Great-West Life & Annuityis in search of a new identity that it has charged its new chief marketing officer, Joe Greene, to map out. Greene accepted the newly created position at the company in March after having worked as senior vice president and director of marketing and strategic planning at Bernstein-Rein Advertising for three years.
A veteran of financial services marketing for more than 25 years, Greene has held senior management positions at American Century Investments, American Express, Chase Manhattan Bank, Dreyfus and OppenheimerFunds.
Money Management Executive Editor Lee Barney recently spoke with Greene about his new responsibilities and how he plans to find a new voice and brand for one of the industry's leading providers of retirement savings products and services.
MME: Why did you decide to join Great-West as chief marketing officer?
Greene: I have admired Great-West for a number of years. It's always been a very strong, very stable company in the financial services marketplace.
As I was considering new opportunities for myself and for my family, this position presented itself. I thought it was a great chance for me to leverage the brand strategy and development work that I have done during my more recent agency days-where my clients included USAA, Met Life, Capital One, T. Rowe Price and Commerce Bank of St. Louis-as well as my knowledge and experience in product development and sales.
When I saw the opportunity at Great-West, it seemed like a tremendous opportunity to combine all of those competencies, experiences and skills, while at the same time lead a marketing department, as I had at American Century, to grow a capability at Great-West that the CEO, Mitchell Graye, had communicated to me.
We are currently working to build a world-class marketing group at Great-West to reposition the firm.
MME: What is Great-West's current marketing strategy?
Greene: Currently, Great-West has prided itself on and has been leveraging a combination of attributes as it relates to our brand, and those include our incredibly strong balance sheet and very strong overall financial position. We have gotten the highest ratings from many of the ratings agencies. Our history of growth even during the recession has been remarkable. And that also includes our longevity. Great-West has been around since the early 1890s.
Plus, we have significant market leadership in many of the markets in which we participate. We are the number one provider of government retirement plans. We are the number one seller of insurance through the bank channel. I believe we are the fourth-largest provider of retirement services in terms of the number of participants.
And so, those leadership positions, combined with our financial strength, the superlative ratings we have gotten from independent ratings agencies, the overall strength of our balance sheet and the fact that we have not only survived but thrived during one of the worst economic periods in history-has really been what Great-West has concentrated on in its sales and marketing efforts.
In terms of our recent marketing campaigns, we are currently running a series of full-page print ads that highlight our retirement services division in a variety of financial intermediary publications like Pensions & Investments and Plan Sponsor. Those ads have highlighted various equities of the Great-West Retirement Services group, ranging from products to services to a new website we launched a couple of months ago. We have also developed advertorials.
Many of the marketing activities have been in response to the needs of our clients. The marketing group here supports our clients in terms of providing websites, developing educational collateral and other types of marketing support.
In addition, while this is not a true marketing campaign, we have been very active in a variety of community support programs, like the national Multiple Sclerosis Society's Great-West bike event and the Great-West Great Teachers program, which just recently held a dinner at which awards and funds were granted to 25 schoolteachers in the state of Colorado. We are also very active in promoting financial literacy and recently held a contest where teachers wrote essays to vie for these various grants, which will be used for supplies and program development in their classrooms.
MME: What has the CEO asked you to build upon as you put your imprint on Great-West's marketing efforts?
Greene: Great-West, as I mentioned, has very strong name recognition among some of its target groups, such as the government marketplace and the bank channel. But having strong name recognition is not the same as having strong brand recognition. Clients might say, yes, I know Great-West. You have been in the marketplace for a long time. But if you were to ask those clients what attributes and benefits separate Great-West from competitors and what is its value proposition relative to its competitors, people might be hard pressed to respond.
This is actually a very common problem among large financial services firms that primarily focus on institutional-type sales.
The CEO has told me, given how successful the firm is and how far we have come to this point, Great-West reached a point where it needed a chief marketing officer to characterize the attributes of our brand, to develop the benefits of our brand, to create a value proposition that people understand-a marketplace positioning that gives us competitive advantage. With that in place, Mitchell Graye said, think of how much more we can do.
