Travelers snatches its umbrella logo back from Citi.

Advertising deconstructed.
April 14 2008 7:28 AM

You Can Stand Under My Umbrella

Travelers snatches its logo back from Citi.

Still from Travelers' ad. Click image to expand.
Still from Travelers' ad

The Spot: A man in a bowler hat walks around with a red umbrella the size of a Ferris wheel. In his travels, he encounters various citizens in distress—and uses his giant umbrella to help them. It shelters people from rain, of course, but it also serves as a boat, and even an aircraft. "There when you need it," says the tag line. "For auto, home, and business. Travelers." (Click here to watch the spot.)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

The Travelers umbrella has an interesting history, as corporate logos go. It dates back to at least 1870, when it appeared in a newspaper ad for the fledgling insurance company. It was reinvigorated in the late 1950s, when it was given its signature red hue. More recently, it spent a lost decade as the logo of Citigroup, after Citicorp and Travelers merged (somewhat disastrously, it turned out) in 1998.

Travelers became an independent company again in 2002, but it left the umbrella behind with Citi. (Who hasn't forgotten an umbrella in a rush to leave an unpleasant gathering?) It wasn't until a year ago—when Citi re-branded, opting instead for a bland little arc emblazoned above the letters of its name—that the umbrella was at last set free. Travelers jumped at the chance to buy it back.

How much did this cost? Travelers wouldn't tell me, but newspaper reports peg the transaction in the millions. "It was a substantial investment," says Shane Boyd, vice president of communications and branding for Travelers, "but we think well worth it."

I'm inclined to agree. For a Hydra-headed financial products firm like Citigroup, the umbrella was never an apt metaphor. To me, it always conjured the array of disparate departments all crammed unhappily under the Citi name. For an insurance company, though, an umbrella is a perfect symbol: It shelters us when stormy weather hits. The logo's enduring appeal is perhaps best summed up by a Travelers executive, quoted in the New York Times in 1964: "It illustrates the concept of protection, it is friendly, it is warm, and it is very merchandisable." (Of course, a slot machine might be just as fitting a symbol for an insurer: You feed it money with the vague hope of a payout that may never be awarded.)

After giving Citi a year to wipe the umbrella off all its signage, letterhead, and marketing materials (to avoid any overlap), Travelers is now putting the umbrella front and center. This new ad debuted during the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 round and is the first spot in what will be a yearlong campaign of ads built around the logo itself.

A whole campaign about a company's logo instead of about the service or product the company offers? Can this be wise? In this case, I think yes.

Consider some recent, nonumbrella Travelers ads. In one, scientists reattach "lucky rabbit feet" to real rabbits, and we see the bunnies doing adorable rehab exercises. In another, a man representing risk (he has the word tattooed on his knuckles) wanders around in the wee hours of the night damaging expensive property. Both ads are clever, and I still remember them long after they stopped appearing on TV. But until I began researching this story, I couldn't have told you which product they were pitching.

Brand awareness is a major issue for any insurance company. There's no eye-catching box you can carefully position on supermarket shelves and no tangible product the consumer might see around town. Yet you need to make sure that potential customers weighing their options will include you in the mix. A further challenge is that the insurance category is incredibly crowded when it comes to advertising, and huge spenders like Geico, Progressive, State Farm, and Allstate have been filling up the airwaves— becoming top-of-mind brands in part through the sheer ubiquity of their ads.

Travelers says it can't compete with those massive marketing budgets, which are several multiples of its own. Instead, the company feels it can leverage its iconic umbrella to get more bang for the buck. Its consumer research shows that even now, after the logo's muddled recent history, people still very strongly associate it with Travelers. (Boyd wouldn't share his proprietary findings with me, but he claims the level of recall is quite remarkable.) Thus that memorable red umbrella—blown up to absurd proportions and plastered across television screens with judicious ad buys—will help jam Travelers into the mind of the comparison-shopping insurance buyer.

I also think the campaign finds a nicely placed sweet spot in terms of its tone. The art director who worked on the spot says he was going for a "modern fairy tale" vibe. There's a lighthearted mood here that contrasts with all the fear-mongering insurance ads on TV, with their terrifying footage of floods and car accidents. At the same time, the umbrella is a much statelier brand icon than Geico's hammy lizard. It manages to be both elegant and, thanks to its size, in-your-face.

I wonder if Citi is jealous? It's like their dowdy, neglected girlfriend met a new guy, got a stunning makeover, and is now flaunting her enhancements for all to see.

Grade: B+. The pretty scenery (filmed in New Zealand) and the cinematic touches are nice, but it's the well-executed deployment of that zany umbrella that really makes the spot memorable. And, by the way, that's no computer graphic. It's a 35-foot-tall, custom-made umbrella. During shooting, it was stabilized by cranes that were later digitally erased. One of the ad guys described the surreal nature of the scene on set: "Walking through downtown Auckland with this thing," he says, "was like living in a Magritte painting."

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