Marketing podcast: Hustle to the top with Manulife SG's Cheryl Lim

Manulife Singapore is known for its bold and head turning marketing executions, from pushing out its protection offering with Greek sculptures and ancient tragedies, as well as getting Singaporean getai star Wang Lei to sing for its #Unbroken campaign earlier this year. The brains behind these executions is Cheryl Lim, VP, head of branding, communications and sponsorships, Manulife Singapore, who has had to learn the ropes of marketing the hard way. 

Lim was in the finance industry during the earlier days of her career and made the switch to insurance in 2012. Despite the highs and lows, Lim has remained tenacious and aspirational with her marketing ideas. In her podcast episode on Marketing Connected, Lim shares her journey in the marketing space, how the pandemic has changed her perception of marketing, and how marketers can still create eye catching activations and memorable campaigns despite a limited budget. Listen to the full episode here.

Marketing: You have learnt the ropes of marketing the hard way and your journey hasn’t always been the smoothest. Could you share with us a little bit about your journey?

Lim: I think a lot of people, when they meet me, they see a certain persona. They see a personality; they see a persona of what I am today. But I think many people do not know what happened behind the scenes. A lot of failures. Really, pitfalls in the careers. Well, in one of my previous lifetimes in my previous company, I suppose it was a premature promotion for me. I wanted to go for a role to be the youngest marketing manager at that age. And I got what I wanted, when I left the job for another role.

However, I was prematurely promoted, and it was out of my depth. That’s why I always tell the young folks to be careful what you wish for. Sometimes it is really good to take it as it comes. But in that role, it is a very big brand in the finance industry. I really floundered. The first year I was there, I did very badly. First of all, I wasn’t ready for the role. But you know when you’re young, you just go for it and you're just going to throw everything in there. In the first year, it was really bad.

I performed very badly. Had an almost band four. For those of you all who aren’t really aware, band five is when you are out of the company, band four is you are kind of one foot out of the company. So, I did very badly, and truth be told, it was my fault, and I remembered at that time, the head of marketing told me the truth. He called me up and said, “Cheryl, you are not doing well and neither of the team leads want you in their team. I think you really have to relook your options.” Basically, it was a nice way of saying you are not good for the job, and you have to go. I looked at him and I remembered thinking to myself: “Can you give me one last chance?"

I think it’s important that we need to reflect and be self-aware to know if the feedback is coming from a good place, whether it is truth, or is it coming from another area.

If it is the truth, then a lot of self-reflection, a lot of self-awareness is needed. So, at that time I knew that I wasn’t doing well, and I told him to give me one more chance. I was so close being let go from the marketing team. It was so close, and I remember thinking to myself, I have one last shot to make this work. Should I leave before they fire me literally, or should I go myself?

I thought to myself, let’s just try one more time. If he can give me one more chance, which thankfully he did, I am going to make sure I do much, much better. So, that was a really big, pivotal turning point in my career. Because after that horrible experience, my confidence level was at bottom. I even thought to myself, am I good enough in marketing or should I switch jobs? Then I thought to myself, what else can I do? None of the jobs in the other departments appealed to me, and I said, I am just going to try and hang in there in marketing and see where it lands me.

So, after that I really tried. I really got more serious in improving myself. Making sure my work is sharp, no careless mistakes, thinking strategically, making alliances within the company in terms of engaging the internal stakeholders. And then things started to turn around after that. None of that success that followed after could be without this gut-wrenching and low part of my career.

Marketing: When people look at Manulife, for example, they see you guys as a big brand with big budgets. Hence, you are able to create such campaigns and activations right. What advice do you have for marketers who feel inspired by you, but don’t have the same type of budgets?

Lim: It’s a very good question, because not many people know this as well. The budgets that we have at Manulife is exactly the same budgets of the previous team before me. So, it’s exactly the same budgets that we have, it's exactly what we are playing with in terms of the assets that we have. But the question then is how do we make the best of what we have in a way that is smart. Coming back to working hard, from there we talk to ourselves, what do we want to stand for?

When we talk about what a brand stands for, it doesn’t mean it has to be one tonality or the other. As long as the emotion that you feel is something that is unique to the brand, I think that is strong enough for us.

So first of all, we made the effort to identify to ourselves and the brand, what do we want to be like in the eyes of the customer. And from there, the working smart took place in terms of okay, how do we strategise in a way that, with our very small budget and resources, the level of perfection of the campaign that we do is elevated in a way that it looks like a big brand. A big MNC has 20 or 30 people in a room working hard, a multimillion-dollar budget, which is not what we have. But how do we create that perception and resonate and engage with the consumers in a way that they find it refreshing and different and fun, yet something educational is dependent on the campaign.

So, all this is the perception that we give, and I am glad that people think so, which means what we are doing is correct. Because the truth is backend, the budgets that we have is a fraction. The team size and the resources we have is also a fraction of what most of the competitors and other people have as well. But it's fine, I think that is the fun part of the work we do.

Marketing: How has the pandemic changed your marketing?

Lim: I think the pandemic has changed a lot of people’s perception, where people are giving very knee-jerk reactions to pull budgets. And the only budgets that are going out are very tactical in nature.

But what is important for all marketers to remember is we must have a balance between the brand story, as well as the tactical of products and promotions.

It is very easy to say now it’s all about just getting the leads in only, so it's all tactical. But that kind of warps the whole balance in a way that makes it very unbalanced. If it's short term, yes that is fine, but in medium to long term, it’s going to be very difficult to compensate the time that has been lost when you did too much tactical at one point in time. And on top of that, in people's mind, it will seem like you are suddenly changing your message to be so tactical in weightage. Promotions after promotions, coupons after coupons.

I’m not saying it is wrong, for sure we need that, it’s part of the business. I am talking about the balance. So I think what the pandemic did is crucial, where we can convince management and ourselves and our team, where we have to find the balance that appeases the situation we are in. But at the same time, we don’t lose the identity that the brand has built over the last few years or even decades, depending on how old your brand is, established your brand is. Because what we do in the short term does have a very long-term impact.

So, I think that is just a friendly reminder in terms of getting ourselves too thrown into the pandemic, but at the same time being able to step back, and think. Going back to your strategy that what you do has a short-term but long-term impact as well, and how do you make sure you find that balance even in the current pandemic, I think that is crucial.

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