Case Study: Progressive Corporation 2011 Annual Report
Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2012 “Justified” competition, in which an esteemed jury identified submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. It serves as an example of how to explain design thinking to clients, students, peers and the public in general, based on specific metrics.
For 29 years, The Progressive Corporation has commissioned Nesnadny + Schwartz (N+S) to create its annual report. Each year, the bar is raised by the client, and even more so by N+S. As a leader in their industry (automobile insurance), Progressive prides itself on its ability to find imaginative solutions to the day in, day out challenges that are a part of responding to the ever-changing concerns and demands of their customers, the marketplace and the general public.
For nearly three decades, the process has included the development of a theme that is relevant to both the business and culture of Progressive, and the commissioning of a fine artist to create a body of work that they feel is a reflection of that theme. Through the use of fine art in their annual reports, Progressive has invented a communication system that challenges their employees, stockholders and related constituents to draw their own conclusion about any implied/actual and/or relevant/irrelevant dialogue between the “outside” (artist’s) interpretation and any specific corporate agendas.
Founded in 1937, The Progressive Corporation is one of the country’s largest auto insurance groups, the largest seller of motorcycle policies and a market leader in commercial auto insurance. As a publicly held entity, the company must comply with SEC regulations in its public disclosure policies. To meet these requirements, N+S employs two different communication components: a printed and online annual report.
In summary, this project resulted in three deliverables: the printed annual report, the annual report website and the “The Single Lane Superhighway” website. It all started on December 13, 2011, when Progressive made an online challenge to its customers, shareholders, employees, friends and families to perform one task: “Draw your car facing right.” With little explanation—and exclusively through the use of social media—the project was launched, and it generated a truly astonishing crowdsourced response. 50,000 drawings—the product of this effort—were employed as the principal visuals for the Progressive Annual Report and Annual Report website. We titled it “The Single Lane Superhighway.” A mock-up of the original drawing tool can now be experienced here.
- The Annual Report: While the other two components were web-based, one of the key deliverables was a printed publication of 46 pages, plus cover. You can download a PDF of the printed annual report.
- The Annual Report Website: This deliverable consisted of a standalone microsite. It can be viewed at: www.Progressive.com/AnnualReport2011
- The Single Lane Superhighway: After we selected 50,000 cars for the project, we concluded the collection of drawings. The site was morphed into the final art deliverable, which can be viewed at: www.thesinglelanesuperhighway.com
We prefer not to disclose this information publicly. That said, our budget for the entire project was relatively modest.
In addition to performing a simple search for “thesinglelanesuperhighway” (approximately 124,000 results), we employed Google Analytics to carefully track our traffic on the site. All the statistics contained in our case study entry were compiled from these reports.
The Risks: The theme for the 2011 Progressive Annual Report was “personalization,” which plays a critical role in the company’s philosophy of product development and customer interaction. By definition, personalization implies individuality, and goes against the grain of creating a mass-produced annual report, where every copy is virtually the same. The challenge of communicating the theme turned into a first-in-a-lifetime opportunity for N+S to articulate a concept that is essentially never the same thing twice.
For the first time in our 29-year history of working with Progressive and using the company’s contemporary art collection as a conceptual underpinning, N+S proposed breaking tradition by partnering with a digital artist rather than one who works in more permanent, tangible media. At the time, the proposal seemed audacious. Digital expression as a “collectable fine art form” is still emergent and embryonic.
But most importantly, N+S was recommending that Progressive take a huge risk and trust that the visuals resulting from this crowdsourcing experiment would not only make for a compelling and relevant corporate publication and website, but that the technological and social media tools we employed could be adapted to support our unconventional tactics.
We realized that if the project was successful in this particular application, Progressive and N+S could propel it into a completely new form and model of corporate communication and expression. And if the endeavor was not successful, it would be a failed—if not embarrassing—attempt at harnessing nascent technology.
