June Cover Story: An Insurance Evolution

“We are strictly performance-based,” says Susan Leonard, head of direct mail, web, and digital marketing for Philadelphia-based Colonial Penn Life Insurance Co., a direct-to-consumer (D-to-C) life insurance provider. “Our channels interplay by using a consistent brand strategy in every communication, whether it’s to a customer or prospect. As the brand evolves — moving from a legacy brand into new markets — a lot of that is about keeping a pulse on brand perception and baking it into a direct-to-consumer model.”

Adds Phyllis Silverstein, the company’s media director, “For the longest time, we only had the benefit of DRTV, which was two-pronged — driving response and creating brand awareness. But it’s ultimately about who takes action. The marketing assets that generate response also create that overarching brand. Now, we almost don’t have to call out our URL anymore — people just go there. They watch TV, get direct mail, get display ads — all are an opportunity for us to perpetuate the brand.”

With more than 60 years of history — and a long track record of using direct response TV advertising to drive prospects — Colonial Penn was one of the first insurers to offer a guaranteed acceptance life insurance plan to those age 50 and older, beginning in 1968. Its current TV campaign — which, as Silverstein and Leonard noted, serves as both a direct response and branding effort — features by Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek in a series of one- and two-minute spots.

The company has expanded its performance marketing efforts in recent years, however, as more of its targeted prospect base has grown web-savvy. Direct mail follow-up to TV-driven leads — once the pillar of Colonial Penn’s retargeting efforts — has transitioned to a digital-based remarketing plan, where direct mail plays a support role.

It’s all part of an evolution that’s seen Silverstein and Leonard team to expand the effectiveness of Colonial Penn’s marketing as the company expands its product offerings and target markets.

“People aren’t single-threading their interactions with a company anymore,” Leonard says. “Yes, we have tremendous brand equity and awareness. People know our name, the celebrity spokespeople, etc. But, it’s not your grandparents’ Colonial Penn anymore. We’re working on strategies to that effect and to bring our message to the right people at the right places and at the right time.”

Diverse Backgrounds, Direct Leadership

Leonard joined Colonial Penn just more than a year ago and is in charge of lead generation, sales conversion, and customer retention using both online and direct mail media.

She’s spent a number of years in marketing in what she calls the “health and wealth” space, including stints at Vanguard, UnitedHealthcare (where she served as director of marketing for AARP-branded programs), and — just before Colonial Penn — Aetna.

“I was on the B-to-B side at Aetna, supporting sales,” she says. “But my passion, interest, and experience were all in the D-to-C space. That’s what led me here to Colonial Penn. I saw it as an interesting opportunity — a legacy brand with rich potential in new markets. It had growth goals and was interested in transforming itself. The job brings forth a lot of what I did at UnitedHealthcare. Seeing the change in the D-to-C space during past 5-6 years, I’m happy to say that we’re well into the that transformation.”

Silverstein, meanwhile, is coming up on 12 years at Colonial Penn, where she manages all offline media: TV, radio, print, and insert. She’s a DR lifer, dating back to starting her career with another Philadelphia-area company, American Telecast.

“I worked on Richard Simmons’ ‘Deal-A-Meal,’ Total Gym, and more,” she says. “I really cut my teeth on infomercials.” 

Silverstein also spent some time on the agency side, including with regional agency Harmelin Media. “I worked on mortgage products, education — Sylvan Learning Center. I also worked on the Foreman Grill before I transitioned to the client side with the product.”

She also spent time at QVC but recalls feeling like “a square peg in a round hole,” adding, “It was eye opening to see the difference between DR and home shopping. Some products fit, some didn’t.” 

Silverstein says her broad D-to-C background and transitions between the agency and client sides help her at Colonial Penn every day. “When I speak to our leadership group, I know how to communicate about DR media in a way that a board member wants to hear it,” she says. “My experience dealing with celebrity spokespeople has also helped in our relationship with Alex Trebek. It’s really the best job in the building — I love what I do.”

The experience and flexibility both Leonard and Silverstein bring to their roles has helped Colonial Penn — which has been owned by Indiana-based CNO Financial Group since 1997 — extend its successful history among its target consumers, ages 50-85, as well as expand its base to life insurance offerings for all individuals 18 years or older.

