Marketing strategies need to change to improve insurance penetration in the region, writes Singapore-based consultant Graeme Somerville-Ryan

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Make no mistake, when it comes to marketing and brand development, the ‘big’ insurers and brokers are failing to make an effective impact in Asia.

Yes, business is growing and, yes, there is great market potential. But when results are balanced against spend, resources, and brand power, very few large companies can, or should, be claiming success.

The traditional ‘big’ company marketing tricks have been tried. Buildings have been named, billboards have been put up, buses branded, and conferences have been sponsored. You might even have ‘invested’ in a local language website.

And yet the local competition grows, with seemingly little ‘traditional’ exposure.

The big insurance brands have defaulted to the path of least marketing resistance, where it is easy to spend big money on template outcomes, and where little c-suite effort or attention is needed. The results speak for themselves.

While it is easy to criticise the marketing efforts of big insurance companies, potential solutions do not come in the silver bullet format. But for those of us who have worked in Asia, in marketing, and in insurance, there are a number of obvious ‘fixes’ - or areas to reassess and focus on.

1. Lack of thought leadership

Real thought leadership is more than just repetition of corporate PR lines. In Asia, for new senior executives, it seems there is only one song sheet to sing off. A senior appointment, usually from the US/Europe, comes into China/Indonesia/Singapore/Hong Kong/Thailand (you get the idea) and talks about growth, consumer focused (generic) products, the importance of team/people, and realizing market potential.

Nothing of any interest to their local clients or stakeholders. Nothing that hasn’t been said before. In a region where status is vital and individual reputation means business, few chief executives put the time or personality into individual branding and market presence. Yet this essentially means removing themselves from the sales and CRM process.

Do Asian business personalities take on the same ‘rock star’ presence as in the West? No. Their presence is far more subtle. But just as influential.

2. Curse of the international brand

The single biggest problem global brands have is proving they understand local markets. Pudong, or Pittsburgh; Hong Kong, or Hamburg, there’s not a local market anywhere which does not believe it is unique and special (regardless of the reality). The first hurdle big brands face is getting past their global reach, and connecting with local interests and concerns. That, after-all, is the business of selling risk.

3. Death by centralisation

Chief executives would be well advised to, on occasion, visit their own websites and ask if the language, tone, style, and imagery match their local market. This is before we talk about products and services. As an example, international insurance company websites are dominated by Western faces and Western views of diversity. Essentially, by trying to appeal to a Western ideal of a global audience, they appeal to no one.

To external eyes, marketing strategies are driven by head offices in New York, Paris, or London with little real appreciation for the needs of the ‘high growth’ markets so often featuring in press releases and shareholder reports. Local marketing tactics too often come from executives on three year contracts who try to implement irrelevant campaigns and leave just as they learn what is needed in Asian markets.

4. Business is personal, but there are no people

In Asia, personal connections, reputation, and status mean a great deal. Yet few big insurance companies push their key local people to have a wider impact on the overall business - segmentation and operational silos dominate. Training, marketing, and senior management support all have a role to play here, but growing individual brands to benefit the wider company is a little used marketing tactic.

5. Digital marketing and social media

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the failure of ‘big’ insurance marketing strategy in Asia more than the neglect of digital marketing and social media. Location-based marketing technology and social media engagement will dominate the Asian marketing landscape in the coming years, yet few big insurance companies have the capacity, understanding, flexibility, tools, or content to take advantage of this.

Unique challenges face big insurance companies in the brave new world of Asian marketing. A big brand won’t necessarily be enough to win. In markets which now count billions of potential customers, ‘big’ marketing budgets can never be big enough to reach everywhere.

But all is not lost. A few companies and individuals are punching well above their weight in the Asian markets. By adopting innovative and targeted marketing tactics, big brands can make a difference and stand out. The question is, can big insurance be given the flexibility to make a difference at the local level?