By Sue Botos
Even at a young age, Progressive Insurance Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Charney knew that being disruptive was a good thing.
During a recent phone interview from Progressive’s Mayfield headquarters, the Rocky River resident recalled his campaign for student body president at his South Carolina high school, and the young woman who was his opponent.
“The only reason why I ran was to beat her, because she wouldn’t go out with me,” stated Charney in his typical energy-charged style. He described his campaign, during which he enlisted an army of students to create posters, buttons and commercials.
After a “landslide” victory, Charney recalled, “This is really powerful if you can disrupt like this. I remember, when I got offstage, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do,’ but for the greater good, (not to) beat someone who won’t go out with you,” he added with a laugh.
Charney will expound on the necessity to “disrupt,” or stand out, from the flood of media messages we receive each day at the Sept. 26 Rocky River Chamber of Commerce luncheon. (Go to www.rockyriverchamber.com for registration information.)
Charney’s landslide has continued to roll. He has served as Aflac’s chief marketing officer, helping the iconic Aflac duck to take wing, and as CMO for multimedia retailer QVC Inc. Since joining Progressive in 2010, he has received Adweek magazine’s Brand Genius: Marketer of the Year award in 2011 and was one of Fast Company magazine’s 2012 Top 100 Creative People in Business. Last year he was also named by Advertising Age to the Creative 50 list, which recognizes the nation’s top 50 creative minds.
But one of Charney’s greatest accomplishments is helping to turn Progressive’s sassy spokeswoman Flo into an even bigger multimedia a star.
“The concept began as the “superstore,” Charney said, referring to the fictional Progressive store of TV commercials, which he compared to a sitcom, with a regular cast of characters. Prior to Charney’s tenure at the company, Flo was a worker at the store, who was already gaining her own following. Then Charney’s “network strategy” kicked into gear. One year later, in 2011, she became one of the most popular icons ever, named No. 1 brand icon by EW.com and had her own Halloween costume, a best-seller on Amazon.com. She even earned her place on the Madison Avenue Walk of Fame, which honors decades of top advertising icons.
“She had such an electric personality on screen that she soon became the focus,” Charney recalled, adding that improvisational actress Stephanie Courtney, who plays the Flo character, is a big part of that success.
“She is funny, she is quick, she is witty, she is Flo,” he stated.
In addition, Charney said Flo’s popularity stems from the fact the she is relatable. “She’s real. She’s not a gecko or a duck or a hamster; she’s a real person. You have to be real to interact with people on social media and hundreds of channels versus just TV, radio and print,” he said.
Charney went on to explain that being disruptive is “on purpose” marketing. “In the last minute alone there were 1,300 new mobile apps (downloaded), 5 million Facebook views and 47,000 YouTube downloads. If you cannot stand out from that clutter, you’re going to be washed away. Disruption is about not blending in. If you can’t cut through the clutter, you’re wasting money,” he stated. He added even Flo’s appearance, with her white uniform and dark hair against the backdrop of the white “superstore,” is disruptive.
However, marketing is not all about the dollars, according to Charney. “In marketing today you have to outcreate. You can’t just outspend anyone; there’s too much money out there. Even if you’re not a creative person, you can still outcreate versus outspend,” he said.
According to Charney, Flo will continue her Progressive career for quite a while, sometimes joined by characters like “young Flo” and the “Talking Box,” which complement but don’t replace her.
“She’s at the peak of her popularity because she continues to remain relevant. Flo embodies what our employees are all about,” he said.
Charney added that he will also continue his disruptive ways. “I’m not going to give you milquetoast. I’m not going to give you beige. I’m not going to give you vanilla. I’m going to give you something to remember.”