About the Brand Enabled Podcast & all episodes

Transamerica expresses its purpose as “helping people live their best lives.” How does it deliver on that brand promise? It’s something that Jamie Poston has spent a lot of effort thinking about as Head of Enterprise Marketing and Brand at this major player in the financial services industry. What he and his team came up with was nothing short of ingenious. It seamlessly addresses the paradox of longevity in America through innovative customer centric solutions. It’s quite intriguing how the thought process goes when coming up with solutions like this. Gabriel Cohen doesn’t disappoint us and fleshes this out in all possible angles with his guest in this podcast’s premiere episode. Tune in and learn how Transamerica has managed to differentiate itself in a highly regulated industry and how it intends to deliver its brand promise to its clients!

Welcome to episode one of a brand-new podcast. I know what you’re probably all thinking. What the world needed was another marketing or brand-related podcast. You could be right. Maybe wait until the end of it and then find out or not. We’re going to try and do things a little bit differently. I’m delighted to welcome Jamie Poston from Transamerica to be our first guinea pig. It’s a real honor to have you join us, Jamie, on the first one.

The honor is all mine. Thank you, Gabe.

Give us a little bit of your background and tell us about Transamerica.

Let’s start with the current day. Transamerica is a financial services organization. We’re part of a global network. We’re one of those large companies that you’ve never heard of, maybe. We provide lots of different financial services, whether it be investments, asset management, insurance, retirement programs, and voluntary benefit programs for large organizations all over the US. We’re part of a global conglomerate called Aegon.

I am the Head of Branded Marketing. Within the corporate function, my responsibility is to oversee brand strategy, content strategy, digital experience, our websites, as well as things like sponsorship programs, thought leadership, and social media. You think about the brand expression. Maybe you hear about Transamerica around the world. It’s not related to a specific product. That’s my group and, ultimately, my responsibility. As you can tell, like Gabe, I’m not a native of these shores. I came out here to the US back in 2000 with the dot-com boom. Originally, my background was advertising with IPG and Omnicon but was lured to the US with promises of untold riches based on the dot-com boom. As you can tell, that didn’t pan out, but I fell in love with it.

Otherwise, you wouldn’t be doing this episode with me.

I’ve been in Denver for a number of years, but I bounced around. I was in New York or in San Francisco following where I thought I needed to be at the right time. I ended up in Denver, which I’m very happy about. It’s a beautiful city in a wonderful area of the US.

Don’t talk about it too much because we don’t want more people moving here now. We met about 8 years ago at a client pitch when you were agency-side as well. Was the agency-side too easy? You thought, “Let me go do the client-side thing and give myself a real challenge in financial services where it’s not like everyone wakes up in the morning thinking about the brand?”

It’s a number of different things, especially with the technology that came out of dot coms and the migration of opportunities. One of the biggest drivers for me, though, is after being in the agency world for nearly fifteen-plus years, I got sick and tired of sitting down with clients, listening to them, and putting together great plans like strategic roadmaps like, “Take 3 steps forward, take 2 steps right, and you’ll be exactly where you need to be to achieve growth.” I’ll hand this plan off, and then, a month later, they take a step to the left and take a left turn.

I’ll be like, “What are you doing? It’s so simple. I laid it all out for you. This is what you do. You’ve got the media and the strategy.” I realize, “I’ve got all of this opportunity. I’m going to step into the client’s space because I could run rings around them.” Since coming client-side, one of the things I’ve realized is that they weren’t stupid people. It’s just the world that they exist within is so much more complex with so many more nuances, blockers, and everything else.

What’s kept me here though is I’m fascinated by it. The way that marketing has evolved, advertising is where I came from. It was almost a small sliver of a much bigger picture. It’s like one little piece of the jigsaw puzzle. I’m a very analytical person, and I love the idea that suddenly, your spectrum and perspective starts growing and growing. I consider myself a very curious person. I’m someone who believes in lifelong learning. Being on the client-side for a major brand, I’m getting taught new lessons every day.

When we were talking last time, you talked about this crazy thing called marketing or brand. What did you mean by that?

When you think about brand, I want to be very specific, I’m talking about brand here versus product marketing. Again, being curious, but it’s this notion of when you think about brand marketing, it’s a contract that you’re continually having to develop and negotiate on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. At the heart of it, I don’t own the brand. I’m responsible for it, but it’s the relationship I have with the customers and consumers and the way in which we talk and engage in the whole experience.

That continually provides challenges because if you think about it, not owning the brand, I’m responsible for it in the organization but the other owner is the customer, the end user. I can’t control their environment, the climate, and their priorities. I’m constantly having to listen, learn, and adapt. That’s something that keeps me interested. It can drive me crazy. You can have the best-laid plans, and then suddenly, the meteor hits, and you’re like, “We’ve got to pivot. We’ve got to move.” It’s that being proactive and thinking about scenario planning and what could or should happen. If it doesn’t, how do you then accommodate those changes in that new world that you’ve got to do business in?

