CMO Q&A: Priscilla Brown, Sun Life Financial (Extended)

Priscilla Brown, CMO of Sun Life Financial, speaks with Lindsay Stein about the company's PR strategies and the Rising Star Award program.

Sun Life Financial CMO Priscilla Brown talks to Lindsay Stein about the company's PR strategies and Rising Star Award program.

As the company's first CMO, what are your goals?
Prior to three years ago, we didn't even have a marketing staff in place that was doing central advertising or marketing. Our goal is to get above 20% in consumer awareness this year, which is doable over the next 12 months. We really want to bring actionable insights to all of the groups we believe are in the sweet spot of our market, many of whom are underserved, such as employees, Boomers, small businesses, employers, women, and minorities.

How do you reach out to these underserved markets?
We are always looking to reach out to underserved markets in the communities in which we do business. Sun Life formed employee resource groups in 2006. The groups are based on affinity through race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, and each group continues to partner with the local community on various initiatives every year.

For example, the Black Leadership Awareness Council supports Boston's Museum of African-American History and helps recruit at colleges every year. We've also offered our senior HR program consultant as an expert source to HR professionals and publications to lend her insight on the importance of developing a diverse workforce, which is a core goal of our business from an HR perspective.

Please discuss how you bring “actionable insight” to these markets and why you choose to do so.
We do a lot surrounding financial literacy to ensure customers and communities are able to make informed decisions about their personal finance and what it means for their future. We have a strong commitment to plain language in all our marketing and educational materials because we feel it's important that the aging Boomer population, the people who really need to focus on retirement income planning now, understand their investment options.

This is a main theme across all levels of our work. For us, it's not just about putting out a press release. We really put ourselves on the front lines in our communities to make a true connection to the people in these often overlooked markets.

Do you have any plans on the horizon to reach these markets?
We adjust our business practices according to what's currently happening in the market and that's helped us remain successful. For example, to address the needs of the Boomer population, we commissioned a study and conducted market research to help develop a new combination long-term care and life insurance product that will specifically help this market and their families with the financial burden of unfortunate diseases that can occur in old age.

A survey we released earlier to this showed the potential damage a long-term care event could inflict on retirement assets, as well as most people's lack of financial preparation for these events. We adjusted our focus based on trends over the past several years. Not only has that kept our business strong, but it's also made a positive impact with the customers and families we serve.

What are your main outreach strategies?
We look for media opportunities that will attract both our intermediaries who sell our products, as well as consumers who buy our products. We also focus a lot on integrating philanthropy with advertising and PR.

We recognize that we're competing with companies that have three or four times our budget. Our secret sauce is really to make sure that any asset we have gets integrated across PR, advertising, marketing, and employee communications. It's not the old days of sponsorships or PR being done in a vacuum. It's a new day of real partnerships being developed across every area.

The national Sun Life Rising Star Award program kicked off in September. What is this initiative about?
We started it about a year ago in response to data we received around the high numbers of high school students who were not finishing school or matriculating. In some cities it's above 50%.

We established a program that gives money to organizations that are doing something to mitigate this problem and we also give a grant for scholarships to kids who have beaten the odds and are doing significant things with their lives. We try to make heroes out of these kids and we do that largely through PR and other activities. Once a year we bring them together from all the cities and give them a chance to get to know one another at a really fun location.

One of the really neat things about the program is that while Sun Life is giving the grants out and making the awards, we use people in all of the local environments who are not Sun Life employees or even related to Sun Life in any way, but rather people who are knowledgeable in the community.

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