Shock tactics to promote pensions

If you read nothing else, read this …

  • Employees often believe that saving for retirement is painful, and so need to be shown that there is more pain involved in not putting money aside.
  • Any pension communications campaign has to be credible, so using famous faces to endorse it should be carefully thought through.
  • Communication and publicity around pensions must be relevant for different groups of staff.
  • Some pension experts advocate the use of hard-hitting statistics, while others believe shock tactics are not effective.


How can you make pensions sexier? Nicola Sullivan asks industry experts for their fantasy advertising ideas

Politics was reinvigorated by live television debates in this year’s general election campaign. Pensions also appear to need a similar show-stopping ploy to shock employees out of their apathy. In fact, pensions are crying out for a PR makeover to showcase their tax appeal and highlight their assets such as employer contributions and diverse investment options.

Like politicians, pensions often have a bad press, particularly in the light of poor investment performance and falling annuity rates. The Equitable Life fiasco did nothing to increase savers’ confidence and no doubt the ghost of Robert Maxwell still haunts some potential pension plan members.

Employee Benefits asked industry experts how they would promote workplace pensions in a national advertising campaign, which, in our fantasy world, has unlimited funding.

Friends Provident would get TV talent show The X Factor judges Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Louis Walsh and Dannii Minogue to break the news to people that their savings may be out of tune with their retirement plans. Neil Hawkins, national employee communications manager at Friends Provident, says: “The X Factor gets a massive audience and within the panel of judges you have got quite a variation of personalities, from the young element with Cheryl, to Louis who may appeal to the middle-aged person. Something like that would give massive interest, massive coverage and allow for messages to be segmented for different groups of people.”

Perhaps grim-faced employees could be dragged up onto the dazzlingly-lit X Factor stage to have their savings circumstances scrutinised by the judges before nervously waiting in the wings to find out whether they have got what it takes to get through to the next round – in this case, retirement.

Ben Wells, a senior consultant at Buck Consultants, would appeal to children of the 1990s with their favourite pop stars, including Take That, who made a comeback with a reunion tour in 2006 a decade after splitting up. But although the idea of a comeback might be OK for pop stars, ordinary workers might not want to have to come out of retirement to supplement an inadequate pension.

Most receptive age group

“The age group that will be most receptive to saving for retirement, but are probably not doing so, are aged 30 to 40, so they are coming off the back of their 20s and, instead of focusing on the short term, they are entering a period where they are becoming much more orientated around the long term,” says Wells. “Investment is best focused for the industry around that cohort [of employees].”

But while some industry experts would draw on the power of celebrity to support their case, others would steer clear of Heat magazine during the research phase of their advertising campaign. Christopher Hopkins, managing director at Caburn Hope, says: “I do not think a celebrity would work. Who is the celebrity? Why are they saying it? What are they doing? If it is about saving, people’s response will be cynical: ‘well, if you are a celebrity, you don’t need to worry about it’.”

Nick Wright, director of employee engagement at Fishburn Hedges, adds: “I do not believe in this instance a celebrity would add anything. The problem is, when it comes to pensions, it is about credibility. If you have a celebrity, it almost goes without saying that he or she is probably going to be reasonably wealthy, and therefore the issue of pensions and saving might be seen as less credible.”

Instead, Wright would base his campaign on old values and, tapping into the new age of austerity, he would tell savers ‘It is nifty to be thrifty’. “Thrift, in the current environment, is an important thing to do,” he says.
Or Wright would develop a starker campaign by turning the lottery slogan “It could be you” on its head. For example: “What if I did not win the lottery? What if my dream of living abroad ends up as the Isle of Wight? What if I want to keep the heating on all winter? What if the state does not provide? Start saving now, with a pension.”

Life on state benefits alone

Meanwhile, Standard Life’s campaign would highlight what kind of life people could expect on state benefits alone. Andrew Tully, the company’s pensions policy manager, says: “Traditionally, a lot of pensions advertising has been about sandy beaches and blue sky, suggesting this is what people will have if they save. I think the reality for most people is that their pension will keep them vaguely off the breadline. It will not be the retirement of their dreams, but it is better than what the alternative might be.”

Tully says people of working age also need to be reminded how long they might live in retirement. “A lot of people think of grandparents who might have died at 70. But by the time they get there, they might be living 10 years longer at least. If you are going to retire at 65, you might live 25 years in retirement.”

In many cases, the main barrier to saving into a pension is that it is considered painful and people are more interested in instant gratification, says Darren Laverty, director at Secondsight. “You need to shock people to create more pain around not saving.”

His campaign would use a before-and-after scenario, showing people having a good time when they are young, which does not continue into retirement. People who blew all their money in their 20s and did not save enough for their pension would be shown raiding their son-in-law’s fridge, counting out the pennies or trying to keep warm in front of a small fire. Laverty would also throw in a few statistics to highlight, for example, high levels of poverty in retirement. His strapline would be just as hard-hitting: “Pay the premium or pay the price”.

Perhaps such creative ideas for pensions advertising will provide food for thought in real communication campaigns.

Case study: Sony staff crack benefits code

In May 2009, Sony Pictures Entertainment put its pension and other benefits under the spotlight by launching a communications campaign designed to tie in with its film release Angels and Demons.

As part of the strategy, created in conjunction with Buck Consultants, the firm’s 400 staff were sent on a quest to unlock the code of their benefits package. They were given a ‘cryptex’ and a map of Rome, similar to that used by Tom Hanks’ character in the film. They used the cryptex to find the co-ordinates to perks, which were located beneath landmarks. For example, under the Statue of the Dying Gaul panel was information about enhanced sick pay.

The firm also staged a special presentation in its London office’s on-site cinema, where staff were told about a competition that required them to decipher a message from letters they could obtain by locating their benefits on the map. Prizes included a one-off £250 contribution into the pension plan and two days’ extra holiday.

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