Take us a little bit behind the scenes because brand isn’t the thing that necessarily comes up all of the time but when it does, then you are in it. Hopefully, you are never out of it. Can you maybe talk a little bit about what that journey has been like for you when you first started Transamerica? What was the focus when the brand, even the idea of purpose, started to come up, and how things have evolved since then?

I’ve worked for a range of different organizations. I’ve gone from Unilever to Sony Music. You be like, “Why would you be Transamerica? What is it about Transamerica? As an organization, financial services companies, especially here in the US over the last 5 to 10 years, have woken up from this notion that we sell a product. Typically, a commodity, an insurance policy or retirement program, voluntary benefit, and mutual fund.

What we’re selling is an outcome and that’s leaning more into the B2C mindset. When you think about those great B2C companies, that’s what they’ve been doing for the last 30, 40, or 50 years. The financial services organization realized, “That’s interesting.” That’s forced them to move from a focus on what the consumer wants to why we exist and why we have the right to engage with someone, a consumer. Especially in the B2B space, that’s been almost a revolution. When I came aboard at Transamerica, they were probably late to the party.

One of the things that given my background in consumer-focused marketing and brand marketing specifically, it’s been exciting to get people to focus on the why first, believe in that, and then build out from there. I don’t mean saying, “This is what we believe in, and therefore, that’s what it’s going to be.” We’ve still got to negotiate, “Is our why true to us because it resonates, and is it relevant to the end user?”

Let me play the devil’s advocate for a moment because there’s been a lot talked about in the world of purpose over the last few years. A lot of people are jumping on the purpose bandwagon. A lot is written about its association with ESG and caring for the world. A lot of skepticism also because in reality, most businesses are there sure to deliver a profit.

There’s a broader acceptance around a broader role, but this notion of leaning too far into purpose unless it’s truly at the heart of your business model like Patagonia, for example, whose business model is founded on purpose. How do you get credibility, or how do you contextualize a notion of purpose out of a financial services organization like Transamerica in a way, to your point, is authentic and true and doesn’t get too far into the fluff? 

I was speaking at our national sales conference in front of a couple of thousand salespeople because we’ve repositioned our branding. A brand is made up of purpose and promise. I was talking about our purpose. There were two things I brought up. First of all, the purpose is, first and foremost, a platform of belief that binds us together as an organization.

It’s internal. Do we all believe this? Can we all get on board? If so, come join our team. If not, get off the bus. You can go somewhere else. No offense, that’s something that more people are looking for somewhere that, “I can believe in that purpose. I can believe in what you are doing, whether it be ethical, credible, realistic, or whatever it may be.

You’ve got to be able to articulate that clearly to every person within your organization. It should be invigorating and inspiring. Ideally, it should be aspirational a little bit. It’s to push people to step outside of themselves. That’s number one. Going through that process, you can then communicate that. It may not be literally in the same using the same language but in meaning to an external audience. That should be able to resonate with them. For most people, where brands get caught up is when they try to employ a purpose that’s built on what we think the external audience wants versus what we want to be. 

It has to start on the inside. From the brand purpose, that’s when you develop the brand promise that means something. One of the things I talked about was the fact that the language behind our purpose. Our company’s 115 years old now in 2023. Back in 1906, a gentleman by the name of A. P. Giannini started our company back in San Francisco. He had this phrase, “Serving the needs of others is the ultimate calling of business.”

What I was trying to explain to our salespeople is our new purpose is helping people live their best lives. We’ve changed the language. All we’re turning around and saying is that we still have the same ethos.

We’ve always had the same ethos. That’s who we are. That’s all we’ve always been. We just changed some of the language. It still has the same meaning to all the people who work at Transamerica.

Let’s go back a bit to contextualize how you got to live your best life because to someone from the outside reading in for the first time, it can almost seem like an empty promise, but there’s so much richness and insight behind how you got there. I know that this is the iteration. Maybe go back a moment and talk about the purpose journey since you’ve been there and talk about it through a consumer lens that we can all relate to and understand because they’re things that are impacting our lives as they relate to retirement, the stages of life, and all those pieces.

There are a couple of things. I’ve been at Transamerica for years, but even predating me about around 2014 or 2015. There was a recognition that is talked about maybe in the trades more than it is in the consumer press, but the US is facing a retirement crisis. The average cost of retirement for US people is somewhere over $1.5 million. The average US population, in terms of household, has around $250,000 in retirement savings. There’s a huge disparity.

Something had to change in a way for financial services organizations to better serve their clients and customers. The old messaging wasn’t working. It was this realization that we talked about the commodity and the product too much. This is why I was saying a little bit earlier about needing to switch to an outcome.

One of the things we started to talk about around 2016 or 2017 was, “How do we talk about the outcome?” We started to uncover that one of the biggest drivers of financial security or insecurity later in life is your health. Your financial security is directly tied to your health security, but people weren’t putting the two things together. We worked with a number of academic partners like Stanford Center on Longevity and MIT’s AgeLab to retry and contextualize this, to focus on this idea of financial security. Not as being this, “How much money do you have in your 401(k)?” but talk about your quality of life. 

