On the Way to the Auction Block AIA Launches Aggressive Ad Campaign

AIG Unit Faces Strong Competition From Local Players PingAn and China Life While Battling Subprime Crisis

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AIA's financial problems were triggered by the subprime crisis last year
AIA's financial problems were triggered by the subprime crisis last year
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SHANGHAI (AdAgeChina.com) -- Despite uncertainty about its own future, American International Assurance (AIA), the Asian life insurance unit of financially devastated American International Group (AIG), is launching an aggressive advertising campaign to grow its business in China.

A campaign called "Future" showcases various aspirations for the future held by Chinese consumers. Advertising created by Bates 141 broke this week in TV, digital print and outdoor media.

Media planning and buying for the campaign was handled by Carat, recently appointed in China following a pitch against the incumbent, Omnicom Group's PHD, and Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann.

The size of the account was not disclosed but in 2008 Hong Kong-based AIA spent $15 million on media in China, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The mainland remains a key market despite the company's enormous financial troubles--and could end up being its salvation.

The international insurance provider's problems were triggered last year, when the need to repay a five-year, $60 billion government loan nearly caused its collapse. In 2008, the U.S. government bailed out AIG twice and now owns 80% of the troubled insurer.

To repay part of the federal bailout that has grown to roughly $150 billion, AIG has been scouring the world, and mainly North Asia, for buyers to take over AIA's various units.
AIA campaign developed by Bates 141 and Carat
AIA campaign developed by Bates 141 and Carat
AIA has focused its efforts on China. Thanks to strict government controls, the mainland now has some of the most stable and liquid financial institutions in the world--a plus since AIG has valued its assets at roughly $20 billion.

With 20 million policyholders in Asia, AIA is the largest international life insurer in the region. Last year, it made an operating profit of about $2 billion.

Earlier this month, the Bank of China (BOC) emerged as the front runner among local banks to bid for AIA's assets, apparently with the blessing of the Chinese government.

Other possible buyers for AIA include China Life, the world's largest insurer, as well as HSBC Group, Prudential Financial, ManuLife Financial and Allianz of Germany. A formal auction is expected to take place in the next few weeks.

Although a BOC takeover now appears unlikely, a deal in China would be an ironic ending for AIG. The company was founded in Shanghai by an American entrepreneur named C.V. Starr in 1919, and is the only major American corporation that traces its roots directly to China.

AIG was also the first foreign insurer to return to China. It was granted a license in 1992 to operate a wholly-owned, non-life and life insurance business in Shanghai. It quickly set up additional branches in other cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

AIA offered 11 kinds of insurance services in China by 2000, and pioneered the introduction of professional life insurance operations there, including management information systems and professional underwriting.

It was the first insurance company to introduce an auto pay system for premium payments, the first to develop a bank draft system for insurance company payments, and the first to introduce professional examinations to help educate and train insurance company staff in China.

AIA has intensified its expansion in the mainland in recent years, after China became a full member of the World Trade Organization. It is now the largest international insurance company by far, dominating rivals such as ING Group and AXA Insurance, and China is one of the strongest parts of its global operation.

Although foreign companies have been granted greater access to its financial services sector, China is still a tough market for foreign firms. Local players such as PingAn and China Life dominate an insurance market that is largely driven by sales based on personal relationships.

If AIA survives the global financial crisis, its biggest challenge in China will be to differentiate its brand in an industry where many products are fairly standard.

"We need to build on a long history of trust and quality and translate that history into a belief and confidence in the future. This is, essentially, the underlying premise of insurance itself," said Seth Grossman, managing director, eastern China at Carat in Shanghai.


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