In adland, it's been stated so often it's now a truism: America loves Flo, the Progressive insurance pitchwoman played by comedian Stephanie Courtney, and a huge portion of the company's brand equity is tied up in the Flo character. Progressive spends up to a quarter of a billion dollars a year on ads starring Flo.
Yet this week comes talk of The End of Flo.
The story has taken on a life of its own on the web, and people are heaping scorn upon Progressive, which at one point denied it had paid for the lawyer—only to be contradicted by the court record.
They're also blaming Flo, and suggesting that the character is now a millstone for Progressive because her perpetually smiling face is an inappropriate response to a PR crisis.
In fact, the Flo Twitter account has gone dark since Aug. 11, when previously it tweeted every day.
Progressive understands Flo is now a liability, at least for now, though the company was way too slow to replace her avatar with the corporate logo on its main Twitter account—leaving Flo to smile maddeningly as she robo-spammed canned responses at people who had read Fisher's story and were horrified.
... that obnoxious Flo ...
It doesn't help that Progressive mascot Flo's smiling face is next to each copy-pasted tweet. Though surely unintentional, it adds insult to injury.
HuffPo huffed about the contradiction between the ad character and the real life tragedy:
Topped by mascot Flo's smiling mug, [Flo's autotweet] reads: "This is a tragic case, and our sympathies go out to Mr. Fisher and his family for the pain they've had to endure. We fully investigated this claim and relevant background, and feel we properly handled the claim within our contractual obligations. Again, this is a tragic situation, and we're sorry for everything Mr. Fisher and his family have gone through."
First, let's all take a deep breath. Consumers aren't stupid. They know the difference between Progressive's ham-fisted lawyers and the branded character who appears in the ads. This case isn't Flo's fault. It's much more likely that Progressive will wait until this flap blows over before making any decisions about the future of Flo.
Flo's longstanding equity is way too valuable for Progressive to execute her now. She consistently rates way above average in E-Poll's surveys of branded characters, for instance.
However, there is one very real threat to Flo. Progressive has used Flo since 2008, so she's getting old. Companies tend to want to refresh their brands every few years. There may be a case that Flo has run her course regardless of the current situation.
The evidence that Progressive is hedging its bets against Flo emerged in 2010, when the company and its ad agency, Arnold Worldwide, introduced a new spokescharacter. The Messenger is a mustachioed dude who travels the countryside helping people save money.
If Flo was doing the job on her own, why did Progressive need to give her a friend? At the time, Progressive chief marketing officer Jeff Charney said, “Flo is not going anywhere.” Maybe the Fisher crisis will change his mind.
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