Founded by philanthropist and AARP co-founder Leonard Davis, the company originally focused on those older than 65 and became the origin of insurance provided through AARP. Fifty years ago, though, the business began to focus on what remains its core offer: a guaranteed acceptance life insurance plan, exclusively for people ages 50 and over.

Colonial Penn direct mail
A long-time believer in direct mail marketing, Colonial Penn
is now using the outlet with more strategic precision in today’s
digital-focused environment.

‘How Can We Market Differently?’

Colonial Penn is grounded in performance marketing — from its recognizable DRTV campaigns to expansive direct mail, and now its web presence. That’s positioned the company — and its marketing leaders — well in this era where the tenets of measurable response are now dominating nearly every marketing conversation.

“In the performance-based environment, there is a lot more data available — it’s a blessing but we have to constantly look at how we use the data,” Leonard says. “It’s still about delivering the right message at the right time. For instance, a caller has likely visited our site. She’s talked to family and friends, and she may have interacted on social media. With all of that, we have to be reflective. It’s still about testing and learning — the simplest principle — and then focusing in on what works and what’s scalable.”

In Leonard’s role as the lead of Colonial Penn’s digital efforts, she adds, “Social media is a great example of where scale is necessary. But while our business and financial people may see the same data we do and have one reaction, we see it very differently as marketers.”

Silverstein sees today’s focus on performance marketing as “a challenge and an opportunity.” She says, “We have to consider how we shift our messaging as we introduce other products? How do we change the conversation around our offers? It’s all metrics driven — and history and data help determine our goals. It informs our creative development and understanding which channels work best. And as the model evolves — and our customers show us how they want to interact — it helps refine our messaging.”

It’s all part of Colonial Penn’s evolution as a multichannel performance marketer with a growing array of product offerings.

“We’ve always been primarily a DRTV marketer with direct mail to remarket to responders. We’ve had a limited product set, and at times that means it has been a struggle to be creative,” Silverstein says. “It becomes self-limiting. For instance, when Facebook first became popular, a former marketing colleague said we didn’t need it. But in a short amount of time, with a change in leadership, our team began seriously looking beyond the confines of how we used to do things. How can we market differently? Market better? And where?”

The company’s TV campaigns began to shift in tone. “Our creative messaging was the first thing that could help us communicate that change in attitude,” Silverstein says. “We started integrating our URL, and quickly moved the needle from receiving calls to getting prospects to interact with us online. We began to understand the kind of information we could collect from them online. And we began to understand the importance of the customer experience and brand experience.”

Silverstein says that in the past year — once Leonard joined the team — Colonial Penn’s integrated marketing efforts have “really popped.” “We’ve gone from studying the metrics and the data about the when and where and focused more on the ‘who,’” she contends. “We’re now hitting people with more personalized messages in the right place and at the right time than ever before.”

Leonard says that one thing she’s noticed in her short time at Colonial Penn is the marketing team’s recognition of the change in how people interact with brands. “Look at the insurance category: the Geicos, the Progressives — they changed the paradigm and opened the doors,” she says. “We’re focused on the customer experience — and much of that centers on intention-based marketing. The consumer’s intention is a transaction — they’re going to get a quote, or they’re going to buy coverage.”

Leonard believes that while the transaction itself might not have changed, the interaction around it has. “There’s more emotional connectivity now for many consumers,” she says. “Helping them through the process validates their good work, and ours.”

She says that the evolution has pushed offline retargeting — direct mail — into more of a support role in the campaign. “It’s not the workhorse it used to be,” Leonard adds. “We’re more specific about its role and how it fits with the digital experience. If the next interaction makes sense to come through direct mail, then we do it. All of our marketing interactions today, though, are predicated on strategic and tactical changes that have evolved in response to consumer behavior.”

Featuring Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, Colonial Penn’s TV campaigns
remain the company’s main driver of leads and branding. Phyllis Silverstein
calls the insurer’s media buying practices “true DRTV tactics.”

Expanding Video Online

Speaking of today, what does Colonial Penn’s current marketing outreach look like? 

“TV is on 52 weeks per year,” says Silverstein of the company’s creative that features Trebek. “One way we’re able to optimize our buys is by leveraging our in-house telesales group, who reach out to our leads. Not only does this drive back-end sales conversions — and the resulting revenue and ROI — quickly, but we can also use the data from those calls to maximize future buys.”

