Q&A with Income CMO Marcus Chew: Great marketers thrive on fear and uncertainty

Marcus ChewMarcus Chew is the CMO of Income, formerly NTUC Income, one of Singapore’s best known insurers. Last week, he was named client of the year at the Hall of Fame Awards.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, the 41 year-old former Unilever and Adidas China marketer talks about why he moved from a ‘sexy’ MNC to a local insurance firm, why he never tests ads, and why he has no regrets about the ‘Start retiring’ Rebecca Lim campaign that caused a stir earlier this year for misleading consumers.

You went from the sexy world of Adidas three years ago to the less sexy world of insurance marketing. Why?

Not many people have the ambition to market a shampoo, selling something that is 99% water. But at Unilever it was the competitive element that kept me going, seeing how marketing had an impact on sales and share.

Adidas is a sexy brand in a sexy category, and I never thought I would move into insurance marketing. But Income is a very different sort of challenge. The scope of the job is beyond branding and marketing. I also handle product development, CSR, research, analytics and e-business. One of the things that drew me to the job was the scope, but it was also the challenge of making something super-boring, interesting.

In the insurance category, most ads are about creating fear. An exception of course is Thai insurance advertising, which is in a league of its own. In Singapore, insurance advertising tends to be very safe and same-same. And I thought with Income there was an opportunity to really push the envelope at a local company and do something different.

IncomeI was drawn to the Income proposition of ‘Made different’. It spoke to me as someone who has always tried to make a difference as a marketer, and one who thrives when given freedom. The last thing you want is to put out advertising and nobody takes any notice. You must have a point of view, right or wrong. The worst outcome is no response at all. I think that’s the biggest fear for a marketer.

You certainly got a response to the ‘Start retiring’ campaign, when Mediacorp actress Rebecca Lim declared in social media that she was retiring, only to admit later her comments were part of a campaign to promote Income’s retirement products. Talk us through that.

Rebecca Lim's announcement in social media that she'd retired

Rebecca Lim’s announcement on Instagram that she’d retired

We were expecting the level of response we got. Perhaps not in quite the way it turned out, but we saw the idea as medium-level risk. And to be honest, we got caught in a war between SPH and MediaCorp. Rebecca [Lim] is a MediaCorp artiste, and SPH ran a story on the saga for five consecutive days, really dragging it out.

I have worked with many celebrities in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and I think our [Singapore’s] media and entertainment sector is quite immature. Most of our celebrities want to be seen as very proper, the goody two-shoes types. There aren’t many genuinely controversial celebrities in Singapore, and that presented us with a problem.

There was a lot of conversation about consumers being misled, which Mumbrella reported. But we weren’t really being misleading if you think about it. She [Rebecca Lim] is an actress. Is she was to act in a TV show as a murderer does that make her a killer in real life? That essentially was my assessment before we launched the campaign.

But of course you can’t predict what the response will be in social media. People were saying that they felt cheated. And at that point we needed to do some damage control, and we consulted a PR agency [Grayling].

NTUC Income Mr Brown tweet

But at no time did we want to pull out. And at no time did I do what most clients do and blame the agency. I don’t think that ever helps the brand, and in any case I don’t think we did anything wrong.

We were being disruptive. And we’d never played in the retirement space before, and it’s a very important segment of the sector. We came in and owned retirement with this campaign. We were talking to youth. The people who commented [negatively] were mainly older.

The results of the campaign were fantastic. Pages views on our website for our retirement, savings and investment products went up by more than 300%. We also saw a 35% increase in lead generation for Advisor Connect [a personal financial advisor service]. And there was no impact on the level of trust people had in the brand. In fact, we were voted the most trusted and valued insurance brand in Singapore this year.

That we have just won awards for the ‘Start retiring’ campaign [which won a number of golds at the Hall of Fame Awards last week] shows how the industry is now reacting to work like this. To me, if you advertise, if you spend money talking, you have to get attention.

So even the bad press Income received for misleading Singaporeans you think was a good thing for the brand?

The results have shown that it’s not been a bad result for the brand. But then again, it’s about how you recover from a situation like that. You can’t just keep quiet and go into hiding.

We have worked for a long time with Mediacorp and with Rebecca. We made sure that, even though people were very critical of her, she was not personally affected, that she was ok. She’s still very young [she is 29] and that’s why we chose her for the role. We wanted to get the message across that retiring is a journey that begins at a young age.

We didn’t let the saga derail our plan. After the reveal, we announced a white paper on retirement and got 2.5 minutes of coverage on Channel NewsAsia talking about retiring and youth readiness.

How did you personally manage that situation from a PR perspective?

When the saga started to unfold, I didn’t really have time to worry, I was more focused on making sure that the brand reputation was protected and our stakeholders didn’t ask me to pull the ad.