Our Approach: To express and interpret the theme of “personalization,” N+S commissioned and partnered with Aaron Koblin—a renowned digital artist known for his pioneering uses of crowdsourcing and data visualization to reflect on cultural trends and the changing relationship between humans and technology. Koblin accepted the challenge, and created “The Single Lane Superhighway”—a simple online drawing tool—as an incitement for drivers to create personal interpretations of their cars. Part curator and part ringleader, Koblin maintained his role of visionary, but delegated the title of “artist” to the 126,786 crowdsourced visitors who populated the site with their own unique, animated works of art.
Another key facet of our project strategy involved the embrace of new media and the internet. As a corporation delivering the majority of their $12 billion-plus in annual sales via the web, having a concept that was articulated and distributed through a “digital pipeline” was a nearly perfect metaphoric match to the actual business model of Progressive. To observe the site—and even participate in it—would become a journey where “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Simply put, the cars are the cars, but the highway is an experience.
Finally, these cars were collected on an interactive website, which has now joined Progressive’s collection of nearly 10,000 pieces of contemporary art as the first online artwork.
When a visitor to the site clicks on one of the 50,000 cars, they are immediately presented with a “recreation” of the original, complete with the contributor’s name and age, as well as the title of their drawing. Additionally, both the original creators and current visitors may continue the viral distribution of the project via easily clickable social media tools and/or email. One blog post we read stated, “[T]his hypnotic seduction is just about the best way I have ever found to waste 20 minutes of my work day...”
The Results: In the measurable and trackable world of the internet, numbers can speak louder than words. Here are our numbers, based on actual data from the December 13, 2011 launch through to the end of our collection period, on February 16, 2012:
- Total drawings submitted: 126,786
- Unique visitors: 228,402
- Total visits: 292,007
- Total page views: 444,344
- Shortest time spent drawing: 10 seconds
- Longest time spent drawing: 30+ minutes
- Collection period: 65 days
- Approximate drawing collection rate per hour: 81
- Countries represented: 177
At the time of this writing (April 11, 2012), our numbers were as follow:
- Unique visitors: 344,538
- Total visits: 449,378
- Total page views: 670,904
- Countries represented: 179
The creativity, imagination and experience of people from all walks of life, from every corner of the world, produced a diverse array of vehicles, from ice cream trucks and dragsters to roller skates and moon rovers. The virtual on-ramp is now closed, but 50,000 innovative vehicles perpetually roam “The Single Lane Superhighway”—a testament to its success.
In his annual report letter, Glenn M. Renwick, president and chief executive officer of Progressive, stated: “The power of participation and personalization has strong appeal, no better demonstrated than when we asked customers, employees, shareholders and directors to contribute artwork for this annual report. A simple request to draw online a car facing to the right resulted in tens of thousands of responses—no two the same. The numerosity of responses provides a visual clue as to the expansive power that personalization provides to segmentation in insurance pricing.”
Economy, People, Environment and Culture: While there was no efficient, accurate or economical method of tracking how many of Progressive’s current customers accessed “The Single Lane Superhighway” versus how many new customers it produced, the sheer amount of media attention, public relations, online chatter and social media buzz it generated far surpassed the company’s expectations.
Across 177 different countries—on social media sites like Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and in blogs and publications about advertising, design, motorcycles, technology, insurance, automobiles, marketing, drawing, visual arts and general interests—“The Single Lane Superhighway” generated, and continues to generate, a truly amazing amount of visibility for Progressive. This coverage, combined with nearly 450,000 (and still counting) visitors exposed to the Progressive brand, made for a hugely successful and prudent investment.
In 2003, Progressive made a conscious decision to reduce the size of its printed annual report by approximately 50 percent, or 40 pages, eliminating many financial statements and, instead, publishing complete financial information in the online version of the report. This practice continues, along with an ever-increasing percentage of investors who prefer to receive and access the online annual versus the mailed, printed version.
On some level, “The Single Lane Superhighway” can be seen as a metaphor for Progressive’s success: an industry leader moving ever-forward, dependably and consistently—fueled by the creativity and independence of its employees and individualized customer service—never looking back as it leaves its competitors behind.