Rebound prompts RSP marketers to lighten up

It's that time of year again. As millions of Canadians scramble to top up their 2003 registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) contributions, marketers are gearing up to take advantage of their temporary top-of-mind stature. Last year was a dismal season, but for 2004 most financial institutions are predicting a significant turnaround and they're trotting out the messages to match.

It’s that time of year again. As millions of Canadians scramble to top up their 2003 registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) contributions, marketers are gearing up to take advantage of their temporary top-of-mind stature. Last year was a dismal season, but for 2004 most financial institutions are predicting a significant turnaround and they’re trotting out the messages to match.

BMO Financial, for one, is unapologetically optimistic. ‘We are projecting a much stronger RSP season than last year and we’re forecasting that net redemptions are going to be significantly down from last year,’ says Caroline Dabu, VP marketing.

Because of shaky financial markets and economic and political instability, the last several years have seen consumers reluctant to take any risks. However, most marketers say the economy has turned the corner as measured by such factors as a rebounding equity market and buoyant stock markets in Toronto and New York.

Certainly investors are predicting an improvement in performance: an RBC/Ipsos-Reid poll finds that in 2004 a majority of investors – 54% – are expecting a positive rate of return on their RRSP portfolios. That number was just 39% in 2003.

Thus, while messaging for the 2003 RRSP season almost uniformly stressed security, marketers are now looking to return to more traditional messaging, which means talking about specific products. ‘Last year Scotiabank and a lot of our competitors were talking about advice, financial planning and diversification,’ explains Rick White, VP brand and marketing management. ‘We were talking about the support consumers needed to feel comfortable in the marketplace. This year we’re much more product focused and specifically giving them solutions that we feel are most appropriate for them in today’s environment.’

A new series of humorous spots for Scotiabank’s Money Master RSP account broke in mid January. They make light of people’s tendency to procrastinate about their RSPs and offer Money Master as a solution that allows consumers to contribute to a high-interest savings account for the short term while they decide what to do with their money long term.

AIM Trimark is also revisiting previous strategies. Grey Worldwide did internal and external research for the firm that indicated a successful strategy would be to return to what worked in the past: Stress the knowledge and expertise that only AIM Trimark can offer.

‘We found that platform still had a lot of resonance with consumers, financial advisors and investment strategists,’ says Marc Stoiber, Grey CD. ‘We refurbished that strategy and said ‘Knowing Pays’ because ultimately the more we know, the better investment we make and the more that it pays out for you the consumer.’

Meanwhile, financial services firms AGF Management and London Life’s Freedom 55 are mining new territory in that both are positioning themselves as options that consumers should think about for short-term goals, as well as retirement. While staying with the tag, ‘What are you doing after work?’ AGF has returned to a humorous approach after flirting with a more serious tone last year.

The new campaign is based more on goals such as career change, partly in response to consumer reluctance to save for a day as far away as retirement. In fact, according to BBM Canada’s RTS survey, 43% of Canadians aged 35 to 44 have no RRSP at all.

London, Ont.-based Freedom 55 is continuing with its year-round RSP campaign (unlike most banks, which don’t advertise RSPs year-round) using its tagline ‘The freedom to choose, the power to get there.’ Like AGF, its signature TV spots play down or ignore retirement altogether and feature young people fulfilling their dreams. ‘It’s really imploring people to consider financial planning and get in front of a financial advisor,’ says Alf Goodall, VP marketing, individual retirement and investment services, Freedom 55.

He adds that because of the company’s year-round approach, fewer marketing dollars are spent during traditional RRSP season. Only about 30% of its business comes during this time. ‘For us the advertising in Jan.-Feb. doesn’t really lead to too much immediate activity and that’s why we tend not to focus on it.’

While most are optimistic, TD Canada Trust’s Dominic Mercuri, VP advertising and marketing, expects the market to be only slightly better than last year. ‘We believe that it will continue to be a difficult year for RSPs. Consumers are still holding on to their cash.’

