Six Weeks to Building an E-Commerce Brand

“Cancel your plans for the next few months.” That was my group head’s way of announcing that we were about to start work on a new Internet start-up account, BrokersPortal.com. Calling off my vacation was bad enough, but canceling it in order to work on an insurance product was even worse.

Besides the snooze factor, there were a few other challenges to overcome:

  • We had six weeks to launch the site, create a brand, and build a complete integrated marketing communications plan.

  • BrokersPortal.com is targeted to group employee benefit brokers. This market is not only openly techno- and web-phobic, but also borders on web-antagonistic. We’re talking about a direct threat to their jobs here.
  • Oh yeah, the first trade show was in two weeks.

Week 1

We held one-on-one research with brokers, confirming our instincts. Brokers were:

  • Looking for ways to enhance their value to their clients.

  • Needing ways to reduce the time spent on paperwork, so they could increase the time spent selling.
  • Afraid that they were no longer needed because clients could buy directly from insurance carriers via the web.

Week 2

After some nail biting, we focused on our creative challenges:

  • Change brokers’ perception of the web to friend from foe.

  • Make our site so user-friendly that it’s instinctive.
  • Create a brand that differentiates our site from competitors’ sites.

We considered how others had changed firmly held beliefs. Somewhere between reading Machiavelli, Trout and Riess, and Marx, we came up with a strategy to start a grassroots movement on behalf of the brokers. Our rallying cry became “Save the Broker.”

Creating a movement set us apart from our competitors and put us on a higher ground. We weren’t selling a web site, but a package of resources to help brokers succeed in the new economy. BrokersPortal.com became an advocate for the employee benefit brokers, a friend who was on their side, rather than a heartless company trying to sell them something or snatch their commissions.

What’s more, this positioning allowed us to create a visual and verbal expression of the brand that didn’t look like typical marketing materials; instead, they became tools of the movement.

Fortunately, our clients were just naive enough not to be afraid. As a result, they bought “the Movement” and a trade-show booth that looked like a brick wall with “Save the Broker” and “Join the Movement” spray painted on it.

Week 3

Next, we researched how other grassroots movements spread the word. Borrowing from them, we created ads to be stuck on telephone poles, a web site that looked like a brick wall with flyers and other stuff taped and spray painted on it, and posters that featured a broker cursing the new economy. In evaluating ideas, we argued that if Greenpeace wouldn’t use the tool, we shouldn’t either.

Received feedback from the trade show. After seeing the booth, one broker said, “You guys really get it.” We knew we had hit the right emotional chord.

Week 4

Production time. To sell the poster to our client, we had created a comp with a picture of a man we found in Wired. We called and tried to get the photographer to sell us the photo. Turns out the subject was the CEO of a successful Internet company. Oops. Next step: We called modeling agencies for headshots.

Week 5

Wanted to send a “Save the Broker” kit, including stencils and spray paint, to the press. The post office vetoed the idea, something about sending combustible materials. We sent gas masks instead.

Week 6

The site received more than 200 qualified leads the first week print ads appeared. Our direct mail piece had a 100 percent recall rate among the targeted audience, and, even more important, the targeted audience took our calls.

Weeks 6+

The campaign is ongoing. We took a lot of chances with this campaign, and it paid off. Normally, you don’t associate revolutions and/or movements with insurance brokers. Yet this allowed us to create advertising and other communications that stood out. We and our clients are delighted with the results.

Without a large media budget, we’ve created a huge splash. Brokers not only remember the ads, but also compliment us on them. Our client even received a note from a venture capitalist on the campaign’s creativity and efficacy. And, as anyone who knows VCs these days, positive comments aren’t that forthcoming. All told, while this campaign wasn’t quite as exciting as the bike trip to Iran I had planned, in six weeks we started a revolution.

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