Francesco Lagutaine confesses that he never thought he’d work in insurance. But after two years as the Hong Kong-based global chief marketing and experience design officer of Canadian firm Manulife, he now considers the industry “an exciting place to be”.
Informing this radical shift in opinion has been Lagutaine’s work on Manulife’s brand refresh, which has seen the company overhaul all its digital interactions and top the changes off with a recently released new logo and look in all global markets. These include 12 in Asia, from where 80% of the company’s new business now originates, thanks in part to historically low insurance protection levels in the region compared to other parts of the world.
The rebrand is part of Manulife’s ambition (one shared by many other insurance companies) to transform itself on two counts: to become a fully digital operation and to put its customers at the heart of everything it does on the basis that, as Lagutaine puts it, “if our customers win, we win.”
This represents a major pivot in a sector that’s famous for moving slowly—and being largely about equations. “It’s an industry driven primarily by really smart math geeks who can create amazing algorithms that can predict the future, but we have kind of been forgetting customers,” says Lagutaine.
Paying closer attention to the customer view—in particular, to the insight that cutting out complexity in communications means easier decision-making—has informed the rebuilding of Manulife’s entire digital ecosystem over the last few years, Lagutaine explains: the newly released logo represents the company finally ‘going public’ with its new purpose.
Brighter green, brighter future?
The average outsider might consider that the smartened-up logo, the 11th in Manulife’s 130-year history, isn’t a radical shift from the old, which was last updated in 2014. But while he recognises it may sound like so much “branding vapour”, Lagutaine explains that the updated version not only boasts a new green that contains “greater optimism”, felt to be “more in line with the times”, but a new proprietary Manulife typeface that works much better in digital mediums than the old one. “[The old logo] was still done in a way that kind of reflected the old way in which we engaged, which was heavily paper-based, heavily on document style,” Lagutaine explains.
Lagutaine is proud that while Manulife’s headquarters are in Toronto, Canada, the design of the company’s new look originated in Asia, specifically from the team he built in Hong Kong. Despite his agency background—Lagutaine is ex-Ogilvy & Mather—meaning he has a “soft spot” for agencies, Lagutaine felt an in-house team was absolutely necessary to the success of the rebrand. “I’m passionate that in the service industry, especially in financial services that are so commoditized, the only thing that differentiates is interaction design”, he says. “If you outsource, you are outsourcing the single biggest differentiator in your business.” As he learned during his previous role at Citi, he continues, relying on agencies for design means your design style becomes the style of the agency or art director you work with. “When you insource, you decide what your design style is and you become predictable and consistent, which is the secret for good design.”
The other great benefit to an in-house design team is that it's on the doorstep for fun experiments. Lagutaine is currently running a competition among his designers to make Manulife-branded sports shirts. It’s based on his observation that insurance is an industry “obsessed” with branded T-shirts, which are worn by every employee at any public event, but then immediately thrown away. “There is no reason we shouldn’t make T-shirts people actually want to wear at the gym,” says Lagutaine.
This also plays to his philosophy that all brands need to find their own place in a customer’s universe. “In a world that’s become so much more complex in terms of communication, the anthemic branding approach may not work as effectively as it did in the past," he says. "In my experience, brands need to find almost subliminally their place in the customer psyche and then they will start allowing brands to be part of their digital communication sphere...We just need to be out there with a language and a presence that makes it more feel like we’re part of what people are doing.”
Local activations and results
The brand’s new look is being activated in different ways around Asia. In Hong Kong, several trams and MTR stations are currently adorned with Manulife’s optimistic new green and new more simple messaging, for example. “We have a very strong brand in Hong Kong, a very strong business," Lagutaine explains. "We’ve been very effective in digital channels but we haven’t been as visible as some of our competitors. [The ads are] part of this re-established confidence we want people to have in the brand, and we really want come out to world with our point of view. For now, our point of view is visual.”
In Singapore, meanwhile, Manulife’s marketing team has incorporated the social-media trending topic of “adulting” into its ads to encourage young people to start engaging in retirement conversations earlier. "It's doing very well because it wasn't a language people were expecting from an insurance company", says Lagutaine.
And in the Philippines, where the brand’s main goal is about improving financial literacy, the approach has been about dropping what Lagutaine calls “breadcrumbs to purchase”: small steps that raise brand awareness, such as ads on the backseat screens of Grab cabs, rather than direct calls to action.
Lagutaine admits that the whole practise of boosting engagement via marketing is still relatively experimental for the industry. “Insurance has been such a low engagement industry and product. People don’t think about insurance. I come from the world of credit cards. People will take out their credit cards—the lucky ones—15-20 times a day. It’s a product you would interact with almost on a daily basis. Insurance you tend to buy once, then forget about it.”
The rebrand's success, for Lagutaine, will be represented by shorter purchasing cycles thanks to clearer digital properties, an uptake in awareness and relevance due to the new logo and look—“We want people to not just see [the brand] but to consider it as 'something for me'”—and, a concept Lagutaine accepts seems “almost quaintly old fashioned, but is almost revolutionary in this part of world”, improved correlation between the brand’s communications about itself and customer engagement with sales agents.
Asian consumers can expect more bright green Manulife messaging appearing in the near future. Lagutaine says "all markets" within the region are growing for the company, with Vietnam the star emerging market and double-digit growth recorded for the last four years in Japan, a typically over-saturated market for insurance but one where the company has been able to find some "profitable niches". They're also seeing "phenomenal growth" in China, where the company is starting to experiment with biometric recognition systems to allow people to access their insurance information.
Insurance might have a long way to go before customers consider it "exciting", but if the bright new green of the company's new logo should stand for anything, its that Manulife and Lagutaine, at least, are nothing but hopeful about its future.