During a time when mutual fund complexes have been slashing their marketing budgets, The Hartford has launched a lavish $20 million television and print campaign that pulls directly from Hollywood's pool of talent.
The campaign's television spots were directed by Tony Kaye, who also directed the highly acclaimed American History X, a film about two brothers tangled in Southern California's skinhead movement. The ads' score was lifted from the Kevin Spacey film "Pay It Forward."
The first spots will begin airing this week during the NCAA Basketball Tournament. The ads will also appear during prime-time network programming on NBC and CBS as well as CNN, CNBC and other cable networks. Print ads are expected to appear in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Wall Street Journal and other publications.
For The Hartford, an investment product and insurance provider, the campaign represents an aggressive attempt to reach a broad audience when other fund complexes have been retrenching. Advertising for individual equity funds plummeted 35% last year according to Competitrack, an advertising research firm. Spending on ads that promoted a fund company's brand, instead of an individual product, declined 22%.
Jim Atkinson, a principal at Orbis Marketing Group, a consulting firm, said it's too early to tell whether The Hartford's new campaign signals a turnaround in the market for fund advertising. Firms that unleash campaigns anytime soon will likely have had them in the works long before the markets derailed, he said.
"You don't have your creative up and running unless you've been working on it," he said. "These have been in the works for a long while."
Still, TIAA-Cref is poised to ramp up a marketing campaign that it has been testing in Boston and Detroit since last year. And Strong Funds launched a new television campaign in early February, although the company declined to discuss it.
"I'm seeing planning for a turnaround," said John Picard, a principal at the marketing firm Picard and Co. "I'm seeing people who are saying they're planning for the recovery."
But marketing executives say The Hartford is smart to launch its campaign while markets are still troubled. Firms that spend for advertising now increase the chances that their messages will be heard loud and clear because the airwaves are less cluttered with ads from their competitors, executives say.
"It's easy to sell mutual funds when the performance is good and the market is going up," Atkinson said. "When times get tough, the performance story isn't there. A little more creativity is required."
Geraldine Leder, president of LederMark Communications, a consulting firm, said companies such as The Hartford, which sell insurance products as well as mutual funds, may be better positioned to spend more ad dollars during an economic downturn. To be sure, insurance companies were hammered by the terrorist attacks in September, she said, but they may have suffered less than fund complexes, which have watched their fund sales wither compared to recent years.
"Fund companies are still weathering the blows of the past 18 months," she said. "We all know we're going to come out of this, but what I haven't seen through my lens is the kind of optimism that would have firms put million-dollar campaigns together in the mutual fund and brokerage arena."
With the economy on the rocks, The Hartford decided to delay the campaign until this year, said Anne Goodman, a marketing executive at the firm.
"We wanted to wait until we felt the market was going to turn around a little bit," she said. "We do believe there are lots of dollars sitting in people's pockets and they're waiting for the confidence to come back. We're hoping we've timed this correctly."
The company's new television spots, which were filmed last fall, offer a message that Goodman thinks will resonate with investors in a transformed economic and national climate.
None of the ads include voices, just words. And all of them emphasize the importance of family and security. In one spot, called "Life Line," a man waves goodbye to his wife and son as he boards a train for his morning commute. As he presses his palm against the train's window, the frame freezes and two arrows point to different places in the man's "life line" on his palm. "Would you like to retire here? Or Here?" reads the text on the screen.
In another, two sisters measure their height with two pencil marks on a wall. "Will you have college tuition taken care of here? Or here?" reads the text as the camera zooms in on the pencil marks. "Investments, insurance," reads the tagline. "190 years of wisdom. The Hartford. Always thinking ahead."
"We have observed some trends in the marketplace with people just being more conservative than they were," Goodman said. "And that inspired us to ask What are the other things that consumers are feeling? Stability, integrity -- those things were in place before Sept. 11, Enron and any of these business scandals that we're seeing. We're hoping this is the beginning of something good. We'll obviously be measuring its effectiveness."