The reality we came to is this notion of the paradox of longevity. People are living longer. We all know that. It’s this notion that while it’s never been easier to live a longer, better life, the cost of doing so is increasing exponentially. The biggest driver is healthcare costs in the US. It’s a big differentiator from Western Europe, where you’ve got a lot of socialized medicine. That was a big thing. 

We started to lean in on that and developed a program called Wealth and Health, which is trying to draw a correlation between you’ve got to retake care of yourself and think about saving for potential health impacts in order to be able to save for your retirement home, that second home, college kids, and college education.

What was interesting is we were like, “No one’s talking about this connection. This is exciting.” This is a unique space. For a brand marketer, you love that white space. No one’s in this area, and we launched this in 2018. Put a lot of money behind it, and it went poof. We did a lot of research with the financial services community, advisors, agents, brokers, and employers. We’re like, “What’s going on? We’ve shown you the data.” What we heard back was, “I’ve got this in the voice of the customer research we’ve done.” “Why are you talking to me about health? You’re an insurance company. You’re a retirement company. You’re not a health insurance company. You’re not a medical provider. You don’t get to talk to us about this.”

We went back to the drawing board and started to figure out, “This is so important. There’s this direct link. Why can’t we own that space?” What we found was we had to go one step further. It wasn’t us saying, “Your health and wealth are connected.” We had to go one step further and talk about, “It’s your healthcare cost. That’s why we, as a guardian of your finances, are entitled to talk to you about your health.”

Once we did that, then it was clear. People got it. That was stuff that we did heading into 2020, and then obviously, COVID hit. One of the things we found out was that messaging worked well with some of our businesses, talking about the outcome and identifying why we had ownership to talk about how we could improve people’s lives. It’s not just their bank savings, their retirement but their quality of life. There are segments of our business that it wasn’t resonating with.

Insurance is all about protection, and healthcare cost doesn’t go into that because, again, we’re not a health insurer. That’s been leaning in to say talking about outcomes resonates and helps financial advisors, employers, and everyone else, say, “How do we help people live their best life?” We were like, “That’s what we need to do. If we can talk about how we can impact people’s quality of life, not just about healthcare costs, then it gives us a brand that connects all of our different products to individuals.”

It helps us position as a differentiated provider given our breadth of products. We can provide a product for someone from birth to death. There are very few financial services companies that have that depth and breadth of services. Truly, for an organization to be able to step forward and say, “We want to help people live their best lives,” We’re able to do that. That, for us, is that progression. We started focusing on outcomes versus products. We realized that message resonated but against a smaller segment of our population. Bridging this new brand position allows us to talk to more of the population and bring more of our products and solutions to the marketplace.

It’s interesting seeing how things have evolved. I want to go back a little bit to that because everything started from that spark. How did you get to that insight of Health and Wealth?

It was a conversation with a gentleman by the name of Dr. Joe Coughlin, who’s the Executive Director of MIT AgeLab. He was at a conference sitting down with the President of our Sales Division at the time. We were sponsoring Dr. Joe at this event. He was talking about this notion of the age of longevity. He was pushing how people living longer impacts every segment of America’s society, and that’s what AgeLab is focused on.

He was the one who came up with this notion of the paradox of longevity. The reality is that the old model used to be a three-stage life, you’re born, you learn, 20 years, you go to work, 40 years, and you retire, 15 years. You use your savings from those 40 years to afford a life of relaxation for 15 years. He was having this conversation with our president of sales at the time. He was like, “People are living to 20 or 30. In 30 years, people will be living to 1995. There is no way that you can save enough working 40 years to afford a 30-year retirement.”

Either people are going to have to work longer, or we’re going to have to think about blowing up this whole three-stage life which has a huge impact on how a financial services company can provide services. Again, the old model is blown up. That was when we started to talk about it. If the whole paradigm has changed and the way in which financial services companies talk and engage, the products and solutions they bring to market have to change as well. We’ve got to stop talking to people when they hit 55. We’ve got to start talking to them in their 20, 25, or 30 and putting in place a plan that helps them achieve a later life that works for them.

Were you actively looking for that spark and white space at the time, or was it the thing that you were always listening out for, and it just so happened that it smacked you in the face because you were at a conference and had a conversation?

It’s a little bit of both. There was this very clear understanding that we had to change the way in which we were doing business. From a marketing perspective, we were looking for a change in narrative. If you’re a taller student of financial services, everyone uses 2 or 3 colors, blues, greens, burgundies, and that kind of thing. They all talk about the same thing, which is, “Have you saved enough? Life is expensive.” They use fear to drive a reaction. Everyone looks the same, and they say the same thing.

The products are the same.