Colonial Penn is still “old school” in how it buys DRTV media. “Yes, we still get $5 spots,” Silverstein says with a laugh. “I’m in the weeds — I still buy because I love it. It’s true DRTV tactics, based on history and performance, both front end and back. Sometimes a spot drives a ton of volume, but doesn’t convert — and sometimes, it’s vice versa. We dig into why and optimize our buys.”

Silverstein says that there are still new media opportunities that open up in TV. “Every once in a while, a new network will come along. Look at MeTV in recent years. It’s been a great fit for us,” she says. “You’ve got to keep a fresh perspective as a buyer, and that helps you understand the need for fresh creative. You have to invest in new creative — you’ll always learn, even if a spot doesn’t work.”

From an online perspective, Leonard values what Colonial Penn’s TV campaigns do for her team. “We’re always looking to adjust how online and offline work together,” she says. “Doing specific targeted tests to measure interaction — did the integration drive more response, but not conversion? What does the data tell us?”

Noting that the company’s online and offline efforts are designed to deliver overall customer acquisition goals, Leonard says, “TV has a halo effect over everything we do, but we are also ‘always on’ in digital. Whether it’s paid search, display, or something else. We’re getting more flexible, and we need to, especially in our media mix. If TV and digital are always on, how can I affect change offline? How can I integrate online more effectively for our customer acquisition goals?”

And, as online video becomes a more crucial piece of the marketing pie, Colonial Penn is also digging into how it can best utilize the format. “We’re well out of the starting gate,” Leonard says. “It’s about testing and learning. We’ve seen positive results, in driving both traffic and engagement — but we need to become more sophisticated in the integration of both.”

Part of that process, according to Leonard, is giving even more consideration to Colonial Penn’s online user experience. “Video is a one way to improve that experience,” she says. “It helps people unpack their thoughts and needs, and engage with insurance — not necessarily something the average person wants to do. It also offers tremendous cross-channel integration opportunities. While we’ve taken baby steps at this point, there’s a great runway for us to explore more — and capitalize more — with video online.”

Silverstein says the company’s already come a long way from when it considered online video “just putting the 60-second spot on the site.”

“Online, consumers often want to watch something fun, but less sales-y,” she adds. “As we use more online video creative, we can adjust. It’s an exciting opportunity. How can we use and leverage Alex Trebek’s credibility? Simply, online video offers us the opportunity to have more content available in our arsenal.”

Colonial Penn beach
Colonial Penn’s recent growth as a digital marketer coincides with
Leonard’s arrival. Combining branding with consistent calls-to-action,
the company’s digital messages are designed to play of the effectiveness
of its TV presence.

Experience, Agencies Help Team

Both Leonard and Silverstein tend to see most facets of their respective jobs as opportunities — an opportunity to test something new, an opportunity to reach a new customer, an opportunity to drive more leads and sales. However, they do also face clear challenges in their day to day work.

Asked about those, Silverstein responds quickly, “The biggest challenge on my side? Creative development. Finding creative concepts that sound fresh or new with a strong call-to-action is always the challenge. None of us are in the demo we target — yet. So, we create something, and think we have a winner, but then you spend to test, and it doesn’t work. It’s a big challenge — especially with the evolution of data and research — to understand that an idea that seems so strong doesn’t work.”

Leonard notes a trio of challenges that she takes head on, almost daily. “One, you have to start with a core philosophy and clear objectives. You must know where you’re going before mapping the route,” she says. “Next, we have to agree on the expected contribution from our efforts. There are prospects and there are customers — we have to assign a value to them, and truly understand what that is. Third, be flexible and patient. Something will misfire. We have to be able to reallocate resources quickly and effectively. There’s no place for silos in an integrated performance campaign.”

With their combined experience, Leonard and Silverstein have seen their share of successes and failures. Those past experiences provide great concepts to lean on when facing today’s challenges, Leonard says.

“My arsenal has failures, and I learn more from them,” she contends. “Simply, there are a lot of basic principles that have been lost in marketing today. Companies can be impatient.”

Silverstein shares a particular experience that she still relies on in her work.

“Let’s take the Foreman grill,” she says. “It was a monster success, and in those cases, often the company will continue to swing for another grand slam — and that doesn’t usually happen. You need singles and doubles — you have to get on base to score runs. But after Foreman, Salton’s next product was a vacuum cleaner. They gave the creative and production rights to John Cleese (of Monty Python fame).” 

