There’s Nothing Prudent About Good Content Marketing

Countless deadlines ago, when I decided to make journalism a career, my factory worker mother, truly a WWII Rosie the Riveter, was against it. “You can’t make any money in that,” she chided. Okay, mom, so you made a good point, but there were side benefits you hadn’t figured on. In the ‘80s, for instance, my profession made it impossible for me to afford all the pricey partying materials that sent so many of my Wall Street friends into rehab. Back then, when you told someone at a cocktail party you were in publishing, you got a “How interesting,” with a patronizing smile that said, “What’re ya gonna do when you grow up, man?”

Now everybody is in publishing. An overpriced, super-caffeinated soft drink from Austria lords over a virtual media empire. A pool installer from Virginia is the world’s most-read author on the subject of backyard watering holes. Storytelling, not brand messaging, is the central topic in college marketing classes. And cocktail parties today are full of would-be digital billionaires whose ears perk up when you say you’re in publishing. Earned media, they’ve been told, is how they’re going to earn their fortune.

It’s all about timing, Mom.

Earning media attention is all about imagination, too. I always thought you had no business being a writer unless you had something original to say, or an original way to say it. That’s true in marketing-oriented publishing, too. But while marketers at global enterprises may wear jeans and sneakers these days, corporate iconoclasts are hard to come by. I think I happened upon a couple at a New York American Marketing Association (NYAMA) meeting this week, however. Not only did they not have any tattoos (that I could see), they also hailed from a big old conservative financial services company.

Charged with leading a brand re-integration project for Prudential Financial, Niharika Shah, the VP of marketing and advertising strategy, and Anna Papadopoulos, the VP of Integrated Media Services, were aware of research that found two-thirds of Americans were not prepared for retirement and were prime prospects for their company’s services.

But they were also aware of two significant facts that would affect their strategy. The first was that the reasons for this lack of preparedness were behavioral, not financial. The second was that Prudential’s long-burnished, Gibraltar-backed image as “The Rock,” intimidates more people than it engages. Try telling the CEO that the iconic mountain backing the Prudential logo, pounded into people’s consciousnesses over decades of high-profile advertising, needs to be cut down to size.

Like good magazine publishers, Shah and her team laid out content guidelines based on factors and behaviors relevant to the retirement marketplace: procrastination, living longer, following the herd, the longing for instant gratification, and not planning for uncertainties. Links in the videos to  present illumination on each of the five areas.  “Our mission as a purposeful brand became to help people understand these behaviors in everyday language,” says Shah.

The centerpiece of Prudential’s new messaging campaign under Shah and Papadopoulosis a video campaign called Day One, which tells the stories of people on their first day of retirement. Here’s the iconoclastic thing about these three-minute spots: It’s not just that Prudential isn’t identified until the very end, it’s that there’s none of the sturm und drang of pending financial doom one expects from financial planning messaging.  (CEO: “Where’s the guilt?”)

“In the latino community, we don’t have a word for retirement. The word that we use is ‘jubilation,’” says a woman named Aurora Flores at the beginning of her “Day One” spot.  It’s a wonderful opening line. It says, “Hey, retirement’s about fun, not fear.” Flores talks about leaving music for a corporate PR gig to raise kids and about recovering from cancer. She’s shown with the new band she put together and says that life is not just about money. (The CEO clutched his heart upon hearing that line.) It’s a positive message about what retirement can be, and it’s a big chance to take.

“There are no better copywriters than people themselves,” Shah says, mirroring my own personal journalistic philosophy of making yourself appear smart by putting forth the ideas of genuinely smart people. “Our approach is to build experiences that live where people are and position ourselves as a brand that’s smart and caring.”

Prudential uses the video marketing company Unruly to get the videos in front of its target audience, people who are, as Shah calls it, in the “retirement red zone,” 10 years out from hanging it up. They also place display ads on the New York Times site and sponsor a Pandora feature called “Turning Points” in which legendary artists like Tony Bennett and Carly Simon review their careers.

The Prudential marketers may be taking a small chance pinning their re-branding campaign on content marketing, but they are taking no risks with their budget. “We spend about $200,000 to generate 800,000 clicks,” says Papadopoulos. “That would have cost around $12 million using traditional media.”

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