The System Is Broken: Marketing to the Now America

In a Nutshell:

Sherina Smith, VP of marketing at American Family Insurance, shared details from her brand's quest to disrupt the traditional agency model by having its agency of record and multicultural marketing agency begin working together on both general and multicultural marketing, thereby unlocking the power of diversity as a competitive advantage. Smith also shared four actions all marketers can take to do the same thing at their brands.

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Words of Wisdom:

"There isn't a talent issue. We just need to find the talent, elevate it, and give it equity. We've always had the data to prove this. We only need the courage to act on it."
     — Sherina Smith, VP of marketing at American Family Insurance

Key Takeaways:

Multicultural consumers are where business growth possibility most exists. In fact, from 2010 to 2020, all of the U.S. population growth was attributable to people of color. Despite this fact, American Family Insurance found in 2019 that executives at the major agency holding companies were between 82 and 85 percent white. Additionally, of 870 CMOs, three percent were Black, five percent were Asian, and four percent were Hispanic. These tension points create opportunity for brands, both internal and external.

For American Family Insurance, this opportunity was seized in the form of a new marketing strategy that aimed to disrupt the agency construct, blurring the lines and responsibilities between the brand's general market and multicultural agency partners, and striving for equity across both the creative work and the individual teams. American Family Insurance tasked both agencies with joining forces to collaborate on the new strategy for the brand, making both agency creative directors equal partners in the decision-making process. Doing so would help the brand to ensure multicultural marketing data insights were included into the overall strategy.

American Family Insurance took this new strategy to market with the "Dream Fearlessly" campaign, which focused on the importance of the home, a safe place where parents can protect their children and provide them a space to dream. The brand went out with ads expressing this sentiment through situations that would resonate both with multicultural and general market audiences.

As a next step, American Family Insurance partnered with TIME to launch an immersive experience that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the historic 1963 march on Washington that he led to life through a virtual and augmented reality exhibit at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, Ill.

At the top, American Family Insurance strives for equity by providing real opportunity to multicultural individuals. The brand currently has a Black CMO, Elicia Azali, and she was preceded by another Black woman, former CMO Telisa Yancy, who was serving in the role when these new efforts from the brand began.

The strategy that created these pieces resulted not only in stronger multicultural work, but in tangible bottom line results. Each ad has exceeded goals as they relate to brand recall and awareness and has driven sales not only for products directly featured in the ads, but also for other products in the American Family Insurance portfolio.

Action Steps:

  • Seek truth in data to dispel the myths that exist in your brand's current construct.
  • Commit to bridging equity gaps even though it will disrupt the status quo or make some uncomfortable.
  • Identify gaps in opportunities provided to your teams.
  • Go beyond your comfort zone to recognize, recruit, and empower the best talent.

Q&A with Sherina Smith, VP of Marketing at American Family Insurance

Q. How do you keep all executives accountable regarding Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion and your partnership internally with the DEI team?

A. One of the things that we've done with our work is partner closely with the internal resource groups to ensure that they have a voice and they can get feedback to us, in addition to our consumer feedback. We also partner with them in ways that help to push us. There are times when they have come to us and said, "We don't think you went far enough." It's been a really great two-way street of communication as we challenge each other to get the best work.

Q. Can you expand a little bit about the pain of change and disruption, changing cultures and processes, and how you came out of it in such a successful way?

A. We start with the premise of assuming positive intent. Everybody wants the best things for the business. Everybody wants to see the business grow and do well, and they want to reach consumers and change hearts and minds. When we start from that premise, we can go into it anchoring people in. As leaders, we have to be willing to stand in that discomfort. If we want to create space for all consumers, then you can't continue to do it the same way. So we work to reconcile that internally — conveying that change is going to be painful, that there may be discomfort, but it is in service of the business. We have to help people understand that this is the way that we can grow our businesses.


"The System is Broken: Marketing to the Now America." Sherina Smith, VP of Marketing at American Family Insurance. 2021 ANA Multicultural Marketing and Diversity Conference, 10/26/21.

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