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Many insurers find that promoting independent agents is smart business, and the Independent Insurance Agents of America's expanding National Communications Program is providing more opportunities to do just that.

The IIAA program motivates consumers to use independent insurance agents by increasing consumer awareness, understanding and appreciation of the value of independent agencies, said Peter van Aartrijk, vp-communications at the Alexandria, Va.-based IIAA.

The program's greatest accomplishment has been getting local agents on national television, Mr. van Aartrijk said. Annually, from March through May and September through November, the organization runs a total of 1,500 commercials on the Cable News Network, Headline News and The Weather Channel. Those television spots are targeted at consumers most likely to use the services of agents or buy insurance: college graduates 35 and older with household incomes that exceed $50,000.

"We reach a cumulative audience of 400 million households per year," Mr. van Aartrijk said.

Some insurers say their participation in the program benefits their bottom lines.

"Raising the visibility of independent agents as experts helps us" retain clients, said a spokeswoman from Mayfield Village, Ohio-based Progressive Insurance. Participating in IIAA's program enables the insurer to see what communication campaigns are being used and to provide feedback on them, so the insurer can be sure consumers understand the value of independent agents, she said.

Independent agents "provide a level of personalization that a segment of the population desires in their insurance programs," said Lance Cornell, vp-marketing at Seattle-based SAFECO Insurance. SAFECO supports IIAA's program because independent agents "have intimate knowledge that provides customers with what they want today and in the future," Mr. Cornell said.

SAFECO declined to disclose the cost of its participation in the IIAA program but said there are ongoing fees.

IIAA's program supports an independent insurance company's only source of distribution, said Larry Acord, vp-marketing at National Grange Mutual Insurance Co. in Keene, N.H. "If our agents know we (financially) support the IIAA, they will appreciate National Grange more, which (encourages them to) place more business with our company," said Mr. Acord, who declined to discuss his company's participation costs.

The program does not directly generate prospects or retain clients, said Mr. Acord. However, it does help National Grange recruit more agents. The program "focuses on independent agents and consumers, so we still have to focus on creating a brand name for ourselves," he said.

Mr. van Aartrijk said that, amid increasing competition from outlets such as direct mail and the Internet and insurers' captive sales organizations, the program assists independent agents in four ways: It helps agents organize and implement advertising programs, improves the image of the independent agent system, enhances an agency's public relations efforts and generates more contact with media, and provides independent agents with market research information.

The communications campaign addresses several key issues: catastrophe preparedness, the special needs of those who work out of their homes, automobile insurance, small-business insurance and women's insurance needs. For example, about one-third of the ads on The Weather Channel are preceded by a one-minute disaster preparedness tip sponsored by IIAA.

With 300,000 members nationwide and offices in every state, IIAA works closely with its state associations and local boards to ensure that its communications program is effective on the local level. Fifty-five percent of the communication program's $3 million annual budget is provided by IIAA. The remainder is funded by 24 participating companies.

Large insurers' advertising "tends to be more image-oriented rather than telling people how to buy," said Mr. van Aartrijk. "The National Communications Program fills in that gap. We want people to say, 'Oh, I have a local agent that I know and trust, one that has access to advertising.' "

"We're trying to be the link between local and distant (markets), human and impersonal," he said. "We want to help people say, 'I need an independent insurance agent because they provide a lot of value.' "

Name recognition is the program's biggest benefit, said Alex Soto, president of the Miami-based agency INSOURCE Inc. Insurance & Financial Services and vp-communications for the IIAA. 'Whenever we promote independent agents and push people to utilize them. . .we all benefit," he said.

The public sees the insurance industry almost as a utility, Mr. van Aartrijk said. "It's a distant, faceless industry. It has low consumer appeal. But independent agents are local and touchable. They can explain what (insurance) means. They can put a face on our industry with good names and good products."

IIAA said that over the past 18 months, the group has seen a 25% increase in the number of people recognizing that independent agents offer a choice of insurers and can fit a policy to their needs. The majority of people it has polled said they need a value-added partner to assist them with insurance issues and decisions. The problem is that they don't know where to turn for help.

"That's the challenge for us -- telling them that we're here," Mr. van Aartrijk said.

What had been missing was a cohesive market and a campaign to get in front of consumers, he said. "Competition is doing a more expansive job of advertising," so we have to step up to compete, he said. "You have to be a part of the mix if you're going to be a player. And we consider ourselves players."

Independent agents write 55% of all P/C premiums, 70% of commercial business and 35% of personal lines business, Mr. van Aartrijk said.

"We are firmly committed to expanding beyond cable to network TV in the years ahead," he said, recalling the tremendous response IIAA's network TV ads -- which featured Raymond Burr -- received in the mid-1980s. "Consumers choose insurance companies based on the ads they see on TV. It's called 'mind share.' In the visual society that we live in, you have to be" in front of consumers to be successful, he said.

The number of hits IIAA receives on its World Wide Web site address doubles to 140,000 from 70,000 each month that the advertisements are running, Mr. van Aartrijk said. The consumer information area and the search engine are the most popular spots on IIAA's Web site.

Enhancing that Web site is the next phase of the IIAA's program. It plans to link consumers to local member agents and to make available commercial and personal lines insurance products, enabling agents to write business over the Web.

"Our goal pertaining to the Internet is to get the agents online and enable them to write business over the Internet," he said.

Also among future plans is a toll-free hot line to answer consumer questions and to increase their understanding of the industry. It will be available later this year, Mr. van Aartrijk said.

IIAA will conduct a consumer-recognition study in November, after the 1998 ad campaign ends.

No aspects of its communications program did not work well, said Mr. van Aartrijk. "We've been pleasantly surprised by insurance companies' and the media's support," he said. "Insurance companies are thrilled, because we act as an extension of what they do. And we act as a better spokesperson, because our information is more consumer-friendly. (Consumers) won't get so suspicious (when we present the information), because we're objective."

"IIAA's program is unique," because insurers and agents are promoting the system," Mr. van Aartrijk said.