Sun Life changes its tune

SVP and CMO Mary De Paoli livens up a low-engagement category with musical numbers, mobile apps, e-books and advisor matchmaking.

Insurance may play a key role in planning for the future, but it’s not the sort of thing consumers get excited about. At best, insurance can be kind of boring; at worst, it’s downright daunting.
“We know there is low engagement in both the insurance and banking industries,” says Mary De Paoli, SVP and CMO, Sun Life Financial, who heads up the Canadian marketing team and oversees initiatives in the U.S., Asia, Philippines, Indonesia and the U.K. “It’s sometimes difficult to understand the complexity of the products. But consumers understand that these products are critical to their family’s livelihood. We felt that there had to be a very different take on getting their attention.”

This logic led to a series of high-energy TV spots by Toronto-based Capital C, which replaced Zig (now CP+B) as Sun Life’s Canadian AOR last April.
“If I Only Had a Plan,” launched last fall, features a couple who bursts into song while meeting with a financial advisor, to the tune of The Wizard of Oz classic “If I Only Had a Brain.” A second spot, released in January, shows a couple at their retirement party performing a modified version of The Temptations’ “Get Ready,” complete with choreographed dance routine.
While the commercials may be goofy – witness the butt-slide along the kitchen counter in the first spot – the strategy was no laughing matter.
Here in Canada, Sun Life has over six million clients, serving about one in five Canucks. It’s the country’s leading insurance company based on total premiums and deposits, which totalled just over $19 million at the end of Q3 for the previous 12 months. It’s also number one in the group retirement market, controlling over 30% of industry assets and winning 55% of overall market activity in the past year, as measured by financial services industry association LIMRA.
And it’s a homegrown brand: Sun Life began operations in 1871 in Montreal, expanding to the U.K. in 1893 and U.S. in 1895. By 1900, it had extended its reach to the Philippines, West Indies, South America and several markets in Asia including China, Hong Kong, India and Japan.
Although Sun Life has been selling insurance to Canadians for 140 years, it’s only been advertising on TV for four, with the first two devoted to increasing brand recognition. Consumer research had shown De Paoli that “it takes a lot to break out of the sea of sameness” in financial advertising, and that it was time to kick it up a notch. But this needed to be done in the right way.
“Consumers told us, ‘There’s a moment in a campaign where we’re open to having you get our attention but it has to very quickly be followed by something relevant,’” De Paoli says.
By using songs that boomers remembered from their youth, Sun Life would no doubt get noticed by the target, but the spots also needed to drive home the brand’s unique offerings – like its online Advisor Match service (which helps consumers select a financial advisor they’ll be comfortable with) and its new Post Retirement Plan program.

Once Sun Life and Capital C had decided to go the musical route, they tested several commercial concepts with focus groups, an online panel of 1,500 Canadians and a group of 500 financial advisors. 
“The research gave [the campaign] the stamp of approval,” De Paoli says. “It had wide appeal, it was relevant and it was definitely different.”
In addition to the TV spots, Sun Life created an e-book called Sun Days that lets visitors to the Sun Life website read about how the company has helped other Canadians. Pages from this e-book were featured as print advertorials in Chatelaine, Canadian Business, Maclean’s, Today’s Parent and several French magazines in the fall, with media handled by Initiative Media.
Sun Life also launched an express version of Advisor Match, based on focus group research. “People didn’t know how to prepare for the first meeting with an advisor,” explains De Paoli. This insight led to the creation of an interactive list, which allows consumers to outline their financial goals and have the results emailed to the selected advisor.
 Since “If I Only Had a Plan” launched, De Paoli says, they’ve seen the use of Advisor Match more than double year-over-year. Traffic to Sun Life’s website has increased by close to 20% and calls to the call centre have jumped.
“Based on the metrics, our expectations were wildly surpassed,” she says.
There’s anecdotal evidence that the campaign is working, too. “We’ve seen a very real increase in the number of tweets, emails and blog mentions [about Sun Life],” she says. “Does this necessarily translate into sales? It may not today, but it’s part of the positioning of the brand as being very warm and having a lot of personality.”
De Paoli joined Sun Life in 1999, as the head of the national sales and marketing group for retirement products. By 2003, she was VP, customer relations and marketing, national accounts, and had been recognized as one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 by Caldwell Partners. In 2007, she became CMO.
“For me, it felt like the right opportunity at a time when I knew that this brand could really resonate with consumers around the world,” she says.
One way De Paoli hopes to connect with consumers is through the use of technology. Last fall, Sun Life partnered with RIM to introduce wireless enrolment to its group retirement info sessions – a Canadian industry first – allowing people to fill out the necessary paperwork digitally using a BlackBerry Playbook tablet. By having participants submit their data on the spot, Sun Life avoids the all-too-common scenario of people walking away with paper forms and forgetting to fill them out. Although it’s too early to measure Canadian response rates, industry stats from the U.S. have shown that when employers use wireless enrolment at the work site, registration rates jump to 90%, compared to a typical sign-up rate of 50%.
Sun Life is also working towards its first foray into the mobile sphere. “We believe in the vast potential of mobile and expect that this will be the way that most of our customers and intermediaries interact with us in the future,”
De Paoli says. The company is currently developing infrastructure and expects to make significant announcements about mobile capabilities later this year.
Sun Life has also ramped up its marketing plan stateside, rolling out its first American advertising push last year, with help from Richmond, Virginia-based Martin Agency.
“[That market] is very different in that our U.S. business is intermediary driven,” De Paoli says. “We had to help our intermediaries because, really, they were making two sales: they had to sell the product to a customer, but then they had to turn around and sell who Sun Life is.”
To address this problem, Sun Life launched a mass media campaign focused on a pair of enthusiastic mailroom employees who travel across America trying to raise brand awareness. (One spot shows them trying to convince K.C. and the Sunshine Band to rename themselves K.C. and the Sun Life Band.) Sun Life also acquired the naming rights for the home of the 2010 Super Bowl, and had spots running during the big game.
As the overall head of Sun Life’s international marketing team, De Paoli says she’s often surprised by how little people in Canada understand the company’s global footprint.
“We sponsor the dragon boat race in Hong Kong every year, we have number-one market share in the Philippines, we are a leading wealth player in India, and our U.S. business is growing significantly,” she says. “We are a really wonderful, proud Canadian success story.”


Hamilton, ON. Nov. 3, 1969
Education: Honours English, University of Western Ontario; master’s degree in journalism,
American University
Career: De Paoli moved to Washington, D.C., in 1992 so that she could witness the U.S. election first-hand while doing her graduate degree in journalism. She worked at CNN and the local NBC bureau during school, before moving back to Canada to become the editor of Benefits and Pensions Monitor magazine. There she discovered an interest in the retirement management industry, which led to a position as product and marketing leader for Canada Trust’s retirement division.
In 1999, she joined Sun Life, leading the national sales and marketing group for retirement. By 2007, she had worked her way up to  CMO and SVP.
Size of Canadian marketing team:


3 Questions

What do you do in your spare time?
I listen to a wide range of music, from classic rock to classical. I’m also a voracious reader and have become an iPad addict.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

When you pick your career, find something you love to do. Not only will it not feel like work, but you will make a difference because you will be passionate about contributing.

What tips would you give to a marketer just starting out in the industry?
Work as hard as you can, and be disciplined. Discipline is a quality that people often overlook, but it’s the backbone of any successful leader.