Why the wheels won’t be coming off the three Sheilas’ car

Changes in the law can be the making – or breaking – of a brand. In the case of Sheilas’ Wheels, the female-oriented car insurance company, it looks very much like the latter.

What else are we to infer from a new European Court of Justice ruling – due to come into force on December 21st 2012 – that outlaws women being offered a lower premium merely on the basis of their gender? Surely this EU-wide prohibition topples the brand’s very USP?

Not so, according to a company spokesman quoted in Marketing Week: “What people have not realised is that this ruling affects pricing, but not the marketing of the product.”

Well, yes and no. If you were launching the concept today, you would probably try a different positioning. But the situation is by no means hopeless, thanks to the strength of the brand.

Sheilas’ Wheels, with its inimitable girlie threesome trilling away in their Sheilamobile, was launched in 2005 and is a shining example of what direct TV advertising can do for a certain kind of brand. It was the brainchild of Peter Wood, a banker by profession who has a near-genius for financial services segmentation and branding. Wood made his first fortune by inventing insurance disintermediation, in the guise of Direct Line and Privilege, and flogging them for a small fortune to Royal Bank of Scotland when bancassurance was all the rage. He later reinvested the loot in esure and, daughter of esure, the three Sheilas.

Women, as is well known, tend to be more careful drivers than men – and particularly 17-25 year old men, most of whom seem hell-bent on treating the Queen’s Highway as an extension of the Le Mans race circuit. That, at least, is the cliché. And to a surprising extent it is supported by actuarial research, which suggests that women drive less, speed less, are involved in fewer accidents and incur fewer fines (other than parking fines, perhaps). All of which makes them a more appetising risk for insurers, salivating at the prospect of bigger profits and better dividends for shareholders.

So, if the gender-pricing of risk were the brand’s sole proposition, it would now be in deep trouble. But that is not the case. Beyond the hard core of price rationale is a more emotive, pink, fluffy femininity that attempts to draw women into what, for them, has traditionally been an area of supremely low interest. The lure of such female-oriented benefits as £300 free handbag insurance and female-friendly repair shops should not be underestimated. The underlying message is reassurance; few car insurance brands do it nearly so well.

Besides, the ECJ ruling may not be all it appears at first sight. True, young women without much previous driving experience are likely to find their premiums heavily loaded (in order to reduce the weighting on young men, as a category). But gender is only an actuarial proxy for assessing safe driving. Those who are older, and have a proven no-claims record, are likely to continue to benefit from low premiums. And if the actuarial pool is filled with low-risk drivers who just happen to be, in overwhelming quantity, women (as they are at Sheilas’ Wheels), well so much the better for business. And, so much the better for any men who sign up as well.

In short, Sian Vickers and Chris Wilkins, the husband-and-wife creatives who devise those annoying but effective Sheilas’ Wheels ads, can relax. The girls won’t be waving goodbye any time soon. If anything, we’ll be seeing even more of them. Because marketing has just moved up the priority scale.

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