Rahul Sachitanand
Aug 4, 2021

Manulife CMO eyes agency consolidation to drive better creative output

Julie Nestor says the insurer's setup is more federated than she had hoped, but she believes the brand has made progress in the past year.

Julie Nestor
Julie Nestor

Ten months after she took over as the CMO of Manulife in APAC, Julie Nestor is employing her experience with consumer-facing companies to reinvigorate the insurer’s brand. The former marketer with hospitality giant Hilton is keen to refresh Manulife’s creative and have a more standard quality of output from her agencies.

As part of this process, an agency refresh appears to be in the works. "I think that the insurance category suffers from terrible creative," she told Campaign Asia-Pacific in a recent interview. “It's a sea of sameness.... We always joke it’s about the couple running down the beach…so we need to sharpen up and we need to be attractive and compelling.”

Recent media reports have indicated heightened interest in the Asia business for Manulife. According to a Bloomberg report, Manulife wants to increase its Asian insurance and wealth businesses to account for 50% of company earnings by 2025, up from 41% last year. The company wants to get three-quarters of its turnover from its key businesses, including its Asia insurance operations. 

Nestor added that Manulife’s marketing was more “federated and decentralised than I hoped,” when she first came aboard, but she has been working to be more uniform over much of the past year. “We’re focusing a lot more on this front, and one creative agency [for APAC] is the plan.” Manulife currently works with a roster of agencies across the region, she said, naming Dentsu Mcgarrybowen as one, in the 10 markets in which it operates.

Nestor is throwing down the gauntlet to not just her agencies, but also marketers like herself to change the way of doing business. Insurance has been perceived as ATL advetising on one end and lead generation via Facebook and Google on the other. Then, there has been a “big kind of gaping gap” in the mid-funnel between awareness and consideration that has stumped CMOs.

As she considers an agency review, Nestor thinks creative in Hong Kong has evolved the most, even as other markets show signs of change. “I think we still got work to do in some of our other markets…. Maybe we're relying too much on [traditional channels], and the Manulife brand probably still needs to work harder.”  

The brand can still capture customer attention to explain what Manulife is about through video content on YouTube and other digital channels, she said. "We do livestreaming now as it is a fantastic channel for us to tell the story about health," she added. The insurer is also creating a lot more mid-funnel content and using different online and offline channels to engage customers, such as inviting them to webinars to talk about health and wellness, and then having an agent follow up.

Manulife has also evolved a marketing pact with Grab in the Philippines, Nestor said. This started with a more traditional effort, wrapping cars in Manulife branding, but now includes a digital mechanism for lead generation as well.

Elsewhere, Manulife is also working with partners to get better lead qualification. A partner called Hotmob scans customers behaviours online, to help provide a better picture of what they're looking for and what they're buying.

“And then, we do more targeted and present more content to them relative to what they're searching for,” she said. “So, we're getting better at it. But traditionally, I would say that we've been very focused on just having the Manulife name on a building, or having a Facebook ad which says 'buy insurance now'…. We're evolving now. Our strategy is to be present where our customers are, and where our new segment opportunities are.”

For insurers such as Manulife and CMOs like Nestor, the challenge appears to be keeping pace with a sector that has been driven, by the pandemic, to rapidly shift its lens from B2B targets (banks and agents) to directly addressing end consumers.

While some rivals such as Prudential have chased after new Gen Z consumers with K-pop associations, Nestor isn’t willing to commit her marketing monies in that direction yet. “When you go after these segments [it's important to] have the product propositions that are necessary to attract them,” she said. “I don't think that that's an area that we will focus on in the next couple of years.”

Instead, Manulife will continue to focus on its customer base “that are getting married or expecting their first child and experiencing those life moments".

"I think, as marketers, you can get attracted to doing all the cool stuff…because everyone's talking about the importance of them, but I don't think as an organisation, that's really our position or our segment,” she added.

Nestor points out that as the industry has shifted beneath its feet, Manulife has been proactively investing to digitise its business. “Since 2016, we've invested over $750 million [globally] in making sure that we digitise our business for the future,” she explained. “And luckily, we did that right when Covid happened.... We needed to make sure that we could provide insurance policies to be sold virtually.”  

Despite the struggle with sameness of creative, consumers seem to be queueing up to buy—or at least show significantly more interest—in insurance. Manulife itself ran two Asia Care surveys in 2020, which showed 95% of its customers had taken actions to improve their health, and the demand for insurance also rose quite considerably, from 62% to 71% from the beginning to end of 2020.

For Manulife, the challenge like other insurers is to shift consumer mindsets from “a point of illness” to being more proactive users. “On Move, our health platform…we give customers policy discounts if they maintain a certain amount of physical activity,” Nestor said. “The number of Move customers has doubled year-over-year for the past two years. We've had 500% growth rates since January 2019.”

Over half the customers who downloaded the app activated it, and of those Manulife is seeing four-plus visits a month. Since its launch in 2016, Move (originally launched as a steps counter), has spread to six markets. It's now live in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Philippines.

“From a marketing perspective, we now don't have to push so hard, we have a lot more pull from customers, and a high demand for services and content relating to health and wellness as well as rewards,” Nestor explains. She points to a partnership with Rewardz in Singapore, which gives users gifts for hitting certain fitness goals, rather than end-of-year gifts or bonuses based on policy purchases and renewals.

Nestor said that Manulife is also working to diversify the appeal of its products by marketing its availability beyond traditional channels, focusing on being present where consumers spend their time. “Fifty percent of our business probably comes through agency, but we have over 100 bancassurance partnerships in Asia as well, including DBS,” she added. The company has also started forming partnerships with companies outside of financial services, such as Shopee in Vietnam.

Despite this progress, Nestor said Manulife is only “30% or 40% of the way” through its process of digitising its business, given face-to-face sales is still such an important way to buy insurance, and digital direct to consumer sales are still a relatively small part of its sales mix. “We need to make every experience seamless, frictionless, exciting,” she added.

The brand has continued to evolve and scale its approach using its Move platform, providing "fantastic" features and benefits. "We're probably ahead of our competitors in terms of how much we've evolved whilst keeping the proposition very simple,” Nestor said.

Campaign Asia

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