How did Allstate use a character to change the conversation about insurance in a time when price wars ruled?

The time was about 5 years ago, and Allstate was struggling. They were looking for a way to continue to push their quality and care message (ushered in by their In Good Hands campaign), in a way that was memorable and helped differentiate them from their loss-leader competitors.

Everyone knows the insurance game is competitive warfare, with the main advertisers; Geico, Progressive, State Farm and Allstate (of course), to name a few, all prompting people to switch when they already have insurance. Insurance advertisers continue to be a top spender in broadcast advertising and the top spender in paid search. It’s often a numbers game. The ads tout and test percentage off savings’ messages, dollar figures (average dollars saved), combination bundles and other savings like “safe driver”. So many different discounts it’s hard to keep them straight. The discounts are so pervasive actually Geico just created a tongue-in-cheek campaign around the topic of their ever-popular line “15 minutes could save you 15%”.

Allstate needed a new shtick and in came in the form of  the destructive spokes character “Mayhem”. The destructive force (played by Dean Winters) broke onto the scene five years ago. He followed the launch of Geico’s gecko and Progressive’s Flo, just when character’s were starting to make a name for themselves in the insurance game. And disrupt he did. “Mayhem” helped disrupt the conversation around insurance when Allstate needed it most.

At the time, Allstate was flagging in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The insurer’s “In Good Hands” message, which is built on providing quality coverage wasn’t resonating. Quality coverage didn’t cut through the clutter of competitors pushing low prices and quick quotes.

“We knew we needed a loud thunderclap to tell people that we cared about them,” said Lisa Cochrane, senior VP-marketing at Allstate. “Mayhem is there to change the conversation, to disrupt the commoditization of insurance, and to provide you with something to think about to make sure that you have the right coverage.”

When the character first appeared, as a tree branch falling on a car and then a “emotionally compromised” teenage girl ramming her pink SUV into a car, it made an impression.

“The response to Mayhem initially was mayhem,” she said, recalling the first “Mayhem is coming” teaser spots. “

[People] asked if Allstate was predicting the end of the world.”

But the insurer stuck with it and soon found that Mayhem’s chaos, which portrayed accidents viewers could relate to, actually complemented the reassuring “In Good Hands” campaign starring Dennis Haysbert.

“Mayhem raises the question: ‘Am I covered for that? And Dennis answers,”We all encounter life’s mayhem and it’s important to pay attention to the coverage that you have.”

Over the last five years, Mayhem, created by Leo Burnett, has played a racoon, a puppy, a snowstorm, a Seattle fog, a Chicago pigeon, and many other mischievous forces that consumers may come across. The insurer is careful not to portray malice, which indicates intent, when using the character, Ms. Cochrane said.

“Mayhem is accidental things that happen to everyday people,” said Ms. Cochrane. “Mayhem and Allstate do not represent bad. Mayhem is about life.”

And the character has continued to come through for the insurer, helping it break into the local markets, social media — Mayhem tweets — and move into the digital age.

Most recently, during the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Mayhem played a nerd burglar who took over a real-life couple’s home after they posted their travel plans on social media, and sold all of their belongings online. The stunt was a hit for the company. All of the items on the e-commerce site sold out by the end of the college football game, and it raised awareness for Project Aware Share, a program to educate consumers who overshare on social media.

Mayhem’s various characters, stunts and digital presence have kept the campaign fresh over the years. The company also holds Mayhem back when it needs to, so the character can live on. A pretty genius marketing strategy. “Mayhem is always the first one to leave the party,” said Ms. Cochrane. “People wonder where Mayhem is and then Mayhem reappears again.”

Ms. Cochrane will be leaving the party herself next month to retire after more than 15 years at the insurer. Mayhem will be one of the crown jewels in her legacy.

With some original content by Ashley Rodriquez, Ad Age.