FEATURE1 February 2010

Keeping council with customers

Last year Norwich Union set aside the name it has had for 200 years and became Aviva. Gareth Mason looks at how the firm turned to its customers to help manage and communicate the change in brand.


When Norwich Union took on its first insurance customer in 1797, it was relying on £27 of capital raised by its founder Thomas Bignold. Two centuries later the firm is the world’s fifth largest insurer, with operations in 27 countries. ‘Norwich Union’ had become too parochial a moniker and the company decided to change to Aviva, the name already used by 17 of its affiliates overseas.

To help mould its message, Norwich Union used ‘customer councils’, a technique developed by London-based research agency Branding Science in the pharmaceutical industry.

Working with Aventis, which was testing a drug for treating osteoporosis, Branding Science’s managing director Peter Caley had brought doctors and pharma staff together in an effort to build trust and understanding between two groups that often regarded each other with suspicion. In a second study, doctors were divided up into groups depending on their attitude towards diabetes treatment, with each group also including a member of the Aventis marketing team. The results significantly influenced the direction of Aventis’s marketing.

Up close and personal
Norwich Union was attracted to the method as a way of developing closer engagement with customers. Nigel Spencer, head of marketing insight at Aviva UK, said: “We first tested the concept in our equity release business – 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 like health, inheritance, family and money. We then used the format with independent financial advisers, showing them footage from the customer research and working with them to construct products and processes to make it easier for customers to decide whether to take it up.”

“Usually in market research, the marketers have a relatively limited role. It is very different to encounter an angry customer yourself, than to be told that customers respond angrily to an initiative”

The success of the programme persuaded Norwich Union to use customer councils again for its Aviva rebrand. Two waves of councils were held in London, Manchester and Newcastle during 2008 using meeting facilities at sporting grounds, which gave the opportunity to finish the day with dinner and a tour of the premises. Each event involved 30 customers – 20 from Norwich Union, the rest from competitors – and sessions 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 discussions and interviews.

Mike Pepp of Branding Science, who ran the Aviva customer councils, said: “Usually in market research, the researcher is intimately involved, with the marketers having a relatively limited role. At the conclusion, the researcher gives a debrief 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 very different to encounter an angry customer yourself, than to be told that customers respond angrily to an initiative.”

The sessions were “light on prompts” with discussions built around open-ended questions such as ‘What advice would you give to Aviva about making this change?’ “Later, we would present the communications plan and ask for feedback, or present TV scripts for comment, or show an internal communications video,” said Spencer.

Each discussions included at least two senior directors from Aviva, with the group CEO, UK general insurance CEO, and brand and marketing directors from the firm’s main UK businesses all getting involved.

“Early engagement is one big advantage, and having senior decision-makers sitting with customers,” said Spencer. “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 Aviva rebrand, you get to test your answer when they question your reasoning. And customers very quickly see through corporate rubbish.”

The findings from the equity release work led the firm to redesign its product, marketing material and sales process to be “more human, less threatening”. “We remain the number one provider of these products by market share,” says Spencer.

Working together
For the rebrand work, the extent to which customers were included in the development of communications went even further. “We asked the council members to write the messages and while our marketing teams crafted it, Aviva customers wrote the heart of our communications’” said Spencer. “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.”

Pepp says that setting the traditional research rules aside and bringing marketing people and customers face-to-face makes for a completely different dynamic. “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.”

As well as informing the decision to ‘evolve’ the firm’s logo with the phrases ‘Norwich Union soon to be Aviva’ and later ‘Aviva, the new name for Norwich Union’, the new approach also influenced the company’s marketing more broadly,” Spencer said. “We wrote to [customers] before our advertising campaign, directing them to a website with previews of our adverts. Previously, we would never have shared this information, as it would have been considered confidential.

“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.”

The timing of the exercise, in the midst of the financial crisis, also gave the company’s senior executives an opportunity to observe first hand how the economic turmoil was affecting customers. “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.”

Pepp said: “The difference in outcome from normal research is the immediacy with which marketers understand their audience. They come to have personal experience of 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.”

What’s in a 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 just under 60% by the time we changed our name in June 2009. This was up from just 4% in the previous December, and consideration also increased significantly up to 50% from 11% in December.”

John Kitson, sales and marketing director for Aviva UK General Insurance, is an enthusiastic advocate of the councils. He said: “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%. It’s a remarkable success completely fuelled by research - that doesn’t often happen in financial services.”