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Humor not part of their policies

New to ads, Mass. insurers emphasize safety

Geico Corp. doesn't sell automobile insurance policies in Massachusetts, but it may have better name recognition here than many of the big local carriers.

Geico and many of the other national insurers who shun the state because of its regulatory climate are well known to Massachusetts drivers because of their national advertising campaigns. By contrast, local companies haven't advertised for years, what with state regulators setting all their rates and allowing only one type of policy.

But with auto insurance competition scheduled to launch April 1, local companies are starting to adopt much higher profiles, unveiling branding campaigns designed to tell drivers who they are and what they stand for.

Unlike Geico's off-beat cavemen and gecko ads, the local ads are very serious, stressing safety, responsibility, and knowledge of the local market.

"When you grow up in a socialist system, it's hard to be light-hearted," quipped Peter Robertson, Massachusetts legal counsel for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

James Ermilio, senior vice president and legal counsel at Commerce Insurance of Webster, the state's largest automobile insurer with more than a third of the market, wouldn't discuss the company's advertising plans but said the firm's new cam paign wouldn't be funny or try to mimic Geico's humorous ads.

"We see this as a serious business," Ermilio said. "This is really an effort to get our name out there. We want people to understand who Commerce is."

Unlike most national insurers, which sell policies directly to consumers and thrive on name recognition, local insurers view themselves more as wholesalers of auto insurance. More than 75 percent of the state's automobile insurance policies are currently sold by agents, a much greater percentage than in any other state.

The goal of most of the ad campaigns being mounted by local insurers is to build up name recognition with consumers while also reinforcing the network of local agents.

"We've heard from our agents that it helps them to have a recognizable brand, a company name that people know and associate with positive attributes," said James DiNatale, a spokesman for Arbella Mutual Insurance of Quincy.

Arbella is running print ads with a tagline that says the company is "conveniently located at the intersection of above and beyond." The ads also stress quality service with a local touch. "We're from here so we know what you want from an insurance company," the ad says.

Safety Insurance Co. of Boston, which is running billboard, newspaper, and radio ads during New England Patriots football games, is emphasizing the company's focus on driver safety, particularly the safety of new teen drivers. The company is a backer of advanced driver training programs.

"We wanted to stick our toe in the water," said James D. Berry, vice president of insurance operations at Safety. "In other states that have competition, it's a normal activity."

Liberty Mutual Group, which is based in Boston but sells policies nationwide, is planning to ramp up its advertising and increase its sales force in Massachusetts prior to the launch of competition next year.

"We have a strong appetite to grow our business here," said company spokesman Glenn Greenberg. Liberty's current national branding campaign, which focuses on responsibility, carries the tagline: "When people do the right thing, it's called being responsible. When it's an insurance company that does the right thing, it's called Liberty Mutual."

Agents themselves may also start advertising in a bid to attract and keep customers. The Massachusetts Association of Insurance Agents currently has a billboard up on the Southeast Expressway in Boston trumpeting the importance of an agent.

"When competition arrives, consumers are going to have to be careful comparing price quotes to make sure they're comparing apples to apples," said Frank Mancini, the association's president. "The lowest price may not bring them the coverage they need."

The level of automobile insurance advertising in Massachusetts is nowhere near where it is in New Jersey, which gave auto carriers much greater freedom to set their own rates in 2003 and attracted Geico and other national companies to the state. But most of the companies currently operating in Massachusetts say they are either running ads now or plan to in the near future.

"Ultimately, all of the companies will be out there trying to establish the best marketing position they can," said Michael Buckley, a spokesman for Hanover Insurance of Worcester.

Paula Gold, a vice president at Plymouth Rock Assurance Corp. of Boston, said companies need to advertise, but warned there could be a downside for consumers.

"If everyone starts spending a lot of money on branding and advertising, it's going to show up in the cost structure," she said.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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COMPETITION AHEAD Read previous Globe coverage of the changes facing the Mass. auto insurance industry at boston.com/business.

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