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Bought and Sold: Who’s the boss?

NTUC Income and Bartle Bogle Hegarty take Marketing through the former’s journey of turning its dated ‘aunty’ image around to becoming one of the wittiest brands in town. Elizabeth Low reports.

In 2007, when NTUC Income saw a change in leadership from outgoing lead Tan Kin Lian to its new chief executive officer Tan Suee Chieh, big changes were due.

As I sat down to interview NTUC Income’s chief marketing officer Lynette Ang and its agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s (BBH) regional business director Ara Hampartsoumian, I sensed the comfort between the client and the agency – a result of five years of partnership.

Ang says our customers told us they thought of NTUC Income as very trusted, much like “the aunty who will nag me to buy insurance for my own good”. In short, its image was very “heartland”, one consumers were comfortable with but would not aspire to, Ang says.

While the company had grown by leaps and bounds since it first started in the ’70s for low-income union workers, it had little relevance to Singaporeans, today. It knew it was losing out on the 20 to 30-year-old insurers.

That’s when Tan and his team decided to revamp the core business of insurance. A huge overhaul was ahead for the company, and the pitch was called for strategic creative services for the Income brand. That was the beginning of its relationship with BBH.

The Brief

While NTUC Income wanted BBH to keep its values such as honesty, trust and integrity, it needed to appear professional and dynamic. “We were very open. The only boundary we gave them was that they could not drop the NTUC Income logo (from the collaterals),” Ang says.

The first few meetings saw CEO Tan himself sitting in a room with a bunch of magazines cutting pictures and putting it all together, with the entire marketing team and his senior level executives and VPs.

“We had lots and lots of workshops to get to where we were going,” Hampartsoumian says.

We got a lot of online buzz with that, and to me it was a reflection of the new brand.

Lynette Ang
Chief marketing officer, NTUC Income

“For an agency there’s always a fear when very senior level people or non marketing people get involved.” But Hampartsoumian says it was important to decide the stages where to have Tan’s opinion.

The first idea was to go back to the roots. It was about a co-operative social enterprise, with affordable insurance for the masses, accessible, reliable, a company that was always true.

“We did a little consumer research and everybody knew that NTUC was a very local brand, very dedicated to Singapore, a co-op in that sense that is there for them,” Hampartsoumian says. So BBH shot a video based on that idea.

“What we liked about that first pitch was we got a sense of where the agency was going. We wanted to be authentic to our roots. But there were things we needed to moderate. We didn’t want it to sound so heartland,” Ang says. After a long process of brainstorming, both finally came up with Income’s current positioning “Made Different”.

Making a statement

The first ad that emerged from the partnership was Income’s new recruitment ad, internally called the shake-up ad. It was the company’s first bold announcement of its intended transformation. It called for people to apply at Income, saying “We can’t tell you what your responsibilities will be, because we’re transforming just about everything.”

In another instance, an ad ran at bus shelters, made like a mirror with a big headline that said: “Hello Boss”, trying to make the point that NTUC does really exist for the people.

During the 2010 Orchard Road flood, the agency rang up Ang and said: “You guys pay claims for this, get an ad out there tomorrow.”

“The very next day we had an ad that ran opposite all the news of the flood (and there was a lot because it was the first time Orchard Road was flooded),” Ang says. “We got a lot of online buzz with that, and to me it was a reflection of the new brand.”

In yet another example, in late 2011, Income internally launched what it called the Orange Revolution. It was based still on the Made Different tagline, but was about changing the game in the insurance industry – how it is bought and sold.

“The industry has a very bad reputation as a whole. I mean, you think of commission-hungry agents, right?” Ang says.

“Then there is also a bad reputation for claims, that when you want it you can’t necessarily get it. So one of our aims as a social enterprise is to revolutionise the way claims are done. Our Orange Force was to address a customer claim at the point of a problem.”

The company invests SG$4 million a year on this trained fleet of motorcyclists to relay information about the policyholder while they roam around Singapore to help motorists in accidents.

In fact, Income’s new branding even crossed the line into being too bold for its consumers in one instance. In its Sale campaign, it advertised common fatal diseases as being on “sale”, riling some locals.

Both Ang and Hampartsoumian admit the reaction was unexpected.

“Both of us thought this was a very good opportunity,” Ang says.

“I mean Singaporeans love sales and it was a critical message – that we believed that everyone should be covered for their health insurance. So we thought marrying those insights would capture a lot of attention and we were right, but there were a lot of people who did not like it.”

But the team carried on with the campaign.

“You can’t please people all the time,” Hampartsoumian says.

“The purpose was to shock people into thinking about insurance, so even though they didn’t like it we went through it.”

But the revamp wasn’t just about campaigns, it was a huge cultural shift, internally. For example, Ang explains with the Hello Boss ad, one can imagine the kind of debate it would stir.

“Someone might call in and say, ‘well how come you called me the boss but you won’t pay my claim? Or how come you’re treating me like that, you’re not answering my query. But you called me the boss!'”

From a brand perspective, it then needed to inject dynamism and professionalism into every employee. Many things were changed, such as the way performance appraisals were done to include the new attributes the company wanted its people to have. And this also meant managing the agency relationship differently.


There were several times an idea had to be turned down, albeit more out of practicalities of the business. “If we’re making a promise that we’re going to be different at every touch point, then I need to ask, can my agents deliver that? Can my branch frontline deliver that?

“So sometimes when they pushed us too far then we had to say, OK guys, we run the business and we don’t believe an ad is just an ad; an ad is a brand promise and we don’t want it to fall flat.”

It has been five years into the partnership for both, with much investment from both sides. For Income, it is the time spent opening up its business to the agency, getting them in front of the sales team as well as the top management as much as possible. It was the same for BBH with senior management, such as chairman Charles Wigley also sitting in many meetings along with Hampartsoumian.

“There was a lot of immersion/education in the process. If you keep changing agencies you won’t have that depth of understanding and in turn, the quality of work,” Ang says.

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