You live in a very highly regulated business. We’re forced to have very similar products because you all have to fit into the same box to get approved. That’s where a brand can lean in and be a differentiator. That was the realization, “How we think, act, and communicate as a brand is a potential growth driver for us.” We had this, “We’ve got to think things through,” so we’re going back to the drawing board thinking about what new insights. “Where is some white space that we could move into with realistically with authenticity without going off the rails and trying to be the Spotify of financial services?”

This individual, Dr. Joe was talking to our head of sales, and if he could communicate with the head of sales, this makes sense. I’ve got the head of sales coming to me and saying, “We’ve got to focus on the outcome. Stop talking about our products. It’s all about, ‘This is where we want to take people.’” That’s the journey we’ve been on since.

As the whole Health and Wealth story evolved into the overarching idea of living your best life, can you talk for a moment about the difference? What is purpose? You talked about purpose and positioning. What’s the difference between the two? How do you use them?

For our organization, brand purpose is why we exist, and it’s in our DNA. It’s got to be true and authentic as what binds us together. We have certain behaviors that allow us to live that internally. We talk about internally how we as an organization tune in, step up and want to be a force for good. Those are conversations that we are continually having internally within the walls of Transamerica, allowing us all to align around this, “We exist to help people live their best lives.” 

The brand promise is the external manifestation and communication out to other audiences, our external consumers, and customers. What makes it valuable is the hard work that gets put into that. It’s not how we translate our brand purpose into an external message. We go out, and we’ve been talking to agents, advisors, and brokers. We’ve done in-depth persona work to understand what their world is. 

We connect their mission with our mission. The promise is the bridge. It allows them to have their own identity as an agent, advisor, or employer. Seeing us as partners, a mirror image of, “We align. You get me,” that’s where a brand should live. You understand my problems. We share the same mission. Brand experience is you get me on a day-to-day basis, all of those things, but that’s differentiation.

Can you talk a bit about how consumer attitudes and behaviors have shifted more generally? Even if we didn’t have enough money, that’s not how we’re viewing life, especially for any Gen Zs or Millennials reading.

We’ve completed a somewhat first-of-its-kind review with MIT AgeLab. We sampled over 2,000 US individuals across each one of the core cohorts of demography, 20-year-olds up to 80-year-olds. We’re asking them about the impact of longevity on them in terms of their work, how they think about work, how they think about their wealth saving, investing, what wealth means, and also, their well-being. How do people deal with well-being when they’re 20 versus they’re 60 and 70 and what’s important?

What’s interesting is if you look at the earlier cohort, you’re looking at Gen Z, for instance, or early Millennials, having worked this meaning and flexible came in. Meaning I’m doing something that gives me meaning, a purpose, and that alignment between their work life and their personal life. That intersection is blending. What we’re seeing with that audience specifically is it’s not necessarily that they want to work from home or in the office completely. They want the flexibility to move around.

In the later stages of the cohorts, we’re also seeing that people want to be able to take time off of work. They want to be able to spend time at home with their young children. This whole idea is that we have these cohorts of audiences that fall neatly into these plans of action. We can plan what they can be or what they want. That’s being blown up.

There’s this idea of almost being this notion of quantum planning. We present solutions for life stages, but it’s not dedicated to an age. It’s not dedicated to a financial segment. We are prepared. When you are ready to engage, here’s a solution. It creates a whole level of complexity in brand marketing. It requires a whole different range of investment because we’ve got to create these programs ready to go but we’re responding to an audience when they need it versus us telling you, “You’re at this life stage. You should be doing this. Here’s a message that’s going to drive you.” Everyone always talks about consumer centricity or people-to-people marketing. We are seeing that come into play.

How was the case made? What’s the rationale for why this work, and why it was time to rebrand an institution that’s been around for so long? Also, knowing that it’s not an investment that executives take lightly.

We had a change in leadership at the global level. A change in leadership at the national level, and they came in and said, “We’ve got to change the way in which we want to work.” There was an opportunity for us to reinvigorate the organization, try and create a little bit of positive momentum, juice up the share price and everything else, and stop the price.

I don’t mean to say it was purely that. There’s a good rationale, but essentially, it was leadership at the top saying, “We’ve got to reinvest in our brand.” The brand is incredibly important. It’s been undervalued, especially during COVID. It was trying to understand leveraging the power of our global organization and our global supply chain and being able to say, “Is there a way for us to create a global brand that speaks to all audiences in all markets granted with some regional customization translation that we can push forward?” That’s the work that we embarked on. We think we can do this.

It’s interesting and common across a lot of organizations that eventually do rebrand where there is this correlation with new leadership coming in. They have a different definition and view of what the brand can do. They see that that brand can be a catalyst for that transformation agenda.

I’m a firm believer in the brand follows the business. The leaders of the business will sit there and say, “We have a challenge or an opportunity.” Oftentimes, they’re going to look at it through operational or through sales. I’m fortunate enough to have leadership who turned out and recognizes this is an opportunity for the brand to contribute. That’s what’s happened over the last few years. It’s like, “Brand needs to be leaning in. The brand is an opportunity here for us to be able to drive business growth.”

