty said, it turned to this smarmy, corporate dude in a blue suit who was overacting and just completely at odds with the empathy and warmth the brand had always historically represented… you could tell they had fallen into that category trap. Trying to over-entertain everyone, treating customers as hapless fools in the way they were going about it, and just trying to be the saviour that comes in to save the day in just a really weird way.”

The NRMA was at its best when it did stand for ‘HELP’...following the demerger of the insurance business and the road service business, it moved away from HELP. I think that was always a big mistake.

Mark Green, Co-founder, The Monkeys; Accenture Interactive Lead, ANZ

After the 2017 Christmas campaign, there was March 2018’s ‘Help is Who We Are’, October 2018’s Safety Hub, August 2019’s ‘Every Home is Worth Protecting’ with the koala,, March 2020’s Covid ads, June 2020’s Third Party Fire and Theft ads, August 2020’s First Saturday, November 2020’s ‘Slowaways – Another Act of Help’ campaign.

Smart is quick to point out the numbers didn’t look ominous from the outside, even in 2017. Top line revenue was increasing, and the business was profitable.

“But what was really happening was the actual customer numbers were reducing at the same time,” he said. “And you don’t want to be a business that’s charging less customers more. You want to be a business that’s growing, adding to its customer franchise.” 

Brand Finance – get the metrics right 

From the beginning, the Monkeys-IAG team called global valuation group Brand Finance to set a baseline for their campaign. The analytics team at IAG was enlisted to create an econometric model to “determine the total number of incremental customers generated by the ‘HELP’ campaign”, stripping out the impact of natural disasters and other major events. 

“We were the 36th strongest brand in Australia, according to the Brand Finance Brand Strength Index when we started this journey,” Smart said. “We’re now the third strongest. What’s extraordinary about being the third strongest is we’re only sold in NSW and Queensland.” Brand Finance’s numbers estimates the NRMA’s brand value has grown by $300 million, sitting behind Commonwealth Bank and Optus. 

“We have absolutely increased the value of the brand, not theoretically, but in hard numbers that accountants can account for,” Smart says. 

“And this is creative-led effectiveness – not media-led effectiveness, and not about how much we’ve spent. It’s about having incredibly well-branded, and incredibly strong emotional stories that connect with people.” 

Quick performance marketing wins a false economy

For many, insurance is a matter of price. Price is one of the biggest drivers of switching providers in the category, and comparison sites like CompareTheMarket, Canstar and iSelect have tremendous power. But NRMA Insurance didn’t sell through them, and that was a problem. 

“I think a lot of marketers fall for the quick wins of performance marketing, which lets you show a really quick ROI and looks fantastic in the first six months,” Smart says. “You need patience if you’re going to build a brand… there wasn’t an instant turnaround.”

A lot is said about CMO tenures and how they’re shortening. Spencer Stuart recently noted CMO tenures are at their shortest since 2009. It’s taken four and a half years of Smart’s tenure to turn the brand around, and he’s seen the cost per acquisition (CPA) of customers decrease over that time using performance marketing tactics. Why? “It works better because the brand is strong… I don’t understand why more CMOs wouldn’t want to hang around to get that benefit,” he says. 

Hopefully (we can) do more culturally connective stuff. Once we’ve got the national platform and having that one consistent voice across every market, it’s going to be really special.

Fabio Buresti, Chief Strategy Officer, The Monkeys; MD, Accenture Interactive

Show me the money

As mentioned earlier, IAG and The Monkeys set themselves two primary business goals, according to their Effies submission. While the hard numbers are obscured behind thick black ink, how did they go? 

  1. Return NRMA Insurance back into positive customer and market share growth: 

“We had more than one per cent growth on the NRMA business in terms of customer numbers,” Smart says. “That doesn’t sound like much, but we’ve got a really big customer base and that’s an excellent result.”

  1. Increase the financial value of the NRMA Insurance brand

As already covered, the NRMA brand has risen from 36th strongest to third, behind only CBA and Optus in the Brand Finance league table. While most top 100 brands increase their brand strength by perhaps one point a year, NRMA climbed by five. Likewise, the estimated value of the brand has risen by $300 million. 

“This has probably been one of the most intense four years, relationship building this thing together,” Buresti says, while Green added it has been one of the sharpest strategic and creative journeys he has ever been involved in. 

“Hopefully (we can) do more culturally connective stuff,” Buresti says. “Once we’ve got the national platform and having that one consistent voice across every market, it’s going to be really special.”

I’ve never been a corporate CMO before. I’m pretty different to most financial services CMOs.

Brent Smart, CMO, IAG

This is a story of brand building – there’s only one app for that

Google and Facebook have built global, massive businesses on the back of precision targeting, but their powers – “superpowers”, per Smart – are fundamentally limited to customers currently in market in the insurance sector. 

“How do you target someone who doesn’t even know they need your product? There’s only one app for that, it’s called brand building,” he says. The brand is now strong enough for IAG to launch into Western Australia and South Australia – there’s more on that ambitious move to a national brand, including Smart’s confession that it’s the only time he has pre-tested in any ads since joining IAG. Typically he abhors the practice.

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