In some respects, the insurance industry in Asia seems to think it is 1976. The industry is dominated by hoards of insurance agents, as it was years ago. Although they knock on your WhatsApp account now rather than your front door, a human army is still the main distribution channel. And the fear-based strategies that defined the industry's communications are still in use. Cringeworthy ads of concerned, but pleasant-looking insurance agents, with clipboards in hand, stand in the hospital room as tearful family members nod appreciatively that their policy will pay up.
Well, things seem to be changing. Some new brands have entered the market with a direct attack on the establishment. In Singapore, NTUC, a local brand, is trying to drive a wedge between it and the large multinationals with its 'Simple, Honest, Different' positioning. And, in an interesting move that seems to borrow from online dating, they offer a system where you can 'choose your agent' via their online app, where you can view their profile picture and other important digits.
Other companies have gone further to get rid of agents altogether. In Hong Kong, Thailand and the Philippines there is a relatively new brand called FWD. Although it is smaller scaled, it claims to be a technology-driven financial services company. Its 'have more fun with life' communications drive to its website where it asks interested parties to call up a sales agent online or simply buy directly on the website. No uncomfortable agent small talk necessary.
But in a twist, perhaps the greatest disruption is not about channels or agents or technology at all. In fact, the most radical changes seem to be happening… on TV. The seeds were sown more than a decade ago with Thai Life insurance. A traditional company formed in 1942 in the dark days of Thailand, it has held off the insurance majors to be the dominant player, earning a place in the hearts of the people of Thailand. How did it do it? A relentless pursuit of tear-jerking, face-contorting emotion.
The first Thai Life ad I remember seeing was called 'Que Sera Sera'. The famous sound track about the unpredictable ups and downs in life is sung by a school choir with the children's mothers as the attentive audience. As the song progresses, the camera slowly pulls back and we start to realise that all the children have some form of disability, yet they sing on happily.
The innocence of the disabled children singing the song is not lost on the parents who fight to hold back tears. When a pregnant lady strokes her tummy, the penny drops and we become fully aware that in the event that the lady's child is also disabled, additional costs will be incurred and that person will be grateful for their policy. You just never know what's going to happen in life. The whole thing is beautiful and worrying at the same time. The strategy delivered.
Since then, the Thai Life team have continued to fine-tune their approach to focus on the theme of 'giving is good'. The stories tend to feature ordinary people, such as street noodle sellers, who perform acts of kindness and then are unexpectedly rewarded later in life by the kindness of others. The formula isn't wearing out. They are getting better and better, judging by the volume of my tears.
What's remarkable about what they have achieved is that I remember ten years ago when people were very sceptical about the approach. It was dismissed as needlessly melodramatic and dangerously voyeuristic. Now, they have attracted a growing band of imitators. Manulife has attempted its own version of this with a story about a dad who pretends he is employed for the benefit of his daughter. And even the giant AIA is trying to leverage the tear-jerker approach with its 'real life' strategy. But they just can't match the power and the quality of the original Thai Life team.
Asians are meant to be more reserved; emotions repressed by decades of social censorship. Not so. Forget sex, tears are Asia's newest, and most powerful, weapon to make the cash register dance.