Article

How CSAA Pulled Off the Ultimate ‘Rickroll’

As published in CMO Today for The Wall Street Journal

The insurance carrier’s latest campaign captured new audiences and increased sales—with the help of a 1980s icon and an enduring social media prank

The internet may create challenges such as misinformation, privacy concerns, and dwindling attention spans, but it also manages to unite people with light-hearted memes like the “Rickroll,” in which a person reading a blog or social media post clicks on a link only to be directed, unexpectedly, to the music video for the 1987 Rick Astley pop hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

This summer, CSAA Insurance Group took the surprise and delight of the Rickroll to a new level, with simple ads featuring just a QR code—topped by an undulating red hairline—that led viewers to a frame-by-frame recreation of the original music video. In the video, the modern-day Astley performs the song—complete with his signature toe taps, finger snaps, retro sunglasses, and trench coat—in a fictional CSAA office filled with employees dancing in white polos and khakis. Ads featuring the QR codes ran on TV, online, and in outdoor placements, propelling the 60-second video to more than 5 million views in three months.

For CSAA, the song, the singer, and the unexpectedness of the Rickroll concept perfectly encapsulated the company’s aspirations. “The words of this song bring our brand purpose to life in a way that we couldn’t articulate better if we tried,” says Linda Goldstein, CMO of CSAA, which provides auto, homeowners, and other personal insurance to AAA members. “By Rickrolling consumers, we were able to contemporize the brand in an engaging and surprising way. People don’t expect a 100-year-old company to use QR codes, or to reference an internet meme.”

Goldstein says the campaign has enabled CSAA to capture consumers’ attention—no small feat in the highly competitive insurance industry. “We have to make sure people understand what differentiates our brand,” she says. “Yet our budget is in the millions, not billions. We can’t outspend our competitors; we have to outsmart them.”

Singing the Praises

This isn’t the first time CSAA has used popular music to break through to its audience. The musical theme first emerged in a 2020 ad set to the song “All My Life” by K-Ci & JoJo, which introduced the concept that CSAA sells “insurAAAnce,” rather than insurance. “The term conveys CSAA’s association with AAA, a brand that many people know and trust,” explains Jones Krahl, US Co-Head of Creative, Brand & Advertising for Deloitte Digital, which serves as agency of record for CSAA. “But we needed to make the word insurAAAnce catchy and teach people how to pronounce it. And what better way than to sing it?”

Since that commercial, CSAA has produced several ads that put an insurance twist on the lyrics of popular songs, including “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence, which aired in the 2022 Super Bowl. “As we entered our third year of the insurAAAnce campaign, we wanted to expand the concept,” says Milton Correa, US Co-Head of Creative, Brand & Advertising for Deloitte Digital. “Reimagining ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ allowed us to continue the musical theme while creating a very unique experience—because the song is not just a song, it’s an experience.”

Making the Video

Once CSAA decided to pursue the idea of recreating “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the next step was to bring Rick Astley on board. Astley, who happened to be on tour that summer, was enthusiastic and agreed to participate. He shot the commercial in one day while in Boston—with a brief break to perform a live concert. “He was sharing stories from the original video with us,” Goldstein recalls. “I think he had fun. You can see in his smile that he genuinely enjoys performing the song.”

Two creative decisions were crucial to the campaign’s success, according to Goldstein. First, CSAA did not change the words to the song, as the insurer has done in previous ads based on pop hits, and second, it chose to recreate the iconic music video scene for scene. Within 48 hours of the ad going live, a content creator had posted a side-by-side comparison of the original video and the new version, highlighting the similarity of the dance moves, characters, and other details. “If we hadn’t executed the campaign carefully, there was a risk that we would ruin something people love,” Krahl says. “We wanted to pay homage to the original experience.”

Getting the Rickroll aspect of the campaign right was equally important, Krahl adds. To bring the prank to life, consumers had to be intrigued enough to scan the QR code—and surprised when they reached the video. In addition to appearing in the TV spot, the code also appeared on billboards, murals, and at sports stadiums in the 17 markets where CSAA operates. “We had scans from all over the country and even the world, which indicates that people were sharing the commercial themselves,” Goldstein says. “The video has taken on a life of its own.”

Making It Big

With the Rickroll campaign, CSAA hoped to increase awareness and consideration among consumers ages 18 and up, and ultimately to generate more quotes and policies, Goldstein says. While the insurer’s core demographic tends to be financially established adults ages 35 to 64, the selection of the hit 1980s song allowed the company to connect with a wider range of people. “The song is nostalgic for older consumers, who may have been in their twenties or thirties when it originally came out, and it took on a second life for younger consumers during the early 2000s, when the concept of Rickrolling first emerged,” Goldstein explains.

Once the campaign launched on Aug. 15, CSAA saw almost immediate results. Month over month, quotes went up 13% and policies were up 20%; year over year, those figures rose 44% and 74%, respectively. “We’re still running the campaign, and people continue to watch it and share it in ways we had never predicted,” she says, noting that one social media creator reposted the video and generated an additional 8 million views.

Looking back on the campaign, Goldstein says two takeaways stand out most. “One is that close alignment of the artist, the song, and our brand is really important,” she says. “I’m already thinking about what goes into a checklist for picking the next song—because when it’s done right, the power is exponential.”

Second, she says, the experiential piece of the campaign was a critical factor in inspiring people to understand the brand in a different way. “Today’s consumers aren’t passive. They’re active—whether they are researching a product, engaging with a company, or sharing their opinions on social media,” she says. “This campaign emphasized the importance of delivering an experience that inspires action.”

While the Rickroll campaign will live on indefinitely via the internet, Goldstein and her team are already thinking about what’s next. “The challenge is to evolve our campaign while staying true to our insight: that we don’t just sell insurance, we bring the AAA brand to the insurance category in a different way,” she says. “To drive profitable and sustainable growth, we plan to continue connecting with our customers in unexpected ways that help them see that we are a trusted, reliable, partner”—the kind who, in the words of Astley, is never gonna let you down.

—by Jennifer D. Fisher, writer, Deloitte Insights in CMO Today 

This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews with executives. The executives’ participation in this article are solely for educational purposes based on their knowledge of the subject and the views expressed by them are solely their own. This article should not be deemed or construed to be for the purpose of soliciting business for any of the companies mentioned, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse the services or products provided by these companies.

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