Take us into the craziness of where you are right now in this rebranding process.

It’s been a few years of working with our corporate center out of the Netherlands and CMO across seven different markets. We were in seventeen different global markets, but there were seven other core businesses. Working with them to try and align around the research helps us understand where our different audiences are in terms of mindsets in regard to financial security.

That research took about a year to coalesce. We’ve then engaged in taking that research, taking that brand positioning, and making it fit within the US market, which has been a challenge. There’s this idea that there’s this common health belief that life should be a positive experience. There is a certain cohort of audiences across the globe in all of our markets who want to lean in and be encouraged to take control of their own lives.

In the US versus the Netherlands versus Spain versus the UK, there’s a very different understanding of what quality of life means. What we’ve had to do is take this global brand position and say, “In the US, this is what quality of life’s all about.” That’s where we are now. We’ve just launched it internally, and we’re getting ready to launch it externally, which is a whole world of work that needs to be done.

Can you dimensionalize that for us? You talked about it being both interesting and scary. How much needs to be done? How many offices and locations?

We have 220 regional offices for our TFA or Transamerica Financial Agency or Transamerica Financial Advisors. We have five core locations in the US. We have 7,500 full-time workers. We have close to 10,000 other workers around. I’ve got to align our timeline in terms of the work that we are doing, visual identity updates, and verbal identity updates with what Global’s doing in terms of what’s happening in the UK. 

There’s a tremendous amount of coordination. We’ve given a certain amount of freedom within the framework but I’ve always got to be talking to my bosses in the Netherlands to be like, “This is what I want to do. Why are you doing that? Can you hold on to that because we are not ready?” There’s a lot of that work. 

Internally at Transamerica, we’ve got people who have been with the company for 30-plus years. We’ve got people who have joined in the last few months. I’ve got to try and sell them and get them to believe in this purpose and new brand position. I’ve got to get them to be the advocates for them or in this position. I’ve got to listen to them in terms of what they want. Again, it’s this message. One size does not fit all. You have to be adaptive. I have to have multiple different conversations.

One of the things I’ve learned is you can’t say something once. You’ve got to keep on hitting it. You’ve got to keep on going. You’ve always got to think about selling these things based on the priorities of the person you’re speaking to, especially at the C-Suite. I do a general presentation to our management board then I have a separate presentation for operations, finance, and HR. I’ve got to talk to them about the brand as it relates to them. Again, our CEO will tell you that the brand’s important, but then you’ve got all the other day-to-day stuff that’s happening. I’ve got to try and engage with them on a regular basis.

Any lessons that you’ve learned through this process so far?

Follow-up is one of them. With the best of intentions, I’ve got my priorities and timeline. I get a commitment from someone like, “We’re going to do that. I’ll get a team on that.” A month goes by, “Sorry, I had to do something else.” Suddenly, you’ve built a coordinated plan, and they’re not delivering. There’s humility as well. One of the things about being a marketer, and especially in the brand marketing space, everyone thinks they’re a marketer.

Sometimes you’re like, “You don’t know. I’m telling you what this is. I’m the expert.” The humility teaches you, “You are right. What you’ve just said, even though you’re not a marketer, makes a lot of sense. I need to get off my high horse and take what you said. I’m going to incorporate it into our thinking because that’s important.”

What do you say to the person who has the opinion? You’re like, “They’re wrong,” but they think they’re right. That’s the hard one.

“I hear what you’re saying. I’m going to take that into consideration. Let me get back to you,” then you got to follow up.

The brand is both the benefit and the challenge. Everyone finds a conversation with a brand interesting because you get to talk about touchy-feely things, pictures, words, and language. Everyone’s like, “I’m into that,” but one of the things I’ve always found is to get close to your CFO because, at the end of the day, the decision will be made with a balance sheet in front of the management team. That, for me, is one of the big challenges. Again, product marketing’s different because you can turn around and say, “I did this product marketing. I got this many leads. This many leads turned into this many sales. Here’s a cost per lead.”

You can connect it to the income statement, the P&L. It’s much harder when you’re talking about something that connects to the balance sheet. That’s about the longer term that you typically measure in abstract terms like brand equity. That’s like, “Where does that show up in my financials?”

You’ve got the tangible asset balance sheet, but no one’s ever thought of the intangible asset balance sheet. That’s the correlation that I’m trying to draw. “This is working. B2B is working. Your lead generation’s working because we’ve increased awareness.” The CFO will be like, “How much of that increase down to your leads versus how much of that is down to we’ve got a great more bonus incentive for our sales teams?” That’s the conversation.

You’ve got to build that trust with the CFO because they need to be the advocate in the room when the CEO is making decisions. When times are good when the sun is shining, I can walk into a room and sell a brand program, and everyone’s like, “That sounds good,” because everyone’s got a smile on their face. When the clouds are darkening, it’s getting colder, and everyone’s sitting there being, “Look at the balance sheet.”