And so, that is one of the primary reasons Great-West sought out a chief marketing officer. This is a new, broader executive-level role that's exclusively focused on marketing.
One of the other key efforts I am undertaking is to build and strengthen the marketing organization here at Great-West. I have opened up a couple of positions and am now interviewing candidates to help grow marketing competencies and abilities where they do not exist right now.
The third piece is, for all of the product development and strategic initiatives we have going on, our CEO wants to make sure that there is a senior-level corporate marketing executive, rather than a sales or operations person, who can guide those projects, products and strategies.
MME: Who oversaw the marketing efforts before?
Greene: We have an assistant vice president of marketing who headed the marketing group prior to my coming here, and that individual now reports to me. Marketing reported into a business channel, as opposed to being a corporate marketing function.
But now, I report directly to the CEO and the entire marketing group reporting to me has become a corporate marketing function that exists to serve and provide leadership to all the different businesses here at Great-West.
MME: Having worked at a variety of financial services firms and served a mix of clients at the advertising agency, are there strategies from related industries that you believe could work for mutual funds?
Greene: Yes, I would say so. What is key across all these different industries-and I have worked in the credit card business at American Express, banking at Chase Manhattan and mutual funds at Dreyfus, OppenheimerFunds and American Century-is how all of these are intangible products.
How do you take these things that are intangible products and make them seem real to the clients that you are marketing to, in a way where you are deriving both the function as well as the emotional benefits of the products? In addition to that, you need to impart the benefits of your brand.
Financial services products are complicated products, so distilling the features of these products to key benefit points is key, while still conveying the important and necessary attributes of the products that supports those benefits, really translates across all financial services products.
On top of that, analytics are required, to develop and evaluate these strategies, especially as you sell into the institutional marketplace.
MME: Besides building out your marketing team, how are you going to develop Great-West's rebranding strategy?
Greene: The rebranding is going to start with a strategic brand analysis. The first thing we need to do is a deep dive into the needs and strengths of three key constituents. Those are, our target audiences, of which there are many, because Great-West plays in many different markets. The second constituency is our competitors, the products they offer and how those products are branded, positioned and priced, as well as how the companies themselves are branded to communicate their unique attributes. And the third constituency is Great-West's characteristics. We need to dig deep to understand what Great-West offers, its personal equities, its culture and its history and how those personal equities line up with clients in a way that competitors don't.
If you take these three components and create a Venn diagram with three concentric circles, the outcome will identify where we have strengths and attributes that we can leverage to our target audiences. That will be the starting point of defining the rebranding strategy pillars and then lead to development of the campaign and value proposition.
This will involve significant research and insight development.
Then the next step will be to determine how the rebranding strategy should manifest itself in advertising or other types of execution, and through which media channels so that we reach the target audience.
MME: There aren't that many marketing executives in the financial services industry who have worked at an agency.
Greene: That is true, and, actually, was one of the criteria Mitchell Graye was looking for in a chief marketing officer.
While at the agency, I worked with a wide spectrum of clients both in and outside of financial services. Financial clients included USAA, MetLife, Capital One and T. Rowe Price. Non-financial clients included Payless, Farmland and Black & Veatch, an engineering company. So I've benefitted from working with a variety of industries-financial, consumer, and packaged goods-providing leadership in brand development and management. While working with these clients, I also provided expertise in identifying and attacking new target markets.
Internally, I led a team of experts in media, creative, research and analytics. Working with these individuals on a daily basis helps expand your thinking and provides you with a wonderful opportunity to absorb new knowledge.
For example, on one hand, I was surrounded by creative people who are expert at messaging and graphics. On the other hand, I worked closely with individuals who are expert in measurement and analytics. All of these skills are applicable to my new role at Great-West.
MME: Are you working with an advertising agency at this point or will you be?
Greene: We are currently working with a local advertising agency, Amelie, to help us with some of the full-page print ads.
In terms of the brand development work, I will, in fact, be seeking an agency partner to help with the research, the insight development and creation of the brand strategy.