At TD, marketing is focusing on such offerings as a five-year GIC with guaranteed rates and, for mutual funds, a monthly income fund. ‘We are not preaching that you should take some risks,’ says Mercuri. ‘All of the offerings have a fair amount of security around them.’

Some marketers are also deploying a few new tactics to reach consumers. Among them: an awareness-building promotion for AGF at Toronto’s Union Station that features beach balls and Muskoka chairs for busy travellers to relax in; cash-prize contesting for TD Canada Trust aimed at RSP purchasers as an attempt to break through the clutter; and in an industry first, BMO is using gift certificates to market RESPs (registered education savings plans). Says BMO’s Dabu, ‘Demographically, there’s an uptick in people saving for their children’s education.’

Strategy assembled a creative, a consultant and an analyst to comment on what messages best answer the call ‘Show me the money!’

Brian Howlett, CD, Axmith McIntyre Wicht, Toronto

The biggest challenge this industry faces is it’s selling the same thing. It’s a me-too product because most consumers aren’t savvy enough to know that each fund company is quite different when you look at its analysts, the quality of its research and how many offices it has around the world.

As brands, they’re all promising security and a happy retirement. The problem with that strategy is that if you’re all promising the same thing then you’d better make sure that your creative is different. And a lot of the creative is the same. It’s really white-bread creative and conservative banking-type stuff that sounds like wallpaper.

I’m a big fan of the AGF campaign. I’m so glad they’re staying with their positioning ‘What are you doing after work?’ The execution I saw ['Land Surveyor' (see cover)] is just a wonderful way of saying that we all have aspirations to be something else. It’s much more tongue-in-cheek and a more human way of doing things.

[The Freedom 55 ads] succeed in standing out from the clutter. At least it’s trying something different to make a connection with the viewer. The biggest problem that Freedom 55 is going to face is its own success. The name itself is such a brilliant name but it suggests that if you’re not 55, it ain’t for you. I don’t know how they solve that because the risk is, why would you walk away from that name? Most marketers would kill for that kind of equity and familiarity.

Susan Abbott, president, Abbott Consulting & Research, Toronto

[Abbott advises clients on business strategy, marketing and implementation, with particular expertise in financial services.]

Many in [the 35-to-44] age group feel a higher need to use their income to support family expenditure, not long-term savings. The only strategy that makes sense to me is to tightly target and narrowcast to the market that is participating, and work on share of wallet. This implies a commitment to having the salesforce well aligned to catch the opportunities marketers create for them.

Security is a big core need for all of us, but you need to add some emotion to generate any excitement. I love the lifestyle approach because it brings the emotional element of dream-fulfilment into the equation. With so many products competing for brain-space, speaking to our emotional needs is essential.

Consumers don’t really understand the fine points of things like mutual funds. Getting on the considered list needs the advertiser’s traditional art of persuasion, and that’s emotional more than rational.

Any [marketing such as AGF's Union Station promotion] that can break through the noise is worth trying. We aren’t as stuffy as we used to be here in Canada.

Financial planning is either boring or intimidating for many consumers – as long as you don’t damage the brand, anything you can do to liven things up and de-mystify is a good thing.

Paul Oliver, senior partner, investment management industry practice, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Toronto

The RSP providers need to educate, focus on the long-term and steer consumers toward medium- and long-term goals. Diversification for RSPs is a key message [marketers must use] because it reduces risk.

The RSP providers need to ensure that they have a broadly based product offering because consumers are much more educated than they were 10 to 15 years ago and so they’re demanding better choice.

The long-term lifestyle messaging is resonating and being utilized more. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in the last three years it’s that there is short-term volatility [in the market].

I would say [the AGF and Freedom 55 ads are effective]. [The marketing] has to include a simple message – such as Freedom 55, which is two words, or AGF’s ‘What are you doing after work?’ Second, it has to be reinforced through a program. It can’t be just a one-off campaign for the month of February.

I’ve seen the TV ads for AGF, and when you read their print, Web site and their corporate mission it’s all tied in. Where it’s part of a continuum of a message over a period of time, then it is effective.