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Was Aviva right to ditch Norwich Union name?

PUBLISHED: 19:43 10 June 2010 | UPDATED: 18:00 30 September 2010

Sam Williams

The loss of the historic Norwich Union brand last year was mourned by some - but for others it has been eclipsed by the meteoric rise of the Aviva name.

The loss of the historic Norwich Union brand last year was mourned by some - but for others it has been eclipsed by the meteoric rise of the Aviva name. So was the change worth it? SAM WILLIAMS reports.

On June 1 last year, the Norwich Union brand slipped into history after more than 200 years, replaced by Aviva in a bid to create a single identity for the world's fifth largest insurer.

And while the loss of the name was mourned by many, along with the recognition it offered of the city's role in the company's formation, it has been followed by a meteoric rise in awareness of the Aviva brand in the UK.

David McMillan, chief executive of Aviva UK general insurance, said advertising campaigns fronted by the likes of Bruce Willis and Ringo Starr, and more recently comedian Paul Whitehouse, had helped Aviva become a household name in the UK, aided by the firm's sponsorship of UK athletics and ITV drama premieres.

And latest surveys of spontaneous brand awareness - tested by asking randomly chosen members of the public to name insurance companies that come to mind - show a steep rise in the public profile of Aviva.

Mr McMillan said: “We went into the name change with a degree of optimism, but this optimism was outshone by what has happened since.

“In spontaneous brand awareness, one of the principle measures we use, Aviva is now up to 55pc. Norwich Union in 2008 was 52pc.

“We have already, in a 12-month period, managed to outstrip where the Norwich Union brand was.

“Let's not forget RAC, also part of Aviva, which is also doing very well, and in 2009 was voted seventh in Institute of Customer Service awards across all sectors.

“There is a degree of strength in both brands. I am particularly pleased with the advertisements featuring Paul Whitehouse, sponsorship of ITV drama premieres and sponsorship of UK athletics, which is getting a lot of press.”

While awareness of Aviva is marginally behind that of Direct Line, the 55pc figure puts the company in the top three insurers by brand recognition nationally.

Mr McMillan added: “We are ahead of where we expected to be, and in the top three in the UK. We wanted it to be around 50pc and we have exceeded that.

“It has happened quicker than we thought.”

The change from Norwich Union to Aviva was not a simple step but one of the biggest rebranding exercises in UK financial services history.

While the cost of the changes were not made public by the company, they ranged from changes to thousands of types of insurance policy documents, staff ID cards, websites, telephone systems right down to office mugs, business cards for more than 6,000 Norwich staff and stationery to signs.

But the decision to axe the NU name has been strongly defended by the company, in its aim to create a single brand to push forward global ambitions.

The name is one of the oldest in insurance, dating back to 1797 when the company was founded by merchant and banker Thomas Bignold.

Following a merger with CGU in 2000 the Aviva name was adopted in 2002, while the firm's UK general insurance and life businesses continued to bear the NU name.

But with Aviva now operating in about 36 countries worldwide Mr McMillan said a consistent identity was a key priority for the business.

“We need to work under a single brand across the globe. We operate in 36 countries, in all but four Aviva has been the brand for the last six, seven, eight years.

“The UK is our home market, and it is ridiculous to have one brand operating throughout the globe and a different one in the UK.”

And while the Norwich name has been lost from Aviva's UK operations, Mr McMillan underlined the company's commitment to the city, and said being part of a truly global brand offered key benefits to Norwich and Norfolk.

“This is a chance to have something fresh and new to work with.

“Our commitment to Norwich is pretty significant and ongoing.

“We have got more than 6,000 people in the city, which is the headquarters of the general insurance business, which still makes up about a quarter of the group.

“It's a massively important centre, and doubly important because we are the largest private sector employer here.

“This is a real opportunity for us to get the best of what Norfolk has to offer in terms of employees.

“The fact we have got a strong local presence and also a window into a global organisation is a very positive thing for the people who work here, and by extension for the city.”

The past year has seen many changes at Aviva, and not just in name.

A major efficiency drive has been completed a year early, which saw up to 500 jobs go in Norwich in the life division last year, and globally the firm has turned losses of £885m in 2008 to £1.3bn profits in 2009.

But coupled with a focus on improved customer service the name change has brought other benefits to the company, Mr McMillan said.

“Having a global brand has gained us a new angle in the recruitment market. It has certainly been easier to recruit senior talent into Aviva brand.

“It has also had quite a surprising impact on our intermediaries market.

“Companies get the fact we are strong UK brand, with a lot of heritage, based in East Anglia, but also get the Aviva brand, and being part of a global company with global reach.”

And following from those advertisements featuring stars such as Elle McPherson and Paul Whitehouse, Aviva is set to maintain its public profile, and the brand will be popping up on television screens, newspapers and perhaps other places in the future.

“From a UK perspective it is very important we maintain leadership in the home market, and growing successful life and pensions general insurance businesses here are very important, and the brand plays its part in that,” Mr McMillan said.

“We are in line for steady, continued growth over next couple of years.

“We are a massive customer brand and we will continue to invest in advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Watch this space in terms of what we are going to do next.”

Norwich Union - a brief history of a brand

1797: NU name first registered by merchant and banker Thomas Bignold, who formed Norwich Union Society for the Insurance of Houses, Stock and Merchandise from Fire.

1808: Thomas Bignold established a second company, Norwich Union Life Insurance Society.

1821: The fire society was absorbed into the Norwich General Assurance Company.

1997: In its bicentenary year, Norwich Union demutualised and floated as a public limited company on the London Stock Exchange.

2000: Norwich Union merged with CGU, itself formed from the merger of General Accident and Commercial Union in 1998. The new company is called CGNU.

2002: The Aviva name is adopted by CGNU globally, but the NU brand remains in the UK.

June 1, 2009: NU name axed and replaced by Aviva.

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