Boomers Can't Ignore Gorilla's Retirement Message

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Many of the 77 million baby boomers turn 60 this year. Yet a large number of these Americans are tardy in their retirement planning, ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Axa Equitable Life Insurance Co. is bringing that metaphor to life in its bid to sell variable annuities.

The company is using a gorilla as its mascot in a $10 million ad campaign across print, television, mail and online media to coax consumers to plan for their retirement. Merkley + Partners, New York, handles the effort.

"The goal here is to create awareness for the brand and also to create interest in the annuity category," said Barbara Goodstein, executive vice president of marketing and product development at Axa Equitable, New York. "We feel that the annuity is the perfect product of our times to guarantee retirement income."

One TV spot that broke May 9 gets Axa's message across succinctly. It shows a middle-aged couple sitting down at breakfast. They try to ignore the gorilla across the table, taking the occasional sneak peak. The gorilla tells them to ignore him and enjoy their eggs, but eventually they will have to confront the retirement issue.

That theme continues online at www.axa-equitable.com, where visitors can click on the gorilla tab for a free annuities brochure. Called "The ABCs of Variable Annuities," the 18-page direct mail fulfillment piece answers several questions. The opening statement sets the stage: "You may spend as much of your life in retirement as you do at your job ... will you be able to afford it?"

The booklet covers issues like where the money will come from, the definition of a variable annuity -- a long-term retirement insurance product -- and how it works. For example, there's the accumulation phase and then the distribution phase.

Also included are the benefits of tax deferral, the advantages of a variable annuity to allay concerns about this little-known investment vehicle and the costs involved. Three case studies frame the audience targeted:

There's David, a 55-year-old with a wife and two children who plans to retire in 10 years. Also, Rick and Donna, 39 and 34 respectively, look to supplement their retirement investments. And there's Joanne, 50, with a husband and twentysomething daughter. She wants to retire in 15 years, but recently switched jobs and needs to invest from her 401(k).

The brochure urges recipients to speak with their financial adviser or insurance agent to gauge whether variable annuities are suitable for their retirement plan. At no step does Axa imply direct sales of annuities, either in the fulfillment piece or in the advertising.

Axa's print ad campaign began May 11 in The Wall Street Journal as part of a buy that runs through year's end. Print ads also will appear in Architectural Digest, Golf magazine, National Geographic, Smart Money, Smithsonian Magazine, Time and Travel + Leisure. They all target the wealthy and brokers.

The TV plan comprises spot buys on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox in New York, Chicago, Detroit and Miami. Cable buys include A&E, BBC America, Bloomberg, CNN, ESPN, Fox News Channel, National Geographic Channel, Golf Channel, Discovery Channel and the History Channel.

Two 30-second commercials air across these markets and channels. The footprint was chosen based on data like population, wealth, number of retirees and the sales of annuities. They call attention to the Axa site.

"What we're doing is raising awareness for Axa Equitable as the premier provider of annuities," said Alex Gellert, CEO of Merkley + Partners. "That's what I think our job is in the clutter everyday that's out there in television in a dry category.

"We've got to grab people's attention, and I think that the notion that everybody can relate to [is] the metaphor of ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room," he said.

Online, Axa is sponsoring the site at www.variableannuityfacts.org, besides running a blurb on axa-equitable.com's home page. The company claims visitors average 12 minutes on variableannuityfacts.org to glean information on annuities. Banner ads on other sites are under consideration. But search engine marketing on Yahoo is on.

"We're testing keywords," Mr. Gellert said. "I think the plan is to test it for two months, and then we're looking to expand it from there."

A recent Axa survey found that 60 percent of Americans think they will be OK in retirement. But only one in five knows how much money they will have when they reach that stage. The same survey showed that 92 percent think Social Security is in trouble, up 15 points from last year.

"We think annuities are the perfect antidote for the future state of these retirees because annuities can offer people guaranteed income streams for the rest of their lives," Ms. Goodstein said. "Annuities should be part of an investment plan. We're not suggesting they should divest all other investments."

Advisers and direct mail are key to ensuring that Axa's annuities are part of the consideration set. The company recently sent 50 advisers to Wharton for a certificate course in retirement. The first batch is out this month. This fact was announced in a postcard sent to the respective adviser's mailing list. There was a 25 percent response rate for inquiries.

"What we're trying to do with the advertising is drive traffic to the adviser," Ms. Goodstein said. "This is not a direct sale. It requires an adviser. Annuities are sold, not bought."

Perhaps Axa's age (147 years in business) and size (a subsidiary of the world's 13th-largest company) will persuade consumers to consider its variable annuities despite the nature of the investment. That and the gorilla borrowed from Touchstone Pictures' 1999 movie, "Instinct."

"When you're planning your retirement 30 years from now," Ms. Goodstein said, "you want to know your company's going to be around."

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