Conseco Inc. is revving up its blue-collar branding campaign.

The Carmel, Ind., financial services firm is invoking the Hoosier state's two favorite sports - basketball and car racing - to build on an advertising push that has already increased awareness of its brand among middle-income Americans to 45%, from 8% two years ago.

A Conseco-sponsored racing team led by the legendary A.J. Foyt is making its debut this week at the Daytona 500. On Saturday, a series of ads slated to run during the race and the NCAA basketball tournament in March premiers.

Conseco is banking on NASCAR and Mr. Foyt - the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 - to resonate with its target market - those earning $25,000 to $70,000 a year. It wouldn't disclose the cost of the campaign but said media buys and sponsorship costs would require a substantial increase from last year's $33 million budget.

This group of 51 million households "is underserved, profitable, and vast," said Stewart A. Stockdale, Conseco's executive vice president of strategic planning. But the market is also increasingly coveted, as the financial service industry diversifies, by such giant competitors as Citigroup Inc. and Associates First Capital Corp. in Irving, Tex.

Mr. Stockdale compared his job at Conseco to selling laundry soap - he sells something everyone uses, not just the wealthy. "We're focusing our products and brands on the middle market, but if we pick up customers from above or below this segment, great," he said.

Once known primarily for insurance, Conseco is now the leading provider of consumer and dealer loans for manufactured housing and home improvement loans, and it ranks in the top three in retail nonconforming home equity loans.

The NASCAR tie-in is one of many sports-oriented marketing campaigns by Conseco; others have used professional baseball and basketball. Indiana's NBA team, the Pacers, moved into a new arena Nov. 6 that is to carry the company's name for at least 20 years.

The new ads use tongue-in-cheek humor to play on consumers' concerns about their finances. For instance, a life insurance spot features a woman sneaking into her dead husband's office at night - where he still sits at his desk - to change his clothes and clear away papers so he can continue to collect a paycheck.

An ad on paying for home improvements depicts two parents about to attack the tooth fairy in their son's bedroom. Mr. Stockdale said the ads cast the characters as "heroes" and are careful not to ridicule them.

As for Sunday's race, Team Conseco might not even be in it - its rookie driver, Mike Bliss, placed 25th in qualifying heats.

Mr. Foyt said on Tuesday that he was "proud of where we're sitting,'' considering Mr. Bliss' level of experience, and he predicted big things for Team Conseco in the years ahead.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.