Interview: Brian O’Neill, Friends First

18 Apr 2017 | 09.06 pm

Interview: Brian O’Neill, Friends First

New TV ad campaign to increase brand awareness

18 Apr 2017 | 09.06 pm



What is Friends First? What type of financial products does the company offer consumers? 

Previously, we were a life assurance company but now we provide life and health protection products plus pensions, savings and investments. Our customers are either individuals, or companies who provide these products for the employees. In the latter case, many employees do not know or understand the cover and pensions that their employers provide.

When people come to choose a financial product, whether investment or insurance, how important is brand recognition?

Customers are making long term financial commitments with companies like Friends First. Whether that is saving regularly, investing a lump sum or paying for life or health cover, they want to be familiar with the company they are committing to. Since the global financial crisis, we have noticed that consumers are much more discerning about financial services providers and ask more questions about our financial strength and health.

How much of your marketing attention and effort is directed at intermediaries?

Friends First does not sell direct to consumers. Thus, at present we market our products only through financial brokers and advisers. They are not employed by us, but are independent entities ranging from one-man operations to large corporates as big as or bigger than Friends First. They can offer their clients our products and/or the products from other competing and non-competing financial services providers.

Over two-thirds of our marketing activity is focused on providing them with the collateral, information and tools so that they will consider recommending our products to relevant clients. We need to provide information and assistance to them that will convince them a particular client is suitable for a Friends First product. They in turn need to verifiably demonstrate to their client in writing what their needs are, how a type of product or coverage meet their financial planning needs and why a Friends First product is the best product for them based on their age, health and specific requirements.

Who is the main target market for the brand?

It depends on the product and type of cover, but consumers do not tend to acquire our product until they become full time employees or acquire their first house and start a family. Financial Planning is about providing financially for yourself and your dependents over the long term. People who are under 30 single and in rented accommodation do not have these needs and tend not to think long term in terms of financial planning.  This is unfortunate as to in order to save a required pensions fund for retirement it’s more cost effective the earlier you start. A sizeable proportion of the workforce never starts, or many that do leave it late so that they cannot afford to save the amount required to build up the required pensions fund.

Friends First recently announced a 50% increase in advertising spend for 2017. What are the reasons for that increase?

We conducted market research last year which told us that only 55% of consumers polled were familiar with our name and what we do. If consumers have not heard of you and are unfamiliar with your company, they are less likely to agree to purchase your products even if the broker is recommending it. We were the fastest growing life company in Ireland in 2016 in terms of new business and market share growth. Our current market share is 6% and we want to grow that to 10% within three years.

A centrepiece of the advertising push is new TV commercials. How do you rate the impact of television ads compared with digital or other media?

TV is the most effective but most expensive way of reaching large numbers of targeted consumers. We use TV due to its effectiveness in building high-level awareness and emotional engagement. Its multi-sensory approach creates more impact with our target audience. It also allows us to connect with a wider audience and we can use it in other channels such as online and video on demand, which allows us to extend the campaign.

Despite changes in our viewing habits and increased use of Netflix, programme recording, and the use of multiple devices simultaneously, research supports that TV is the most effective way to build brand recognition and awareness. Most TV campaigns will be support and supplemented by radio, posters, sponsorship, sales promotion and online promotion, including video via YouTube, search, banner advertising and programmatic. We are trying to increase our brand awareness and to communicate to our financial brokers that we are helping them to promote our products and brand.

Have you any concerns about the level of regulation surrounding advertising of financial products?

All financial services providers learned difficult but valuable lessons from the financial crisis, including the need for consumers to better understand investments funds and products, to be aware of their risk tolerance and requirements and to ensure that they are better matched to investment products and funds that are aligned with their risk profile and objectives. Financial regulation protects customers by ensuring that all relevant details and warnings are explained and disclosed to the consumer, and that the provider or broker who does not comply with required regulation are either sanctioned or cannot operate in the market.

The disclosure requirement does present challenges in marketing and communicating our products, especially in advertising. For example, in a radio or TV ad, if a company is marketing a product and making claims or statements about its performance, then over a third of the allocated time may be allocated to warnings and disclosure notices.

Many people take personal responsibility for their financial future, and many others don’t. Have government and its agencies more of a role to play in this regard, or is all down to the industry?

All participants and stakeholders in the market need to play a constructive role — and do. The concern for something like pensions coverage is that our efforts to date have been insufficient to bring about the required action by consumers. The pensions time-bomb is a phrase that most have some familiarity with.

Less than 50% of the working population has a pension and those who do are significantly underfunded. All commentators and state agencies are in agreement that the state pension — now starting for most of us at 68 — is not sustainable, as it is funded out of current revenues allied to ageing of our population. Currently, there are three workers for every retired person. By 2020 there will be just two workers for every retired person and by 2075 the ratio will be 1:1.

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