I’ve got to have an advocate in that room who’s willing to say, “The brand’s important,” because as you know, the brand is a long-term investment. It’s an investment you are making into a customer relationship. You can’t pull it off and pull it down, not like you do with a product. I can pull one product down and replace it with something else. Now, the brand has to be a long-term investment. For many organizations, it’s scary to commit that capital on a 3, 5, or 7-year plan.

How do you have that conversation with the CFO about the brand in a way that works and build trust? A lot of peers and brand people don’t know how to have that conversation with the CFO in a way where he comes out of it, and he’s not staring at you blankly.

Honestly, I don’t always have success. The most current iteration and relationship that I’ve been able to foster is about re-spending the time and bringing them into the cycle of, “B2B awareness in terms of our target audience awareness, showing them the numbers and saying, ‘We’re at X point of awareness. If awareness gets impacted, look at our consideration levels.’”

Those are quantifiable terms, but then you have to educate them on the other intangibles. It’s things like retention rates. Are retention rates going down? What does the cost of acquisition look like? If you’re looking at the volume and velocity of sales, I’m trying to correlate that back. As our awareness goes down, it’s getting more difficult here. We’re not getting as many callbacks. We’re not seeing as many RFPs. We’re seeing client turnover. This could be part of the explanation as to why.

Oftentimes though, if you’ve got a CFO who is very much focused on just the numbers and you can’t get them to open up, that’s when you’ve got a real challenge. You have to go and look to advocates outside of the CFO, operations, sales leaders, and HOUR, and try and build a consensus of a willingness to try and amplify your voice at the table with the management team.

There are more brand leaders that sometimes are scared to go even and have the conversation and that becomes a bit of an obstacle. 

It is interesting to me because I have heard that. It’s not something that I’ve experienced. To be a successful brand marketer, you have to be able to tell stories. I’m like, “If you don’t want to tell a story, maybe this isn’t the right job for you.” There are some fantastic CMOs who aren’t necessarily great presenters, but I have to believe they got to that position because they’re able to contextualize and tell a story.

I don’t mean with fireworks and marching bands, but sit down one-on-one and tell a story about what’s important and why it’s important. That’s probably a challenge and may be why some people aren’t able to reach their full potential because they don’t feel comfortable telling a story to someone who maybe has some resistance.

When we think about the work that you’re doing now, it’s a journey. The days of it being working towards activation or launch, that thinking doesn’t exist anymore. You described it at some point as having to land each step. Landing each step is what gives you the mission to then take the next step. What are those steps? Maybe talk about it in the broader context. This isn’t just about the brand in terms of then how it impacts communication and what you say but everything else, both internal product and other pieces.

It’s the idea of a journey. It’s a cliché. The journey is a destination, especially within a large organization. Every single thing you do goes on to build the foundation of the right to take the next step. That’s something that I always talk to my team about. Brand marketing has two opportunities. One that is mandatory and one that’s great to have. One is that we always have to execute excellently.

That, for me, is a must-have. There is no, “We’re going to get this done.” I’m like, “We have to execute excellently.” The second is, every now and again, a brand gets the opportunity to execute exclusively. Meaning no one else is here. I always talk to my team, and I hold up myself to that level of excellence. It becomes something then that gives you the opportunity to walk into a room and ask for something else.

We will always deliver this. I will never promise something that I cannot deliver with excellence. Every now and again, I’m going to give you something that no one else has got. This goes back to the purposes of the Wealth and Health brand position. Every day, that’s what I’m thinking about. Those are the steps I’m taking.

How do you think about the sequencing around how you start to navigate and where you go in terms of bringing the brand to life through experience or culture or through recruitment or product? There are so many different places where then it needs to come to life in order to truly become something that has catalyzed the business as opposed to just being a marketing message in three years’ time. It was just an expensive logo exercise.

With the Wealth and Health brand position, we’ve now evolved into living your best life. There was a lot of time and effort thinking about our people. Again, we talked about the purpose being this binding agent, even thinking about the external brand promise. We’ve got to be able to educate our internal audiences and get them to live it. Thinking about programs and platforms that are purely internal. The external audience will never see them.

It gets our people thinking and acting in line with the brand, and that took a significant effort. That was something that was hard to do. Probably like many other organizations, if we put some nice images on the wall and make sure that everyone’s got a water bottle with the brand name with the new logo on it or a mouse mat, that’s all good.

We went in and started thinking as an organization about people’s health and the cost of not looking after your health. We were going into the cafeterias and restaurants we have at each of our core locations. In one location, we have a donut bar, and people love the donut bar. I had to go into facilities in HR and be like, “I’ve got to nix that. I’m sorry. I got to pull that.” I can’t have a banner outside that says Wealth and Health, and then you walk into a restaurant and you’ve got a donut bar. We got some pushback, but this is what we believe in.

Is it coming back now that it’s about living your best life because living your best life and donuts feel like they’re a marriage made in heaven?

