Rebranding reflects the changing nature of life insurance companies

Only one insurance company made a New York Times list of the 100 most powerful corporate brands of the 20th century: John Hancock.

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While there’s great marketing power in the name “John Hancock,” it was what the company did with the rest of its name that reflects a growing trend in the life insurance industry. After demutualizing, John Hancock Mutual Life changed its name to John Hancock Financial Services.

Examples of rebranding

Old: GE Insurance
New: Genworth Financial

Old: John Hancock Mutual Life
New: John Hancock Financial Services

Old: New England Life Insurance Co.
New: New England Financial (now part of MetLife)

John Hancock, like many of its competitors, changed its name, brands and advertising to reflect the wider array of financial services it offers to consumers.

Many companies are taking the "life" out of life insurance or putting a new spin on old life insurance names.

New York Life Asset Management bucked the trend, keeping “life” in its new name of New York Life Investment Management LLC.  It’s a name that "more effectively captures the extraordinary scope of our investment management abilities," says Gary Wendlandt, chairman and CEO of New York Life's investment arm.

"I think it was done because everything we knew and heard was that insurance was a 'have to' product and investments were a 'want to product,'" said Steve Burgay, senior vice president of corporate communications at John Hancock Financial Services in Boston, who worked on his company's corporate rebranding. "We needed to get people to perceive us as providing both."

The challenge of wealth

Phoenix Home Life wanted to position itself as an expert for high-net worth individuals and their advisors, so it came up with a new brand: Phoenix Wealth Management. "We're really trying to create a new business category: accumulation transfer," says Walt Zultowski, senior vice president of marketing and market research at Phoenix. "And insurance is a major component of that." (Phoenix Life Insurance Co. is now part of The Phoenix Cos.)

The challenge for Phoenix was the word "wealth."

Research by Phoenix found today's wealthy community is very diverse. "The high-net worth market was very different from the millionaires of the past," says Zultowski. The market is younger, has more women and minorities, and 80 percent of it is made up of first-generation millionaires. The new Phoenix Wealth Management brand needed to reflect that.

"We thought that if we're trying to appeal to that younger generation, the term wealth might turn them off," says Zultowski. Phoenix did more research and learned many younger people define wealth beyond their bank accounts in a holistic way that includes family, health, and values. "They had no problem with the word 'wealth'," Zultowski says.

"It turns out everybody sees themselves as that young guy."

Zultowski says more research was needed when fears arose that the old money crowd might sniff at the idea of being a "before" in the Phoenix ads. "We actually did some focus groups," he says. "It turns out everybody sees themselves as that young guy."

When is changing identity a bad thing?

"Inconsistency hurts brand building. You've got to be very clean and strategic and precise about what you want the brand to stand for," warns Steve Burgay of John Hancock Financial. "We'd like people to say, 'This company gets me. They have the kind of solutions I need.'"

Besides holding onto the John Hancock name for the trust and credibility it has with consumers, Burgay says it was important to have a distribution system already in place for the products being promised.

"When you change the statement you make, you need to deliver on that statement," Burgay says.

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