Hacking a Billion-Dollar Budget With a Startup's Creativity

Inside Ladder's memorable new spot

Every year, the top three spenders in insurance pour more than $5.5 billion into advertising alone. That's more than the GDP of the Maldives, or twice Oprah's net worth, or half of what it cost Bezos to launch Blue Origin into space. In other words, incumbents' budgets are so astronomical that even the most ambitious of startups might renounce the dream of ever piercing through to establish a strong challenger brand.

And yet, despite all that money, there is still no beloved consumer brand in life insurance. To convince yourself of that fact, just ask anyone outside the industry to name their favorite life insurance brand, then watch them stare quizzically back at you.

That's the opportunity that brought me to Ladder. In a world where we LOVE our shoes, our grocery delivery app and our thermostats, we are at best indifferent about the companies that enable one of the most selfless and committed expressions of our love. And there's probably a good reason why. Getting life insurance the traditional way can be, well, difficult. It involves weeks of paperwork, medicals and upselling. Ladder, on the other hand, offers flexible life insurance in minutes, with an NPS comparable to brands like Apple or Netflix. 

That's music to a marketer's ear, because great brands start with great products. All Ladder needed now was a campaign that could break through the noise—that is, get people's attention without spending billions we didn't have. For that, we needed the most creative agency partner we could find, and our pick, Fred & Farid, did not disappoint. 

Ladder | Life Insurance So Good You Might Wish You Didn't Have It

I won't lie, pitching your founders that you should build your awareness platform around the concept of a family booby trapping the house for life insurance money takes some conviction. But the second I heard it, I knew this idea checked the four boxes for an iconic, enduring brand campaign:

Grounded in a consumer insight

Great ads resonate because of their ability to reflect a core consumer truth. Early on in our research, we found out that couples who get life insurance joke about taking each other out for the payout. A recent survey of over 3,000 respondents confirmed that 44 percent of American couples engage in that banter. We knew this inside joke would be the way in.

For most people, life insurance is an uncomfortable conversation. It's a reminder of your mortality, your to-do list, your finances ... Using people's own humor cracks this conversation open in a way that feels familiar and less intimidating—hopefully leading them to getting the coverage they need. Ultimately, that's what Ladder is all about.

Instantly memorable

While performance marketing aims to drive short term, cost-effective conversions, the game of brand is to create a memorable association between your name and the category you play in. Humor and surprise have long been some of the most effective tools in the creative arsenal for their proven ability to land a message—and help it stick. In 2021, comedy has an even more important role to play. At a time where most brands have retreated to sentimentalism and careful middle grounds, Ladder's new campaign offers much-needed laughter and stands out from the crowd. 

A unique brand promise

"You know that funny ad? What was that for again?" It's one thing to make people laugh, but if you can't connect the humor back to your brand promise, you've missed the mark. With this spot, we wanted to communicate a disruptive shift. Ladder is not any old life insurance. In fact, it's so good your loved ones might come after you! While the joke is obvious, so is the promise of something new and different.

Moreover, this campaign does a masterful job at expressing the essence of the Ladder brand, a north star we internally call "all-in." "All-in" is that feeling of loving well. Of being there, no matter what. It's the feeling our customers get after signing up with Ladder, and it's the feeling that radiates through the screen as our dad navigates his absurd premise, proudly humoring his particularly "creative" family.

An ownable platform

Brands are built over a long period of time, and one ad is certainly not going to take you all the way there (well, unless you're Dollar Shave Club). What seduced us with this concept was its potential as a creative platform, something reminiscent of the iconic 1990s "Got Milk?" saga that we could build upon for years to come. Stay tuned, as we are already imagining our family in all sorts of predicaments!

To my fellow startup marketers:

Startup culture tends to reward short-term growth over long-term investments. It also reveres clear-cut, easy-to-attribute metrics. It's only natural, then, that the elusive art of brand measurement, and the sustained budgets brand building requires, fall squarely out of our comfort zones.

Yet I'd like to argue that startups have unique advantages when it comes to building strong, recognizable brands:

  • First, we can take a creative stand. Imagine trying to push a bold new idea through a heavy, conservative corporate structure. 
  • Second, we sit closer to our customers. It's much easier to identify a new creative insight with a user-centric culture.
  • Third, we can carry our digital savvy to the brand front. We can deploy our rigorous optimization mindset and platform knowledge to get an edge over large incumbents with very classic campaign structures.
  • Last, but not least, we are full of passion. And indeed, I have learned through this project that harnessing passion is the greatest multiplier of resources.

That is why I must finish this by thanking our amazing partners at Fred & Farid and our brilliant video director Casey Storm for pouring everything they had into this campaign debut. Creating something special takes special people. It's something I experience at Ladder every day. 

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