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Rebecca Buckman  |  April 11, 2014
Q&A: How Chatty Pigeons Yona and Yoniel Became the Flo, Gecko of the Israeli Insurance Market

A year-and-a-half ago, IDI Insurance of Israel introduced two animated characters into its advertising that have become hallmarks of the firm’s brand. Powered by Battery recently interviewed IDI’s deputy CEO and head of marketing, Raanan Saad, about these characters—two chatty pigeons named Yona and Yoniel—and the lessons IDI’s bird-centric advertising campaign hold for other marketers.

Powered by Battery: Tell us more about your background: You’ve been at IDI for eight years?

Raanan Saad: Yes, that’s right. Before IDI I worked in advertising—I was the CEO of Ogilvy Israel. Before that, for about six years, I had a consulting company, focused on business and management consulting. Before that I was the CEO of a chain of local newspapers.

PBB: And how would you describe IDI Insurance? I understand it’s sort of like the Geico of Israel.

RS: Yes. Actually IDI was the first direct insurance company in Israel. The company started about 20 years ago. We’ve always challenged the market because the insurance market in Israel is mostly dominated by traditional companies that work with agents. The insurance agents have a very strong power in Israel; people really think they need an insurance agent to work with. We are challenging this idea. And in the last five years our growth has been the best in the Israeli market.

IDI has a few brands. Direct Insurance, the one with the pigeons in the ads, is the dominant brand. One more strong brand is Nine Million—it’s a telephone number, 9,000,000. Then we have two more brands that are actually white label.

PBB: How is the Israeli insurance market different than the U.S. market? Did you feel like you really needed innovative marketing to stand out?

RSIt’s similar because we all are operating in the “direct” (non-agent) category, and tracking customer behavior is very important in both markets. But the direct category in the U.S. is bigger than in Israel, and the digital customer behavior is more advanced. In Israel we are the only insurance company that developed digital channels (PC and mobile).

PBB: Tell me how the pigeon commercial came about.

RS: The idea was, people don’t like insurance. Actually they hate insurance, and they don’t like boring insurance commercials—people don’t want to listen to insurance companies. So part of our ideology was that we wanted to give people entertainment, and we believed if we gave them good entertainment they would listen to our message. So the pigeons are part of that. We found that we needed a flexible platform to say different things: We have the best price for insurance, we have the best service. And many times we want to say, go to the Internet, the best prices are actually on the Internet. We want to educate people to buy through the digital platform.

We needed an advertising platform that was flexible. The pigeons gave us this flexibility.

PBB: So you’ve had multiple commercials with the animated pigeons, and not just the one we’re showing here.

RS: We have a lot. We have already about ten commercials. The idea about the pigeons is that in real life, they’re everywhere. They’re in the street, they’re on the window of your house. And actually we thought it would be nice to see how people live from the point of view of the pigeons. The first commercial that we did had our two pigeons on the street, in the road, and a car is coming. And one says, “We have to move.” The other one says, “Why should we move? Every time, we have to move. Maybe this time, the car will move.” Each pigeon has his own personality. When you see all the commercials, you understand their personalities and you like them. You know, you get to know them, as a person.

PBB: And what are their names?

RS: Two boys: Yona and Yoniel. But we don’t use the names a lot in the commercials. But the personalities are so strong. One is very neurotic and one is like, you know, the king of the neighborhood.

PBB: Really? How does this play out in the ads?

RS: For example, you remember the one I talked about that started on the road, and one pigeon says, “We will not move. This is our street. Why we should move? The car will move.” And the hysterical one, the neurotic one, says, “No, we need to move! You don’t know, there could be an accident. Then we will need insurance, and insurance is so complicated.”

But at the end of the day, both of them are very sensitive.

PBB: Do you use the birds in other marketing? In print ads?

RS: We use them everywhere. They’re on our website, on the radio, even in brochures for the company. The pigeons are everywhere.

PBB: And when did you first introduce them?

RS: In August 2012. One and a half years ago.

PBB: How have the pigeons affected your business?

RS: We were not sure about how it would work out. It’s very easy to imagine how people will laugh at dogs or kittens, but we were not sure people would laugh at pigeons. We didn’t sleep well weeks before. But (the commercials’ impact) happened much faster than we thought. We have in Israel some research published every week where people say which commercial they love the most, and recall. And very quickly the pigeons became always a part of the best 10 commercials in Israel, and I think now they’re usually in the top five.

PBB: Have the pigeons boosted sales?

RS: Yes of course. We think that this is the bottom line. We don’t want just to enjoy them; we want them to give us business. We have a (sales) target, and we usually get to our target. We have also done other things to develop the company, like technical development. It’s hard to say what’s helped more. But I think for sure we can say they’ve been successful.

PBB: What are the key lessons of Yona and Yoniel for other marketers?

RS: I think there are two. I think that you have to DARE with marketing. You have to take chances. Sometimes a commercial will be successful, sometimes it can fail. These days, ads should be outstanding, and good marketers have to take risks. I think with the animation needed for the pigeons, and worrying about whether people would love pigeons, it wasn’t easy, but at the end of the day it worked for us.

The second is, sometimes people in marketing want their brand and the company’s message to always be in the commercial. But people need entertainment. They want to enjoy the commercial. We really understand it in this type of commercial. It’s important to us that people will enjoy it. We believe if people enjoy it, at the end of the day they will react.

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