Daily Thought: NTUC Income and Rebecca Lim's fake retirement

If you're someone who is tuned into Singapore's entertainment scene or the advertising space, by now you would have heard the fiasco surrounding Rebecca Lim's fake retirement. Long story short, the marketing department at NTUC Income decided that it would be a great idea to use Rebecca in their latest campaign. Nothing wrong about that. But instead of merely asking her to say something good about retirement planning, they decided to go one step further and ask Rebecca to stage a "fake" retirement to promote their company. And that was where everything went south.

NOT SO HAPPY NOW: Rebecca's "retirement" post

The NTUC Income folks probably thought that it would be a fun idea to prank the public (someone must have been watching a lot of YouTube prank videos, I guess), and people would laugh it off after finding out the truth. Unfortunately for them, it turns out that the public doesn't really like being deceived. Especially when it concerns a celebrity with a lot of fans.

Looking at how badly the drama unfolded, I can't help but wonder if the marketing peeps even have an execution plan in mind. What was supposed to happen after Rebecca announced her "retirement"? Will there be a series of videos/pictures/texts detailing the "retirement", with a big reveal in the end? Or does the campaign merely require Rebecca to just mention the word 'retire' in her Instagram post once and that's it? Is there even a clear goal in mind?

Either way, as the attention on the post grew, someone probably hit the panic button to avoid potential backlash, which then led to the reveal Rebecca isn't really retiring. It was all part of NTUC Income's marketing campaign. We all know how the controversy erupted from there, with numerous people pouring hate unto the campaign. Many accuse NTUC of running the campaign in bad taste, asking how can a company which is supposedly built on trust run a marketing gimmick to trick others. Even influencers like Mr Brown joined the condemnation, where he bashed both the artist and NTUC Income in a caps lock frenzy.

Someone in NTUC would probably need to pack up for this.

The prevailing question on everyone's mind, of course, is how on earth did such a campaign got approved in the first place? During the entire planning and discussion phase, wasn't dare anyone who dared voice out how potentially disastrous the campaign may be? Perhaps it's a consequence of groupthink, where everyone agreed with each other without wanting to be a cold water bucket.

Naturally, NTUC Income has gone into a crisis management mode now, organising a press conference to explain the situation and the rationale behind the campaign. Looking at their reply, however, it seems that they still don't really see what went wrong with this gimmick. NTUC Income's head of strategic communications, Ms Shannen Fong, in defending the choice of words, said that, "We wanted to introduce the concept of retiring as a journey. Therefore that word [referring to 'retiring'] was used. If you notice, we didn't say 'retiring' to what. It was very generic,"

It's like blaming us for misunderstanding the word.

As for myself, a more interesting question that I would like to ask is how could NTUC Income have marketed the campaign better, while keeping Rebecca and the storyline about "retiring"? Just as a thought exercise in online marketing.

For starters, the campaign could have revolved around a reality show format instead of a "prank". Rebecca should come clean in her first post, saying that in collaboration with NTUC Income, she would go through the experience of "retiring" for a week. Something along the line of, "Hey folks, are you planning on retirement yet? Did you know that retirement needs a lot of work bla bla bla... and for the next week I would try to experience the process of retirement to understand the importance of it."

NTUC Income could then release a series of pictures/videos over a week featuring Rebecca, trying out the different steps that one needs to take to buy insurance or having someone explain to her the importance of it. To make the pictures/videos less boring, there could also be a "What-if" scenario, where Rebecca would maybe act out a life of bad retirement planning (eg: having to borrow money from others, having not enough money to buy food etc). The videos/pictures could be entertaining as well as educational.

Granted, the reach would not be as high as this prank and there would be a lot more effort involved, but at least both sides get to walk away from this with their image still intact. As for NTUC, they can still get to use the videos/pictures for as long as they want to. There would certainly be less public anger and negativity associated with the both of them, not to mention future skepticism towards them.

Sadly, the damage has been done. The PR stunt may have been done in poor taste but it is a very good example that in the age of social media, marketing efforts go both ways. You cannot just do whatever you think it is good without taking into account what consumers feel. Social media users are not passive users of content, rather they react in their own way to it.

One good takeaway from this incident is that future marketing campaigns will need to be much more mindful in how they approach influencers to market their products. NTUC Income and Rebecca Lim are now the case study to illustrate this.


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