Q&A: Prudential Annuities CMO Rodney Branch on Marketing in the Digital Age

Prudential Annuities’ new chief marketing officer talks about the challenges of reaching today’s customers, and the new ways of doing so enabled by personalization, omnichannel service, data, and the tools and messaging that can make complex products intelligible to consumers.

(The Rock of Gibraltar, Prudential’s symbol of trust and stability. Image credit: Dollar Photo Club.)

Rodney Branch has joined Prudential (Newark, N.J.) as senior VP and chief marketing officer for Prudential Annuities’ domestic annuity business. In his new role Branch is responsible for driving the development and execution of Prudential Annuities’ marketing strategy and growth initiatives in the retirement income marketplace. Branch was most recently VP and lead from Nationwide Financial’s Annuity, Innovation and Competitive Intelligence Team, leading the risk-appropriate growth of the company’s variable and fixed annuity business. Insurance Innovation Reporter had the pleasure of discussing with Branch the challenges and opportunities of marketing complex products in the digital age.

Rodney Branch, SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, Prudential Annuities.

Rodney Branch, SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, Prudential Annuities.

Insurance Innovation Reporter: What are some of the big issues for annuities marketing? I’m thinking of surveys that talk about changing attitudes on the part of the public toward financial institutions and about the economy.

Rodney Branch, CMO, Prudential Annuities: Financial Services in general, and Annuities in particular, have opportunities with the public.  I believe these issues impact the perception of our industry.  Two items in particular:

Complexity: Complexity erodes trust.  For example, despite more and more Americans needing lifetime income, the Annuity industry growth has not been consistent with the opportunity.  In general people don’t want buy something that they don’t understand.  Prudential’s job as an industry leader is to accept the challenge of making the complex simple, while meeting the appropriate regulatory requirements.

Messaging: Our industry has to do a better job of telling our story.  We help many Americans live a secure retirement by providing a paycheck for life.  That’s what many companies in our industry get paid to do.  However, we also let the one bad actor or the one media personality drive the perception of our industry.  Guaranteed lifetime income solutions play an important role in retirement planning. We have to be more aligned and vigilant defending the industry’s reputation.

One of the problems for insurance in general and certainly for retirement products in particular is that products are complex and poorly understood by the public. Prudential has been strong in its efforts to educate the public, such as through innovative advertising—e.g., the “Dominoes” illustration—and through the educational features of IncomeCertainty.com.

IIR: What’s your thinking about what messages Prudential annuities needs to broadcast? And what are ways to get the message across to today’s public?

RB: Prudential continues to build on its position as a trusted financial services company that helps solve the challenges that customers bring to us.  In terms of Annuities messaging, we continually go through the process of thinking strategically about message connectivity (i.e. supporting the overarching corporate communication messaging), coupled with appropriate specificity to drive the Annuities’ business.

IIR: What about Millennials in particular: what are the best ways to market to younger people preparing for retirement? Recent surveys suggest that financial services companies overestimate the role of technology in Millennials’ lives.

RB: Millennials provide two specific opportunities for the Financial Services Industry.

The first opportunity is that their size will have a significant impact on the industry.   The second opportunity is that since Millennials’ are on the leading edge of technology; they will provide a glimpse into how consumers will use technology to transact business in the future.

The best way to market to them is through insights.  It is very easy to put Millennials’ in one big category…that’s simply gathering information.  We need to gather better insights to help develop the strategy, which will drive the tactical plan and communication strategy.   For example, what happens when the Hispanic consumer segment macro-trend merges with the Millennial segment macro-trend?  Does that create two or more distinct behavioral segments, or one large segment? Our goal is to be on the leading edge of understanding not just the information, but the insights related to this segment.

IIR: What does the word “omnichannel” mean to you for marketing insurance and retirement products?

RB: Omnichannel means giving your customer the opportunity to interact with your brand on their terms.  And as in the distinction between multiple channels and “multichannel” it’s about customers viewing their experience in a holistic way. They believe that they should get what they want, when they want it, in the way they want it. Some of banking partners do that very well.

We have a specific opportunity related to the fact that we have many lines of business. We need to take a step back and understand that people will probably see Prudential first, before they consider the specifics of a given product. What we need to do is build a consistent experience across those products. People will interact with a brand—but they will also opt out if you make it difficult for them.

IIR: What is your long-term view of how technology can help carriers market to individuals rather than types?

RB: I am very excited about the opportunities in this space.  Big Data will allow us to connect dots that couldn’t be connected before, specifically related to a deeper understanding of how people behave and make decisions.  It also allows us to access data around many different people, and put them in segments not based on race, geography, gender, age, income, etc., but based on how they make decisions and their behavior.  So it takes the Marketing model from assuming what might happen, to using actual behavior data to analyze what did happen, and identify the common trait that existed among the group of consumers.   That depth and precision will open up significant opportunities for our industry.

IIR: What are your views on the role of technology in general for marketing retirement products and insurance? For example, how can capabilities such as tools and gamification help to establish the kind of communication that prepares a prospect for the sale?

RB: I think technology will have significant impact on our business.  Tools like gamification could help make the learning process easier for consumers, but are not differentiating in my opinion. I am more interested in technology tools that allow Prudential to create a unique and differentiating value proposition for our customers.

IIR: There’s a lot of talk in the industry about ways technology is opening up a more consultative relationship between insurers and policyholders. From your perspective as CMO, what is the role of trust in the emerging insurer/customer relationship?

RB: Trust is the foundation for a relationship.  With social media’s popularity, trust will be even more important in the future because of how fast the message can, and likely will, spread.  This means that brands today are living in a world of truth and credibility.  The good news is that we have a great story to tell.  We help many people in retirement.  We have an industry challenge to define the messaging vs. letting the messaging from people outside our industry define us.  It is up to us to choose to accept the challenge.

Technology also creates a more transparent market that allows for third-party validation. Consumers can see their peers weigh in on their challenges and on how they think about products. I think about my experience at a retailer recently, where I was able to do a search on five different toasters in stock. Technology allows us to connect those dots, and so it also allows companies to understand how consumers are thinking about their products. We can get valuable feedback from consumers about our products and we ca get smarter about how our messages are going over.

In this business the conversation often gravitates to whether or not a customer is really going to buy an annuity online. But that’s not the issue. Rather, it’s that consumers are now better informed because of the information that they have at their fingertips. That will change the balance of the sales equation and also affect our distribution approach. Our distribution partners will need to understand how to communicate with customers who are much better informed.

Anthony R. O’Donnell // Anthony O'Donnell is Executive Editor of Insurance Innovation Reporter. For nearly two decades, he has been an observer and commentator on the use of information technology in the insurance industry, following industry trends and writing about the use of IT across all sectors of the insurance industry. He can be reached at AnthODonnell@IIReporter.com or (503) 936-2803.

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