A 7-Step Guide to Brand Transformation

The Little Tugboat that Could: How Sunnie Giles Helped Transform Samsung Life


Now VP of Strategic Marketing Consulting at Experian, Sunnie Giles tells the story of her efforts to help transform Samsung Life Insurance from a sleepy giant to a national juggernaut with both pride and awe. Listening to the story, I couldn’t help but think of her as an intrepid tugboat artfully turning around a recalcitrant yet enterprising aircraft carrier. Though her journey with Samsung Life began in late 2003 and ended in late 2006, her 7-step approach is timelessly instructive to any marketer as it helped part the waters for the biggest IPO in Korean history just last week.


1. Know thy Enemy

When Sunnie first started at Samsung Life, the company was essentially in dry dock, resting on its #1 market position and requiring much more than a fresh coat of paint.  Noted Giles, “it needed rejuvenation from the lack of clarity on what it stood for and a lack of relevance to important segments.” Foreign competitors like MetLife and Prudential were stealing share by offering new services like estate planning, and according to Sunnie, “cherry picking our best, most affluent customers.” To overcome these new forces in the market place, Sunnie realized that marketing was going to have to find a new tack, one based in the findings of objective research. “We knew we were losing share,” noted Ms. Giles, “but we didn’t know which direction to take.”

2. Beware the Prevailing Winds

Implementing a carefully charted course of both quantitative and qualitative research, Sunnie was able to confront the prevailing wisdom at her company that the “image of stability” was the single most important purchase driver. Using the qualitative research to identify 106 possible drivers, the quantitative results served up the astounding possibility that “hair style” and “how agents dress” could be the beacons of success. Knowing that management might scoff at such findings, Sunnie dived deeper and discovered that these attributes pooled together into the new wave of “professionalism” brought on by Samsung’s foreign rivals.

3. Coordinate with the Captain


Back in 2003, Sunnie waited outside her CEO’s office armed with case studies, hoping to gain his support for a transformative marketing program. A passionate man himself, Mr. Bae Joong Chung, listened for an hour and then asked what Sunnie would need to be successful. Her three wishes, “people, budget and the CEO’s support,” were granted after Sunnie offered her own extraordinary commitment. “I bet my career, offering to resign without severance if I failed,” noted Ms. Giles with a hint of pride. She was also able to secure support of other key senior executives such as Mr. Park Chun Hyun, the astute EVP of Strategic Planning, who shared her vision. From then on, Ms. Giles had the wind at her back and the confidence that dissenting currents from other departments could be over-powered.

4. Set the Course

Once Sunnie’s research revealed that a one-point lift in perception of professionalism correlated to a double digit revenue increase, the course was fairly clear for Samsung Life. “On a scale of 1 to 5, we were quite low which meant we had a lot of upside,” added Ms. Giles. “I wanted to make sure that marketing was aligned with the goals of the CEO,” said Ms. Giles, offering up one of the true secrets to her success. The focus on improving professionalism across the organization began with a simple yet profound promise, “A Partner for Life.” Establishing the brand platform, defining the brand essence and brand attributes on both emotional and rational levels and developing communication architecture, Ms. Giles mapped out how Samsung Life would transform itself over coming years.

5. Train the Troops

While marketers have a tendency to focus on managing perceptions, Sunnie also had her eye on what she calls “reality management.” “We needed to make sure that the idea of professionalism permeated the organization,” and this meant training all 35,000 of their independent sales reps to ensure perception communicated with the new brand strategy aligned with the reality of what customers experienced at various touch points. Channel partners established mandatory training courses on estate and financial planning. Noting that the sales reps were perceived as “too casual,” the company also suggested new standards for appearance, going so far as to arrange for discounts at appropriate clothing stores. Similar deals were set up with beauty salons that coincided with a “make-over” contest, challenging sales reps to get their appearance in ship shape.


6. From Bow to Stern

This brand transformation didn’t stop with the sales reps. “A Partner for Life” imagery appeared in 2,000 Samsung Life offices and on all the company buses. Employee uniforms included the campaign line and the new brand colors. Internal seminars broadcast over satellite ran for 20 minutes every day for three months, ensuring every employee understood and could live up to this new standard of professionalism. Brand champions were identified and encouraged to advocate the new position across the organization. Even the HR department joined the effort, being asked to recruit with an eye towards “professionalism” and train with a new sense of passion.

7. A 360° Turnaround

In early 2006, Samsung Life introduced its new campaign by wrapping the outside of its corporate headquarters in Seoul with pictures provided by 9000 customers. The banner proclaimed “A Partner for Life” and launched an ad campaign that reintroduced Samsung Life to Koreans with a marketing tsunami. Within a year, purchase intent rose nine basis points, coinciding with a jump to the number one spot in customer satisfaction – a position they’ve maintained over the last four years. Sales also rose significantly, reflecting the depth and breadth of this 360° marketing campaign, enterprise-wide efforts of all the employees and independent agents as well as the incredible passion of the extraordinary “tugboat” behind this deft brand transformation. Added Ms. Giles with notably humility, “I couldn’t have done it without the support and vision of the senior leaders and the strong teamwork culture of the entire company.”

Final note: I met Sunnie recently at The CMO Club’s Leadership Summit where she told me this story. Sunnie continues to apply her “analytics-based approach” in her capacity as VP Strategic Marketing Consulting at Experian, helping her clients to use the power of analytics and quantitative decision making to develop powerful marketing strategies and improve ROI. Small in stature, have no doubt, she is a marketing powerhouse.

About the author

Drew is the founder of Renegade, the NYC-based social media and marketing agency that helps inspired B2B and B2C clients cut through all the nonsense to deliver genuine business growth. A frequent speaker at ad industry events, Drew’s been a featured expert on ABC’s Nightline and CNBC