Living your best life is still about looking after your health. I’m not letting the donut bar back. It’s a fascination that the American audience has, and we’ve got to correct it.

Those little stories and examples are powerful because they show how far it can be. Any others that maybe you can talk about or that you’ve done or that you are wanting to do?

We weren’t able to do it because we had a direction that happened and everything else. We have around 3,000 people in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. We were a large landowner in that space and there was this rural area off to the side of one of our campuses. We went out to the Cedar Rapids audience, the employees, and we were like, “Wealth and Health, we’re trying to bring them in.”

An employee turned around and said, “We’ve got something like 10 acres of land over there. What if we turn that into a farm? We had school kids come out, and we’ll grow food. We’ll give that to the community and use that food in ourselves.” Suddenly, it was like, “That’s genius.” Executives weren’t thinking about that. Executives were thinking about the balance sheet. 

It’s those types of programs that we were starting to go out and talk to our employees that for me, demonstrated they’re starting to get it. They’re starting to understand our brand is around thinking about people’s health as it increases their financial security. Also, the fact that they’re thinking about that, this person was in either risk or accounting but they’re able to bring a passion from outside, align it with the organization, the organization’s mission, and give us something that we could execute on.

You probably wanted to run over like pin a brand ambassador badge on him. Real or conceptually, that is the epitome of brand ambassadorship. It’s how you get more of that out. It gets back to your point about the brand team doesn’t own the brand, and the customers own the brand. It’s everyone internally. Not everyone internally is going to be able to make those connections but if you can find those that do or if you can provide a jumpstart to allow those sparks to come to life.

I was having a conversation with someone about the role of brand governance, and this person was being like, “We’ve got to get stricter on brand governance. We’ve got to be locked in. We’ve got to have our codes and everything else.” I’m like, “We have to a certain degree, but I also want to allow people the opportunity to be like, ‘Can we do it this way?’” I don’t want to shut it down. We’re a large organization. There has to be a level of control, but it’s control that also encourages participation. It’s the balance.

A lot of conversations about rebranding the term brand governance to think about it more as enablement where there’s an aspect of governance that maybe sits within enablement about the process and keeping things, but it’s a much broader idea, which is about empowerment and how the brand team can be seen as more of a concierge and an enabler and empower as opposed to the old idea of it being the brand police.

That takes time, but that’s the journey I would love to think that we are on. I love the idea that we’re a concierge that allows people to engage with our purpose. For an external audience, it’s through our marketing materials and advertising. For our internal audiences, it’s through programs, platforms, encouragement, and everything else. I might borrow that from you.

Jamie, we’ve been talking a lot about Transamerica. Let’s jump to the final part of the conversation of what I’ve labeled as the wisdom round because the lightning round was already taken. I’m going to ask some quick questions. Talk about one of the biggest mistakes that you’ve made and what you learned from it so others can avoid it.

It goes back to some of my early days. I used to work for Initiative Media. I was a brand-new Media Strategist Buyer on their floor. Fabergé was my client. I was on a call, and this salesperson was like, “You’ve got to do this. This is a last-minute deal. You’ve got to commit to this. I need this contract. It’s an annual placement. This knocks 30% off your rates. Can you do it?” Me being green, I was like, “30% savings? Let’s do it.” He’s like, “By order?” I’m like, “By order, done.” Hit the by-order on three. I walk into my group head’s office and I’m like, “I got us a 30% discount on that.”

She was this woman called Jane Wolfson. She’s awesome. She was like, “You are a freaking idiot. We can’t commit to that.” I won’t go into the details of contractual terms and everything else, but what I learned from that very early experience was when you feel pressure from somebody else to take an action, take a step back. If it was truly something that you can do, you can always come back. 

That was that last-minute deal, that pressure, “I want it now.” If you are feeling something like that, hang on for a second. Pause and get out of there.” You never make a good decision, I don’t think. When someone’s yelling at you. I try not to get myself into those situations because typically, I’ll make the wrong decision. I always have a little warning alarm that says, “Hang on. Take a pause.”

In your role, you are the most Senior Marketer at Transamerica. Where do you go for learnings and council with peers or even if you just need to vent?

There are certain chat boards and stuff like that you can go to. They’re useful. Someone once said to me that being a CMO or Chief Marketer in an organization is sometimes the loneliest position because there’s no one else within the organization who has my awareness. Typically, I’ve got a good network of peers that I can lean on if I’ve got a question. Oftentimes, it’s all about going to somebody who’s not in the industry but explaining something to them and running through my rationale and, “What do you think?” Mentors can be helpful, and that’s always something. You need that outlet to double-check your thinking. You can go back to agency partners and be like, “This is what I’m thinking. I’m not sure what to do.”

On that last point, you’ve worked on both sides. What advice do you have for others or how do you get the best out of your agency partners?

It’s the last word. Is there a partner? They’re an extension of our team. You’ve got to bring them in. You’ve got to have that trust, especially working on the agency side. When I felt treated as a vendor, when I was treated as a tool versus a contributor, that always created some dissonance and distance in thinking and passion.

