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Manulife tries thriller factor in ads to woo mortgage business

Disembodied voices in darkened warehouses or on the car audio are part of a creepy campaign for Manulife One.

A man emerges from the darkness in an abandoned warehouse and somehow knows your name. A disembodied voice hijacks your car's audio system in an underground parking garage, assuring you, "We're the good guys."

Neither of these would seem to be the ideal environment to deliver a sales pitch. But these unsettling characters do just that in the latest ad campaign from Manulife Financial Corp.

The series of online videos are designed to appeal to younger consumers, using the look and tone of movie trailers for such conspiracy-tinged blockbusters as Inception and The Matrix.

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"It's a Netflix-era campaign," said Leisha Roche, vice-president of brand and marketing for Manulife's Canadian division. "In the past, we've been more product-focused in our marketing. This is a bit different."

Just a bit. The videos are creepy, suggesting the main characters have been lulled into a kind of sleep by a world designed to make the little guy fail. The man in the warehouse demonstrates this with Inception-like spinning tops, and when a crowd of shadowy figures appears in the doorway, he vanishes. The voice in the car screens a sinister drive-in movie on the garage wall in order to instruct the protagonists (a 40-ish couple) on the exploitative nature of mortgage contracts. The product the ads are pushing, Manulife One, is represented by a glowing green box hidden in the glove compartment.

"They're in the Netflix world with all these thriller-type shows. That's a medium that engages and attracts that consumer," Ms. Roche said, adding that the target is people 35 to 45 who may be re-examining their mortgages.

With $22.4-billion in assets, Manulife Bank – which offers the product – is a small part of the more than $977-billion that its parent company oversees. But the business is an important part of Manulife's Canadian growth strategy, and its earnings declined last year.

Which is why the bank is trying to boost sales of Manulife One as competitive pressure rises in the heated mortgage market.

As the bank's most heavily promoted product, Manulife One bundles a customer's mortgage, savings and other investments into a single chequing account. Manulife's sales pitch is that, by offsetting debt with savings, customers can pay less interest over time. The ads also tout flexible terms for paying down that debt.

But the bank has been struggling to gain market share against other Canadian mortgage providers, including the big banks, which benefit from their far-reaching branch networks and more frequent interactions with clients.

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The campaign includes a sinister banker character, who peers out the window of an office tower and growls, "Imagine all of them down there planning their own lives without the structure of a traditional mortgage. They don't know it, but they need me."

On the other end of the spectrum, Ms. Roche points to upstart rivals in the finance space such as Tangerine and Wealthsimple, which have only increased the competitive pressure.

Many of the big banks have increasingly focused on selling mortgages through their own proprietary channels, which saves them from having to pay commissions to third-party brokers and allows them to cross-sell other products. Manulife Bank has been taking the opposite approach, entering the broker channel in 2016 and hiring experienced mortgage brokers away from National Bank to improve its sales practices last month. It is also casting a wider net to attract new customers that might not be eligible for Manulife One.

While going up against larger rivals, Manulife Bank struggles with brand clarity as a company mainly known for insurance and wealth management .

"When you ask anybody on the street, they'd tell you that we're an insurance company. … What many consumers don't know is that we have a significant investment business," Ms. Roche said. "When you're going against the big players in that space, you have to get noticed."

With files from Jacqueline Nelson

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