How did that turn out? Let Silverstein continue. “To understand just how badly this idea failed, I had a voiceover artist I worked with here at Colonial Penn,” she says. “We were talking one day, and he told me that his son was in a marketing course in college when the topic “What to do for creativity but not for selling” came up, and they used the Cleese vacuum campaign. It didn’t sell anything. You have to know your purpose, you can’t rest on your laurels, and you need to understand that each campaign has different needs. And — finally — don’t give creative rights to just anyone!”

Both Leonard and Silverstein agree that one way to avoid big, lesson-learning mistakes is to work with the right agency partners and vendors.

“Good marketers can admit they may not know everything — it’s important to know what you don’t know,” Leonard says. “To keep your finger on the pulse of trends, the right vendor can help. They know the current best practices and may look outside of our particular vertical to see what’s working elsewhere. A marketer in an outside category may be handling a similar challenge, and vendors can bring that innovation to you to help achieve your goals.”

Silverstein speaks about a particular agency partner. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve been partnered with B Direct, an agency in the Philadelphia suburbs,” she says. “Its leaders worked for Colonial Penn in the past. One principal had my job, and the other with our print side. They understand the nature of our business and have a historical perspective. They make my job a lot easier by managing 80 percent of our media spend — I buy the rest. They anticipate our next steps, present data or creative recommendations, and help us grow where we need to be.”  

Phyllis Silverstein

Media Director, Direct Marketing
Colonial Penn Life Insurance Co., Philadelphia

Hometown: Conshohocken, Pa.

Resides: Havertown, Pa.

Family: Two sons, John (24) and Will (21)

Education: B.S., finance, Villanova University, Philadelphia; M.B.A., Penn State University, State College, Pa.

Defining Moments: “I’m a breast cancer survivor — five years cancer free. At the point where you hear the diagnosis, work doesn’t matter. My whole perspective changed. I’m a single mom with two sons, and at that moment, it’s about survival. In the past, it had been hard for me to give up control, both in my personal life and in my career. But then you realize, ‘Who cares about that?’ At the same time, you have the desire to remain as normal as possible. I had 14 surgeries in five years, but I worked full time — some people didn’t even know I was sick. At one point, we produced eight commercials in a single week. During that, the team was amazing. It brought things out in people that I worked with that I would never have expected or experienced. I felt blessed to be alive and began to understand the impact of the people connected to me. They were all in — not just for business, but personally. It was a life-defining moment. I apply those lessons to my personal life and career, and try to influence those around me with subtle experiences. It’s been quite an experience, and I try to use it for good.”

Greatest Career Accomplishments: “It’s perhaps not my greatest, but it was definitely my most fun. I’ve spent my whole life in media — not creative. I like to buy and negotiate. But because we had just one commercial when I got here, we implemented an internal contest to pitch ideas for creative. It was the start of honing my creative side and became the first step to writing ads. Some of those were on the air for a couple years. It was something I didn’t plan for or expect. I couldn’t have projected in college that I’d be doing that.”

Susan Leonard

Head of Direct Mail, Web/Digital Marketing
Colonial Penn Life Insurance Co., Philadelphia

Hometown: Haddon Heights, N.J.

Resides: Newtown Square, Pa.

Family: Husband, Phil, and their son, Justin (17) — plus three cats and a golden retriever

Education: B.A., communications, Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J.

Defining Moments: “I’ve worked in a lot of large companies during my career, and I’ve had some really great experiences — that’s the benefit of working for brilliant people and marketers. However, it was always important to me to be able to directly affect something, to be a part of something, to see the result of change. But when you become a component of a much larger entity, it can be harder to find your place. What led me to Colonial Penn — as I evolved in my career — was following a path that gave me the ability to have my voice be heard. I realized that where I had my best experiences and my passion fulfilled were always related to doing direct-to-consumer work. It’s where I feel a part of something bigger. The ability to be able to affect the work — and not just execute it — is the key.”

Greatest Career Accomplishment: “I’ve learned and evolved to understand that having the patience to see your vision through, while staying flexible — adapting your strategies along the way — but always keeping focused on that end goal leads to great accomplishments. How can you evolve your thinking? I’m always tapping into things I did 10-to-15 years ago. Along the way, that evolution has reflected in the growth of my team, and their ability to own and impact a piece of strategy. It’s always been important to me to see change and growth in my team.”