Conseco Inc. is seeking to distinguish itself in the fight for the less-affluent consumer with an irreverent, attitude-heavy advertising campaign designed to make it the brand for financial services in the field.
The TV spots-whose scenarios feature a well-dressed man panhandling on the subway and a bride and groom catering their own wedding-are aimed, Conseco says, to win the confidence of a long-neglected segment of U.S. consumers-people without trust funds or multimillion-dollar stock portfolios.
"I really don't think, when you look at the financial services industry, anyone has tried to focus on that market," said Conseco chief executive officer Stephen Hilbert. "Most companies have a product or two, and are trying to focus on the top 5% of the income market."
Mr. Hilbert's competitors would disagree.
This year, a pack of financial services firms are making a run at the attention, dollars, and loyalty of the millions of households in America that earn $30,000 to $70,000 a year.
Citigroup, for example, has pledged to bankroll these consumers though its Commercial Credit finance subsidiary. First Union Corp., meanwhile, paid up for the Money Store, a leading finance company, to reach the same customer base.
Conseco executives, for their part, say they are prepared to take on the competition.
In June, the company hired Stewart Stockdale, a former MasterCard marketing guru, to spearhead its branding efforts. And this year, Conseco plans to spend $35 million to build its name.
"This is not some old, stodgy financial services company talking to you from the boardroom," said Mr. Stockdale during a recent interview on the set of one of the commercials. "These are big issues. These are real American issues. And we want to be part of the solution."
Conseco's efforts to market to the lower classes are well-timed, observers said.
"There's a big, gaping hole out there," said James Bell, senior partner at Lippencott & Margulies, a New York corporate brand specialist.
"There's been a hiatus" in effective advertising to that market, Mr. Bell said, with financial services advertising geared mostly to "slicked- back guys with wire-rimmed glasses getting on airplanes in first class."
The last memorable ad campaign targeting the low-end market was run by John Hancock Insurance almost a decade ago, Mr. Bell added.
Defining what a company is, and what it does, has become crucial as boundaries among finance companies, insurers, and banks become indistinct, Mr. Bell said.
"People are confused as to what these companies offer," he said. "Are they insurance companies? Are they banks? Are they credit card companies?"
At Conseco, the opportunity for confusion is high. The Carmel, Ind., company has been an insurer since 1982, but with its $6.5 billion purchase last year of Green Tree Financial Corp., it added home loans, credit cards, and home equity loans to its mix.
Mr. Hilbert, however, said he has no problem defining his company nor its goals. He wants Conseco to be viewed as the "Wal-Mart of financial services," he said.
"We're not trying to push one-stop shopping across the board," Mr. Hilbert said, adding that this distinguishes Conseco from large banking companies.
"We have products put into place to serve that marketplace," he said. "Middle America has the same issues as more affluent consumers. All we're trying to do is get the awareness up that these are the products we offer."
Still, some observers-and investors-wonder whether Conseco's strategy of offering a menu of products to the lower classes could ever be profitable. Others question the soundness of Green Tree.
The latter was founded by controversial entrepreneur Larry Coss, who made a fortune for himself and stockholders by selling a product that most bankers scorned.
News of the Green Tree purchase sent Conseco's stock tumbling. It was trading at $30.125 a share at midday Tuesday, well below the $57 it commanded before the Green Tree deal was announced.
But Conseco executives are undeterred.
Green Tree and Conseco combined boast 12 million customers, and the new company is busy assembling a data base to track their needs, Mr. Stockdale said. It also has an extensive distribution network of life insurance agents.
"We want to be there first" when events happen in customers' lives, Mr. Stockdale said. Conseco is planning to offer everything from health insurance to home loans to these people.
Data bases are, of course, not new. Neither is the concept of cross- marketing. But banks have had a hard time employing these tools to reach less-affluent consumers.
Indeed, when BankAmerica Corp. put Green Tree on the block in October 1997, its chief financial officer at the time, Michael O'Neill, said its customers-dwellers in manufactured housing-offered little in the way of cross-selling opportunities.
But Conseco executives are confident that they can offer Green Tree customers answers for all their other financial needs.
"These are very harsh, real American issues," Mr. Stockdale said. "We're not looking down on these people."
The new ad campaign, which was kicked off last weekend, was created by Fallon McElligott, the agency best known for a recent, irreverent Miller Lite campaign. In the panhandler spot, the character is looking for money to remodel his kitchen. The wedding scenario features a bride slicing a roast and a groom tending bar.
Conseco also signed up Jhoan Camitz, who is known for recent Nike ads, to direct the campaign, which is appearing on network broadcasts of college basketball games and on cable channels.
"Everyone is trying to establish a brand, trying to distinguish themselves," said Warburg Dillon Read analyst Joanne Smith. Success is "just a matter of approach," she said.
Conseco's humorous approach is eye-catching, Ms. Smith added, and could win the company the attention it craves.