What You Can Learn From AIG's 'Thank You America' Misfire

Experts: Be Wary of Disconnect Between Communications Strategy, Brand Management

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AIG's recent ad campaign, "Thank You America," could have been a perfect hit if it wasn't for a major communication faux pas.

The insurance company's ads launched Dec. 31 with the hope to regain the trust of Americans and prove it had gotten its business back in order following the financial crisis and the resulting government bailout. "One of the things that AIG recognizes is that the impact of the economic crisis on people has been significant," said Ann Green, senior partner at Millward Brown. Many taxpayers also continue to associate AIG with the excesses that led to the financial crisis, more than four years after they rescued the company with a $182.3 billion bailout. Several Congressmen recently characterized AIG as the "poster child" for Wall Street greed, fiscal mismanagement and excessive executive bonuses.

To rebuild brand trust, the campaign featuring real AIG employees thanking Americans for their support during the financial crisis needed to forge an emotional connection with a wary public still feeling the effects of the economic crisis. According to Mrs. Green, the TV spots were right on the mark. "The ads are well executed and tap into the fears and angst of people," she added.

But the real challenge came when AIG announced a week later that its board would consider joining a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that shareholders didn't receive fair compensation when the company was bailed out. The board decided the next day against joining the litigation but the damage was done. "The hiccup with the lawsuit issue stole a great deal of the thunder from the ad," said Bruce Haynes, managing partner of Purple Strategies, a corporate communications and branding management company. "For a moment, it seems they were awash in hypocrisy. Although they made a good decision not to back the lawsuit, it was a communication failure."

Neither AIG nor Partners & Simons agency, which handled the campaign, were available to comment on the story, but experts see a revealing disconnect between communications strategy and brand management at the company. "I think they are dealing with a business model that's very siloed," said Ms. Green. "Everybody was working well independently, but the entire experience was not consistent." For a company to be efficient if conveying a strong brand message, she said, it needs to live and breathe the brand at every stage of business, from advertising and marketing to investor relations and legal actions. It needs to embody a brand internally so it's conveyed in a consistent manner externally.

This disconnect isn't exclusive to AIG but is common in many financial-services companies, with the exception of some banks and credit-card companies, say branding experts. "Communication has to be driven horizontally to prevent these kinds of things from happening," said Mr. Haynes. "The ad in itself was well crafted and was going to be very effective at delivering the message that they had gone back up on their feet."

Indeed, AIG has done a good job at cleaning its balance sheet and restructuring the company in the past year. It repaid its federal loans and the U.S. Treasury exited its ownership position. AIG also sold life insurer AIA and is about to sell its ILFC airplane-leasing business. "These actions have simplified AIG's ownership and business model while strengthening the balance sheet and being highly accretive to company financials," wrote Morgan Stanley in a December research note. But the consideration of the lawsuit basically drained the power of that message.

Still, even without the litigation blunder, a single ad wouldn't have profoundly changed American perceptions linking to the financial crisis and its taxpayer bailout. Trust in the AIG brand will likely come back gradually, with the help of more well-executed ads. "Americans love to forgive and love the story of the second chance, but they need to see how the company's going to behave in the long term," said Mr. Haynes.

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