Launching the Persumma Financial Brand
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Launching the Persumma Financial Brand

In eight months, a five-person public relations team from Sterling Hager, Inc. (SHI) turned an unknown company, Persumma Financial, LLC, into a recognized player in the retirement services industry.

Paul Holmes


In eight months, a five-person public relations team from Sterling Hager, Inc. (SHI) turned an unknown company, Persumma Financial, LLC, into a recognized player in the retirement services industry.  This PR program is an award winner because in the first six months the client had no product, no customers and a business model that was designed to dramatically change a market characterized by consumer apathy and brand name competition.  Yet, in the five months after the corporate launch, the PR program generated over 700 highly qualified sales leads for Persumma through analyst briefings and nearly 100 editorial placements in publications such as Fortune, The New York Times, CBS Marketwatch, American Banker and The Financial Times, where the company was referenced as a player with Fidelity and Schwab.   

Persumma Financial is a Web-based, full-service 401(k) provider competing in a market dominated by Fidelity, Schwab and Putnam.  SHI was chartered with launching the company in this market as a member of the well-respected MassMutual Financial Group, but as an entirely new and separate entity.  Persumma was entering the market with a new business model for 401(k) service providers that was likely to aggravate established competitors – thereby increasing competitive threats – and that required significant education of an apathetic consumer audience.  The PR program was chartered with creating awareness and credibility for the new business model among industry insiders and consumers, generating highly qualified sales leads, and being positioned through placements in national trade, business and consumer publications as an “industry contender.” 

To meet its charter, the Persumma Financial public relations program faced four unique challenges: 

·         Initially “Under Cloak” – Given the competitive market and the need to keep the company, its backers and its product strategy secret, all initial outreach and research was conducted “under cloak.” In this three month period, the team was chartered with creating awareness about a new entrant into the market and securing future briefings without mentioning the Persumma name, the MassMutual affiliation and/or any of the specific ideas involved in the company’s future role in the retirement services industry;

·         Lack of Product and Customers – The corporate launch was timed to meet industry sales cycles and had to occur well in advance of product availability and customer references – a particular credibility challenge for an unknown, entirely new company;

·         The Competition – Persumma’s competition included well-funded household names such as Fidelity, Schwab and Putnam that together had significant consumer mind share in the 401(k) industry; and

·         Market Apathy – Research indicated that most 401(k) consumers were happy with current options and would likely be indifferent to the industry changes that Persumma advocated. 

Following up on the research portion of the program, the SHI team performed an in-depth strategic audit of retirement services editors from major publications including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, US News and World Report, Forbes, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and Fortune.  The audit, which took into consideration data and information from focus groups and market research, concentrated on industry trends (i.e., competitors, advisory Web sites, 401(k) history, pricing issues, etc.) and focused on determining how and if an unknown company, such as Persumma, could position itself and thrive in the 401(k) marketplace.  The team determined very early on that there would be interest if messaging was finely tuned.  The audit strategy gave Persumma several months of “breathing room” while the team worked under cloak to create a buzz among industry press and analysts.

The initial strategy laid out four messaging objectives that were later met by editorial placements.  These include:

·         Awareness and Mind Share - Generating awareness and initial mind-share among a combination of (15) targeted top tier industry analysts and business press (SHI secured briefings with the following analysts and publications: USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, US News and World Report; Fortune,, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Financial Times, Dallas Morning News, Baltimore Sun, The META Group, The Forrester Group, IDC and The Yankee Group);

·         Consumer Advocacy and the Transformation of Traditional Industry Systems - Communicating key messages of consumer advocacy and of the transformation of traditional industry systems to (15) predetermined industry media outlets and to establish Persumma as the innovative leader in the 401(k) of tomorrow (SHI secured placement in the following media outlets:  CBS,,,, Yahoo! Finance, The New York Times, Pension & Investments, InvestmentNews, American Banker, The Financial Times, Fortune, The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe and Plan Sponsor);

·         First-mover Advantage - Positioning Persumma as a company with first-mover advantage and the backing of key industry luminaries in a feature article/column of one top-tier national publication; (SHI secured placement of a Fortune article titled “A 401(k) Buffet Can be A Feast for All.”); and

·         Education - Educating potential sponsor and consumer clientele about current issues and the future of the 401(k) through placements in (10) 401(k)/retirement services-related publications (SHI secured placement in the following 401(k)/retirement services-related publications: Pensions & Investments, Yahoo! Finance, Employee Benefit Plan Review, Employee Benefit News, Plan Sponsor, The Financial Times, HR Executive Magazine, Managing Benefit Plans, 401(k), American Banker and

The SHI strategy relied on four key tactics:

“Under Cloak” Editorial Outreach – Outreach began much earlier than a traditional program would warrant to ensure that editorial coverage would occur in time to support the sales cycle.  It was conducted with the utmost discretion, as one slip could tip off competitors as to the timing and positioning of the launch;

Educating Industry – With no initial clientele and no product ready until Q4 2000, initial coverage was generated solely on the basis of the company’s business model and the ability of the team to educate analysts and editors about the need for industry change.  Most of the analysts and editors were seasoned authorities on the financial services industry and were skeptical as to the viability of a new business model;

Leveraging Industry Pundits – Given the competition, the SHI team convinced industry luminaries, such as Ted Benna, to participate in press and analyst briefings.  The team then used Persumma’s access to these individuals to increase exposure and credibility in the 401(k) marketplace; and

Positioning Persumma as Transforming the 401(k) Industry – SHI implemented a strategic thought leadership and positioning program that enabled company spokespeople to educate the industry on their evolutionary vision of 401(k).  The team worked with spokespeople to ensure that all positioning was positive rather than combative and oriented to consumers.  

Within a two-week period in late-July and early-August, working “under cloak,” Sterling Hager scheduled a corporate introduction tour and secured briefings with publications such as the Wall Street Journal, US News and World Report, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Forbes, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and Fortune, as well as major industry analysts at the META Group, Forrester Research, IDC and The Yankee Group.  Following the company’s initial launch, use of distinct angles led to coverage in publications including the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe,, Dallas Morning News, San Jose Mercury News and Seattle Times.  The positioning has also led to Persumma being prominently covered in industry trade publications including Pensions & Investments, InvestmentNews, American Banker, Financial Planning Magazine, HR Executive Magazine, Plan Sponsor Magazine and Employee Benefit Plan Review.
To date, Sterling Hager has secured nearly 100 editorial placements in business and trade publications nationwide.  Press coverage has been leveraged into six speaking engagements at industry conferences.  Public relations is an integral part of the company’s marketing campaign.  In fact, 19 highly qualified sales leads, several of which became customers, arose from the Fortune magazine article alone.  The Persumma sales force unanimously acknowledges that the Fortune piece is their most effective piece of sales collateral.  

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