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A still from London Life’s new Freedom 55 campaign tellusyourfreedom.ca. (George Simhoni/Westside Studio)
A still from London Life’s new Freedom 55 campaign tellusyourfreedom.ca. (George Simhoni/Westside Studio)

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Reality check for Freedom 55 Add to ...

It is a classic ad for Freedom 55 that many Canadians would still recall: A man in a suit running for a bus suddenly finds himself transported to the year he turns 55, running down a beach with his future self.

“You ... we look pretty good,” he tells the silver-haired, trim man in trainers. When informed that retirement agrees with him, he wonders amid the palm trees how he can afford all that. The answer is Freedom 55 .

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Looking back on that ad now – which was developed in 1989 – it’s not simply the younger man’s haircut or the older man’s jogging sweats that look out of date: The idea of advertising early retirement is also passé.

A new ad campaign launching on Monday hopes to speak to a new generation, for whom retirement even at 65 may seem like a stretch. London Life Insurance Co. is taking the unusual step of running an unbranded campaign. For years, it marketed itself as more than an insurance company with an aggressive TV presence touting its wealth management and financial planning services – complete with spry 50-somethings relaxing amid palm trees or on a yacht . But the new 13-week campaign includes no TV, and pushes the Freedom 55 banner into the background.

Instead, a series of ads asks, “What does your freedom look like?” The ads will appear nationally online, in newspapers, and in out-of-home spaces such as transit, in restaurants and gyms, and on digital spaces in office towers and subways. In place of a logo, the ads direct people to the tellusyourfreedom.ca website.

For London Life, the shift in its marketing strategy is an attempt to reckon with a growing climate of economic uncertainty, which made its brand positioning in the past less relevant or attainable for many Canadians.

“It has to be rooted in reality, otherwise people will disengage, and get distracted by the grandness of it all,” said Alf Goodall, senior vice-president of marketing at London Life.

The company’s research in the run-up to the new campaign showed that, as a result of years of advertising, people strongly associated the Freedom 55 brand with early retirement – and would frequently make comments in focus groups such as “Freedom 85,” or “Freedom 55 is not possible.” But the research also showed that the firm’s customers generally blamed this unattainable retirement goal on the broader economic climate and not on the insurer’s performance.

Since the goodwill was still there and brand awareness was strong, the company decided not to retire the Freedom 55 brand. Instead it is aiming to expand that brand identity with an unbranded campaign. The first concept is for customers to define their own sense of freedom, and only those who visit the website will see that it is Freedom 55.

“Early retirement, it is not relevant, sometimes desirable, or even attainable,” said Leslie McCallum, president and chief executive officer of Bright Red Communications Inc., which has been the agency of record for Freedom 55 since 2003. “We knew that our opportunity to broaden people’s understanding is to not let them see that logo right from the get go.”

A survey by Ipsos Reid, conducted for Sun Life Financial of Canada and released last year, indicated that Canadians have not seen age 55 as a realistic retirement benchmark for some time, and that the age they feel it will be possible to retire is drawing further away. In the first year the research was conducted, in 2008, 51 per cent of Canadian workers surveyed over the age of 30 said they “expected to be fully retired, not working for money,” by age 66. In 2010, the number of respondents who had that expectation was nearly cut in half: only 28 per cent expected to attain “freedom” at 66.

The challenging economic environment can highlight the importance of financial planning, Mr. Goodall said. The need is certainly there: according to a new study by the Canadian Payroll Association released on Thursday, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed had fallen behind their own retirement savings goals, putting away just 25 per cent of their target.

It is not just London Life pushing for Canadians’ wealth management business, however: there is a larger shift at work in the industry. The sale of life insurance products has become a less attractive and less profitable business in recent years, thanks to falling interest rates, the aging population and stricter regulations. Across North America, more insurance companies have been stepping up their wealth management services – an area the banks have also been focusing on because it provides regular income from fees and is less capital-intensive.

“I certainly have seen a big change in terms of how [competitors] market to that space, in terms of how they orient their brand,” Mr. Goodall said. “Building brands directly to consumers and connecting directly to consumers has often been the domain of the direct providers, or the low advice shops. Now, everyone – as you can see even from the banks, their distribution is largely predicated on advice – people are trying to get into the advice space.”

With this campaign, London Life is attempting to establish that connection with consumers earlier in their lives. Beyond simply the unrealistic goal of retirement at 55, the company had another problem: its advertising had aged along with its core customer base, the boomer generation. The most recent TV ads, aired in 2010, looked like they were targeted at that age group. While boomers are a priority customer, the insurer needs to court a younger customer to keep up its business.

It has switched up its media buy, moving away from television and instead uses a mix of print and out-of-home ads driving people to the website. It will also launch a social media component later this year, all in a bid to speak to a younger demographic that is highly mobile and not as easily reached via television ads only.

Because many young people are coming out of school with significant debt, they are thinking about financial planning much younger, sometimes even seeking out an adviser as early as age 23, Ms. Goodall said. If a financial institution can establish that relationship early, it can be very lucrative – seeing the consumer through life stages such as buying a house, having children, and keeping a foothold for when they begin retirement planning. The first step is to make those young people aware of the brand, and to expand it beyond what it has been. The website includes suggestions for things (beyond retirement) that advisers can help with, such as taking a year to backpack through Thailand.

“People are very willing to broaden their perception of Freedom 55,” Mr. Goodall said. “We were the ones who were trapped a little bit in its literal imagery.”

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