A Marketing Master Stroke at Geico: Recognizing the Genius of a Gecko
Ted Ward Leads Charge at Company Known by Its Inventive Ads

Monday, July 7, 2008

Ted Ward serves as vice president of marketing for Geico, or the Government Employees Insurance Co. He joined the company in 1984, was named assistant vice president in 1989, assumed responsibility for Geico's marketing operation in 1994 and moved into his current position in 1996.

Ward is a graduate of the University of Virginia and earned his MBA in marketing at the College of William and Mary. He talked with staff writer Thomas Heath about how Geico comes up with its ad campaigns.

QWhy do you have a little lizard with a British accent as your spokesman?

AA creative guy at the Martin Agency in Richmond and myself came up with the gecko after a focus group was calling our company both geeko and gecko. We were sharing a cold beverage. The guy scribbles on a napkin a picture of a brand icon that's a green lizard, a gecko. The thought was, "I'm a gecko, not to be confused with Geico." We have woven it into the very fabric of the company.

How did you come up with the idea for the commercials involving celebrity interpreters, like Joan Rivers or Little Richard, who sit next to your customers and translate their experiences with Geico?

That is directly from [Geico owner] Warren Buffett's suggestion on the use of testimonials to promote our fabulous claims service. Warren Buffett is a wonderful owner who comes to meetings a couple of times a year. [Buffett is a Washington Post Co. director.]

Explain the caveman thing. I don't get it.

That was a stroke of genius. We decided after meeting with Mr. Buffett that we needed to more significantly promote the online usability of Geico.com.

We needed to let people know how easy it was to deal with us. Our agency in Richmond, the Martin Group, came up with this line: It's so easy, a caveman could do it. It makes fun of a group of people. You have to be careful who you make fun of. And the last time I checked, there was no caveman lobby. The caveman is more geared to the online user. . . . It tends to be a younger audience.

How does owning a powerboat racing catamaran, known as Miss Geico, help you sell insurance?

The Miss Geico is 51 feet long and has a top speed of 185 mph and change. We actually have used it with a great deal of success to promote our power sports line of products. Boats, motorcycles, ATVs, RVs, personal watercraft. We are selling a boatload, no pun intended, of power sports insurance stuff.

You sponsor the fourth-inning President's Race at Washington Nationals baseball games. What's the strategy behind that?

As one of the largest companies in Washington, we like our attachment with some of the premier sports teams. We do business with the Wizards, the Nationals and the Capitals. We do some stuff with the Redskins, too, but the NFL is the king of expensive.

We felt the President's Race was the one element of the game that was consistently fun and intriguing regardless of whether the team is good, bad or indifferent. We have a long-term association with the Nationals.

Why sports events?

Men are very difficult people to reach with advertising without using sports. Men don't watch much television unless it's sports.

Last book read?

I'm a big John Sanford reader. It's low-brow. He has about 16 or 18 things in his "Prey" series. Murder mysteries. . . . I read them on the plane to L.A. when we are going to produce TV commercials.

Last vacation? Next vacation?

Last one was Portugal. We started in Lisbon, went to Oporto and down to the Algarve. We went on our 20th wedding anniversary. The next one is [Tanzania]. Safari to start and beach the second half. My wife has cooked it up. I have teenage children. They won't go anywhere without some beach time.

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