Northwestern Mutual has been reaching its customers for more than 40 years through its quarterly print magazine, Creative Living. Long before “brand journalism” and “content marketing” became sexy buzzwords, custom publishing was connecting brands to their customers with targeted content.
Last year, Northwestern realized it could be getting more from the product. After a ton of research (and instead of shuttering the print edition and putting all energy toward digital efforts, a trend that has been hurting print journalism for years now), Northwestern Mutual decided to redesign the print publication. The revamp has already yielded major dividends by reinforcing customer’s long-term loyalty.
“Our survey research showed a reader preference for print over a digital product,” said Shawn Rolland, a PR consultant for Northwestern Mutual. He added: “Despite the drumbeat in the communications world for more digital assets, our numbers showed that a print piece is still in-demand.”
Creative Living launched back in 1972 when the magazine industry was thriving.
The product had been an effective tool for decades but, in light of changing consumer habits, Northwestern Mutual needed to make some changes to the publication.
So it conducted a survey to gauge what readers were thinking. The survey let Northwestern know that people who read the magazine have a more favorable view of the company and its financial representatives and, most important in the company’s estimation, are more likely to work with Northwestern Mutual on their financial planning versus a competitor.
In addition to finding out that information, Northwestern also discovered that readers wanted more information about health care, financial guidance, travel, medicine, technology, business and philanthropy to be part of the edit mix.
“Our financial representatives seek to build life-long relationships with Northwestern Mutual clients—sometimes spanning 30, 40 or 50 years—helping clients manage their financial plans over the arc of a lifetime,” Rolland said. “When we’re able to help our financial representatives build client loyalty, we’re positioning them to be that go-to resource when new financial needs arise for a client.”
Along with a shift in content subjects, the research also led to another, larger decision on the editorial side that resulted in more Northwestern Mutual-related content appearing in the publication.
“Production of a client-facing lifestyle magazine is a careful balancing act,” Rolland said. “If you insert too much branding and company voice, you risk alienating readers who crave intelligent articles, not marketing brochures. We found ourselves on the other end of the spectrum, penning a magazine that, at times, went out of its way not to include company or client voices.”
So the redesign was all about infusing elements of Northwestern Mutual’s brand into the magazine without taking away from the relationship readers already have with the title.
It now goes out to more than 130,000 clients and prospective clients each quarter and tells the stories of thought leaders focusing on innovation, health, technology, business, and money, among other topics, who also just happen to also be Northwestern Mutual clients as well.
“We learned that our clients wouldn’t be turned off by thought leadership on financial planning,” Rolland said. “Quite the contrary, they wanted it. Northwestern Mutual’s expertise in financial planning is part of the reason that clients chose to work with us.We shouldn’t avoid featuring our brand, we should embrace it.”
The magazine’s editorial team also sought out information from the company’s financial representatives to find great stories involving company clients. The Spring 2014 issue has a Q&A with Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, for instance, who’s retiring at season’s end and has been a Mutual client for years.
Client voices are worked into the editorial mix in other ways as well. A recent story on sleep science featured quotes from industry experts and anecdotes from the company’s clients.
“When clients read about other clients, they feel that they’re part of a larger community with shared goals and values, and they begin to realize there’s a mindset that’s distinct to Northwestern Mutual policy owners,” Rolland said.
He added: “Our business goal is to create a loyalty-building tool for our financial representatives.” To help make that happen, each issue of the 32-page publication features the financial representative’s photo and contact information in two prominent locations: on the inside front cover and back cover.
The magazine is then provided to current clients and prospects as a gift from their financial representative.
Since those reps are the key to establishing relationships with those high-end clients, Creative Living worked hard to build strong relationships with them over the past few years, particularly to get help on content and design decisions.
Through emails, phone calls, and face-to-face discussions at Northwestern Mutual’s annual meeting, Creative Living was able to get the reps’ feedback and enlist them in carrying out the concept.
Due to bringing them into the fold, many financial reps were quick adopters of the magazine. “They understood the value that they could deliver by helping clients get nationwide visibility through the magazine,” Rolland said.
• More than six in ten Creative Living readers are likely to consider Northwestern Mutual for future investments needs, 15% more than average clients.
• More than eight in ten Creative Living readers are likely to consider Northwestern Mutual for future insurance needs, 10% more than average clients.
• 94% of subscribers see Creative Living as a favorable representation of Northwestern Mutual’s brand.
• 80% of the prospects who receive Creative Living know the name of the representative who distributed it.
• 96% of subscribers feel Creative Living is a positive touchpoint.
• 98% of those who receive the magazine report that they read it.
“Our hope is that clients will think of Northwestern Mutual as their preferred financial security company, and will think of their Northwestern Mutual financial representative as their preferred financial expert,” Rolland said.
He added: “The key is to know and test your strategic business case through careful research. PR professionals need to be able to show how their products help to achieve shared business goals.
Once that business case is created, you’ve got to promote that business case to key stakeholders in a way that breaks through the clutter and makes them stop to take notice.”
Questions to Ask Before You Produce a Magazine
1. What are the strategic business goals that a publication can help meet? Alignment to the overall business strategy is key. When building a business case for the magazine, you should have a solid grasp of the organization’s existing marketing, communications, sales goals and overall strategies. If the magazine helps to achieve shared business goals, it’s much easier to convert stakeholders to allies and believers in the product.
For Creative Living, the business goal is to help Northwestern Mutual’s financial representatives build long-term relationships with clients and centers of influence so they continue to trust our company with their financial security plans in the future. To foster this, we created a distinct, high-quality magazine—delivered consistently each quarter—that’s proven to make clients more aware of our company and more willing to consider us when addressing other financial needs in the future. That’s a strong value proposition.
2. Who is our audience? What’s in it for them? If you don’t know your audience, it’s almost impossible to make a decision about editorial, design or execution. It was crucial for us to learn more about our financial representatives (who send out the magazine) and our clients (who receive it as a gift) so we could make data-driven decisions. Especially in a digital age, we needed to know, “Is a magazine best-suited to help us meet our business goals? Is it what our clients and financial representatives want? What else should we consider and test?”
Through recent research, we know demographics, interests, media preferences and motivations of our key audiences. As a result, we’re able to deliver a high-quality magazine that inspires and engages client readers and delivers strong value and return-on-investment for our financial representatives.
Other imporant questions to ask before you get going: How will we measure success? What are the costs? What revenue sources are possible?
This sidebar was written by Shawn Rolland, who is PR consultant for Northwestern Mutual. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the March 17, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.