Blog The Middle Ground wrote that 'NTUC Income teaches us how to not apologise'

Blog The Middle Ground wrote that ‘NTUC Income teaches us how to not apologise’

It would have been easy to pull the ad and apologise. Sorry is a strong word. It means you are wrong. And in my mind, I didn’t think I was wrong to create awareness among my target audience about the importance of retirement. We just had to stay calm and go all the way to achieving what we set out to.

If you were to ask me if I wanted the campaign to turn out any differently, or would I have done anything differently, I would probably say no. The response was fantastic, but I could not claim victory. I had to say that we’ve learned from this [Chew stated at the time, “We did not set out to mislead anyone. We regret upsetting anyone over the weekend.”], and make sure that we are better prepared next time around. For me, this is the best campaign I’ve ever worked on in my career. I hope to build on it in the future, but without wanting to always be controversial.

Can you take a step back and talk us through the Income brand journey over the last three years?

When I joined [in 2013], I had to do a deep dive of the brand. NTUC Income, as it was known, has a lot of heritage. It was created 46 years ago as a cooperative for low income workers, with the spirit of doing good. As a brand it is not enough to do well commercially. In the last three years, we’ve never had a conversation about how to make more money. It’s about whether we’re sustainable and making an impact for the community. That has always set the tone for the brand.

But while we’ve always had that cache among the older section of society, we haven’t always had the same traction among Singapore’s youth; among 21-29 year olds, while awareness is high, we are ranked fourth in terms of the top-of-mind insurance brands in Singapore.

When I presented to the board, a key point was that we needed to be more sustainable as a business, and bring more youth back into the brand. Insurance companies are facing a headwind against an ageing population, and there’s a need to balance the portfolio.

But how do we engage youth? Young people rarely care about insurance until they have a family. There is no instant gratification in insurance. It’s about the future, hence we started out with the ‘Future You’ campaign.

We used humour. If we had used the typical fear mongering approach the response would have been, well, we’re still young, why worry?

Focus groups showed us that young Singaporeans are very short- and mid-term focused. And as a brand we are saying that whatever decision you make will impact your future. With the Vivo Care 100 campaign, we showed that people are affected in different ways to health concerns such as cancer.

With travel insurance – the first type of insurance that young people tend to buy – we also really focused on what insurance can do for youth with ‘Travel made different’. This was three years ago, with a campaign by BBH [Income’s agency since 2008] and it was the first time that we really started to change as a brand.

Some of the comments we received were, ‘I never realised that insurance could be advertised like that’. We put the ad in the fresh graduate packs in 2014 and youth purchasing increased by 39% that year.

Another campaign done for you by BBH that has won awards without controversy is the Cannes Lions-winning ‘Last Day of School’, which is completely different in tone to the other work you’ve talked about…

We wanted to bring awareness to the fact that even in a modern society like Singapore, there are still a lot of people left behind and they need support. We are not a charity, we have a corporate CSR programme, and we wanted to raise awareness around it.

Marketers usually issue long briefs, but ours was very simple for ‘Last Day of School’. We only had two objectives. First, drive awareness to our CSR programme, and position us as a company that does a lot of good. The second part was to make people cry. BBH came back with one script, and we made the ad from that first script.

Talk us through the idea behind ‘People. First.’ that launched in October. It was interesting in that it weaved together four different real-life stories of heroism in Singapore.

We were looking at different ways to showcase what we’ve been doing to help people, for example we insure one in two motorcycles in Singapore, and motorcyclists have the highest mortality rate in the country. We insure people with special needs too. We are in a position of influence and we have a social purpose, and we wanted to get that message across. I think we are the only brand that can say ‘People first’ without blushing.

With this film, we had to be careful not to put everything we do together and turn it into a corporate video. When the agency presented us the clips that showed the spirit of Singapore, we thought wow this is something new, something unexpected.

We thought there was no other way to do the ad. BBH was brilliant to come up with a way to portray the brand in this way. It was very local. We are local and speak with a local tone, and the ad fits the brand proposition. We used the people who were involved in the three incidences [which included the time a man was freed from under a truck by a group of passers-by, and a motorcyclist who cleared the way for an ambulance] in the ad, and that added to its authenticity.

Singapore is not known for being a place where marketers always want to push the boundaries. What’s your approach?

For me, it’s important that whenever I embark on a campaign, there’s not only certainty. I need to feel a bit of fear. When I develop campaigns with my agency, I trust my gut more than logic. I always tell my agency there must be some fear and uncertainty. When you can anticipate the outcome, the work will usually be boring. You always need a few butterflies in your stomach.

So what’s to come from Income next year?

We want to continue to push the boundaries. After ‘People. First’ we are going back to targeting youth. I want us to be consistent. I see brands like John Lewis that give me confidence that it is possible to do great things year after year. StarHub has done it for two years in a row, but how long can they keep it going? For three years we’ve been doing good work, but can we do it for five? The challenge is to keep delivering.


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