CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/PRUDENTIAL - Will Prudential's new TV spot remind people to save more?

Glen Mutel reports on the difficulties facing the new campaign from Prudential.

One of the most hazardous tasks TV advertising can attempt to perform is the modernisation of a long-established, nationally treasured brand.

The new Oxo family and the now-abandoned younger version of Captain Birdseye are shining examples of how wrong it can go.

So it is both a relief and a surprise to see Prudential's return to the small screen greeted with such warm applause by the critics.

But its return above the line comes at a tricky time for the company.

First, it has just announced plans to move more than 1,000 call centre and support jobs to India. Calling the sub continent for pensions advice seems a far cry from the helpful "Man from the Pru" image it so carefully conjured in the 80s.

A PR disaster coinciding with the unveiling of a relaunch campaign is more than a little unfortunate - just remember the outcry when the launch of Barclays' "big" campaign coincided with wide scale branch closures.

Second, and more importantly, the UK pensions market currently finds itself in crisis. Not only are people failing to save enough for their future, but they are living longer too. A recent report by the accountants Oliver Wyman & Company identifies the annual savings gap in the UK to be £27 billion and shows that it is growing. If Prudential is to get a cynical public to start thinking seriously about pensions again, then it has its work cut out.

A lot has happened since the brand last hit our screens with its "Man from the Pru" ads, which starred the then chief executive, Sir Peter Davis.

The company has since scrapped its 2,000-strong sales force, exchanged Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO for WCRS, hired Safeway's Roger Ramsden as its marketing director and upped its annual marketing budget by £20 million.

And last week it unveiled a new brand identity - the "Man from the Pru" has become the "Plan from the Pru".

Ramsden explains : "Our primary motivation was to relaunch the Pru brand and start communicating. We needed to find a way to express the fact that we can help people sort out their money and their life, but in a contemporary fashion."

The first six executions of the new campaign feature specially commissioned poems, which aim to convince the public of the need for more financial forethought.

WCRS approached production companies and film schools and invited directors and students to pitch treatments of each poem. The final films are the untouched visions of these directors and it's the lack of corporate interference that has enabled the ads to appear both simple and sincere.

This is something the Pru hopes will enable it to stand out, because observers concur that over the past decade or so, very few financial services companies have successfully managed to communicate with customers on their level. Could this explain the public's current malaise towards pensions and savings?

"It's a contributing factor," Ramsden admits. "Most financial advertising is poor from the consumers' point of view. It doesn't connect and makes the products seem so complicated and remote and so is therefore unlikely to engage people's interest."

WCRS's chairman, Robin Wight, says: "The advertising industry has let down consumers by failing to give good reasons for them to save for their old age. And lots of people are going to be poor in later life because we as an industry failed to persuade them to save."

Whatever the reason, the impending savings crisis is making life extremely difficult for companies such as Prudential. The Government is keen to avoid a situation where thousands of people are suddenly forced to throw themselves upon the mercy of the state.

But rather than use taxes to prevent this, it is instead encouraging the financial services industry to provide simple, low-cost, easy-access products, which will tempt the public into putting some money away. It was with that in mind that 18 months ago it launched its ill-fated stakeholder pension scheme.

Lucian Camp, the chairman of the financial services agency CCHM, says: "The problem is that none of this is really working at the moment, and the main reason is brutally simple - most ordinary people on ordinary incomes just haven't got enough money to put away. It's not as if they're saying shall we spend the money on a pension or caviar? Even if they did put away £5 a week, it's not going to do them any good, so they might as well say to hell with it."

The continued failure of products such as the stakeholder pension, which yield little if any profit for companies such as Prudential, have led some industry figures to speculate that the UK may follow the lead of Australia and make pension contributions compulsory.

If this situation is to be avoided, there has to be a shift in the attitude of the public and an end to the cynicism with which it views the financial services industry.

However, while he concedes that a decade of shoddy advertising hasn't helped matters, Camp feels that the reasons for consumer apathy towards savings run deeper than that.

"Don't get me wrong, I think the crisis of trust is very serious and I think that financial services companies have been incredibly short-sighted and stupid to dwindle away consumers' trust to the extent that they have.

Nevertheless, I think that's an extra problem. The fundamental problem is that people haven't got the money. There are just too many demands on the pay packet," Camp says.

It is clear that it's going to take a lot more than advertising to avert a financial tragedy. Prudential hopes the simplicity and directness of its work will wake consumers up, but a sustained government information campaign is what is really required.

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