The variable annuity company SunAmerica Inc. has embarked on a national brand image campaign to boost sales through banks and other financial intermediaries.

"Our job right now is to get the word out that SunAmerica is going to be one of the biggest players in the bank marketplace in the next two or three years," said Jana Waring Greer, president of SunAmerica's marketing arm.

SunAmerica is spending tens of millions of dollars to advertise on NBC Sports and already plans to run more than 230 spots in 1997, Ms. Greer said. The ads will air during such high-profile broadcasts as the World Series, Wimbledon, the PGA Seniors Championship, and the Breeders' Cup.

No company has ever carved out spots on so many types of sports shows at NBC, a spokesman for the network said.

While the campaign is intended to garner more recognition among the general public, it is also designed to appeal to the 45,000 financial advisers who sell SunAmerica products.

Los Angeles-based SunAmerica hopes the country's 77 million baby boomers will identify it as "the retirement specialist."Indeed, the $44 billion- asset company has gotten trademark status for those very words.

SunAmerica isn't stopping at an ad campaign to gain brokers' notice. It has rolled out a new variable annuity product dubbed Seasons that Ms. Greer called well-suited for bank investment representatives due to its simplicity.

Customers have a choice of four investment strategies-growth, moderate growth, balanced growth, and conservative growth. The underlying investments are managed by Putnam Investments, T. Rowe Price, Janus Funds, SunAmerica, and Wellington Management.

Ms. Greer said that this program, unlike most variable annuities, will send customers a statement every quarter showing a single total return on their portfolio. Other variable annuities offer only a list showing total returns of each investment pool, so customers have a hard time telling how their own portfolios are doing, she said.

Finally, Ms. Greer said, SunAmerica is working on a "wealth transfer" product, a life insurance policy designed for investors who want to transfer annuity assets to their heirs.

SunAmerica, which has been selling through banks for less than a year, has yet to make a significant dent in that market, Ms. Greer acknowledged. Of the expected $200 million in sales in 1997, banks should contribute $20 million.

But she added that "considering we're starting from such a low base, we're making significant progress."The leading seller of variable annuities through banks last year at $3 billion was the Hartford.

SunAmerica has a long way to go to get the attention of many banks. But Ms. Greer says she is encouraged by industry predictions that banks will make up 20% of the variable annuity market by 2000. Banks currently account for about 14% of variable annuity sales.

Still, the task won't be easy, said Jack Marrion, president of Advantage Group, a St. Louis-based bank-insurance consulting firm. "People have tried to carve out new variable annuity markets and fallen on their butts," he said.

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