I always talk about what I’m hiring. In some positions, when you hire from an agency, I will look for an agency person because I know agency people. Typically, they’re always underpaid and work long hours. It was that passion. You do it because you’re passionate about it. As a partner, I look for that in people. I’m always looking for that. If the agency partner is truly passionate about my business and doing the best work, then you got to trust them, and that’s how I get the best out of them.

Go deeper. What are some of the actual things that you do to make them feel more like they’re a partner? Can you get some examples?

A couple of things, take the time upfront to do the onboarding properly. You don’t know what’s in your head. There’s a notion of this curse of knowledge. I already know that, so I’m not going to share it because everyone must know that. The reality is don’t expect that. Don’t anticipate it. Go deep and spend the time. You’ll get the payback on the back end.

This is another rule of mine. If you’re in a room, ask the stupid questions. With an agency, I will ask a stupid question. I’ve hired you because you are an expert. I don’t have that expertise in-house. If I could do it myself, I would do it myself. I have the humility to be like, “I don’t know. Tell me something. Am I wrong? Challenge me.” That’s the true partnership. It’s like you’re not doing this because I don’t have the time. I’ve entered into this relationship with you because you bring something to the table. Having that openness and this notion of partnership is the best way to get the best out of everyone.

Jamie, sometimes it’s hard to know what it is that we do well. I have been lucky enough to work with you. You treat us the same way as if you were in the agency world. Your responsiveness and how you treat us it’s almost as if we are the client. That is something that I rarely see. When you think about clients that you work with, you give that extra. That’s a real quality that you bring.

It always surprises me when I hear about the average life cycle of an agency-client relationship, especially working with strategic partners. You might cycle through every two years. I’m like, “If you invested all this time and effort unless something’s changed on the client side or the agency side, why would you disinvest? Why would you be like, ‘I’m going to go somewhere else?’” I always think about it as being part of the same team.

Any advice that you would give to your 30-year-old self? 

It’s not necessarily regret, but I chased the money when I was younger. I’m a little bit sad that I had this wonderful life in the US, and suddenly, the dot-com thing happened. I was like, “I’m going to go to the US and be a millionaire. It’s going to be fantastic.” I had this thing with my son. I caught onto this in my early 40s.

You got to have the intent. Be clear in your intent then apply the effort. Success will come. One of the things I didn’t have in my earlier career was I was bouncing around between media and strategy. “This sounds interesting, and that sounds interesting.” Maybe that was a good thing but I feel like if I’d have been a little bit more like, “This is where I’d want to be at 40, 50, or whatever.” Maybe that wisdom comes with age. Maybe that’s not something I told my 30-year-old self because I’ve had a hell of a ride. It’s been fun.

What’s a good book that you’ve read?

Orbiting the Giant Hairball. I’ve just started it. It’s a guy who was a CMO at a large organization, talking about within a large corporate organization how to stay close enough to the corporate business function but still retain enough distance but you’re still bringing value that marketing creative spirit. Someone turned it onto me, and I was like, “Orbiting the Giant Hairball? That’s weird.”

As this is the first episode, I thought that it would be great to end with a final question that no one’s ever asked before because even if everything in this show is similar to everything else, I bet no one’s ever asked this question. I’ll end with a slightly ridiculous one, which is, if I came in and I was your fairy brand mother, what would be your brand wish?

For my team, I’d want them to feel recognized and rewarded. We are moving into this space with the brand purpose. It comes back onto the brand. That’s something that I’m continuing to push them to be like, “We’re getting this opportunity.” Now, their heads are looking down. They’re trying to get stuff done and not looking forward.” What would help them to lift their heads up is a little bit more like, “We get you, guys. Get in there.” 

Jamie Poston, Head of Enterprise Marketing and Brand at Transamerica. Thank you for being on the first episode of our show. If anyone has any questions for me or Jamie, please drop me an email at gcohen@monigle.com and we’ll see if I ever get to episode two. Thanks a lot, Jamie.

Thank you, folks. Take care.

About Jamie Poston

As the Head of Brand & Marketing at Transamerica, Jamie is responsible for helping Transamerica generate growth through delivering a differentiated brand experience, with an emphasis on driving strategy and execution of brand-related marketing programs through the areas of Digital Experience, Brand Activation, Social Media, Content Strategy, Sponsorships and Thought Leadership.

Jamie has over 25 years of expertise in customer-centric marketing, delivering measurable business impact through the optimization of marketing infrastructure, automation, and a focus on data-driven strategic insights. His experience includes leading strategic marketing and branding efforts for a number of national / industry leading brands across CPG, Travel, Healthcare and Finance verticals.  Originally from the UK, Jamie began his career in Marketing working for global networks within the Omnicom and IPG organizations before transitioning to client-side roles.

He currently resides in Denver, Colorado with his two children, Oliver (12) and Adeline (9), and enjoys spending his time outdoors mountain biking, hiking, and skiing.