How to build lasting and valuable customer relationships via a paid, owned and earned strategy

How can a brand go from being the most recognised in its category to winning consumers’ hearts? That was the challenge faced by AustralianSuper.

Originally published by Henry Stewart Publications, The Journal of Brand Strategy, 10(3) on 1 January 2022.

How can a brand go from being the most recognised in its category to winning consumers’ hearts? That was the challenge faced by AustralianSuper.

While Australia’s largest superannuation (pension) fund was clearly outperforming the market, AustralianSuper’s ‘voice of customer insights’ revealed an emotional connection to the brand was not increasing at the same rate as rational drivers.


For us, this posed an opportunity, particularly in light of Binet and Field’s findings that emotional campaigns yield stronger long-term effects. Paramount to the project’s success was a focus on consumer intent and market orientation that would leverage AustralianSuper’s existing work and meld current and new inputs. This meant designing a customer-led paid, owned and earned (POE) strategy that would monetise emotion to reach more people within the target market, while differentiating, building salience and, ultimately, increasing sales and profit.


A ‘brand experience map’ methodology was used to correlate data against the digital consumer journey and sales funnel, ultimately unlocking insights to optimise POE tactics. The goal was to arrive at a set of emotional territories that AustralianSuper could begin to ‘own’, winning hearts and minds and deepening the relationship between accumulating super and its purpose — to enable people to live their best retirement.

The winning formula

From the minute we open our eyes each morning, we are bombarded with infor­mation, with as many as 10,000 advertise­ments a day vying for our interest. So, it is little wonder, that attention has become one of our scarcest commodities and fiercest marketing battlegrounds. 


The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute found that 84 per cent of television advertising does not get noticed or remembered1 so how do we make ourselves seen — and heard — in today’s attention economy? 


Companies that consistently increase profit and market share, such as Unilever, Santander, Procter & Gamble and Nike, have successfully transitioned from ‘trying to stay relevant’ to ‘being top of mind by cutting through the sameness and building salience. 


In addition to their significant paid spend, this is achieved by providing gen­uine utility, leading conversations, creat­ing communities and speaking with both authority and audience-led purpose across owned and earned channels. 


So how can a brand ‘win’ consumer hearts and minds like these big hitters have? The answer lies in having a sophisti­cated paid, owned and earned (POE) mar­keting strategy that is perpetually focused on customers and that balances brand building, acquisition and retention.

AustralianSuper cartoon image man holding a big phone and a woman sitting on a coin
AustralianSuper is Australia’s largest superannuation fund, with more than 2.3 million members, AUD $200bn in member assets and offices in Australia, Beijing, London and New York. It is run only to profit members.

Striking the right balance

The brands that ‘win’ typify the thinking of the ‘godfathers of effectiveness’: Les Binet and Peter Field. In their ground­breaking 2013 book, The Long and the Short of It, for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), they validate the importance of balancing long-term brand building with short-term activation.2


More recently, their IPA publication Marketing Effectiveness in the Digital Era3 continues to build on their research with key evidence-based findings that include the following: 

Enhancing a $250-billion (AUD) brand

AustralianSuper is Australia’s largest super­annuation fund, with more than 2.3 million members, AUD $200bn in member assets and offices in Australia, Beijing, London and New York. It is run only to profit members. 


Like many category leaders, it is deter­mined to continue growing while also evolving its strategy to better serve cus­tomers’ needs and, in the process, retain its mantle as the most recognised super brand in the market.


The company’s core purpose is to grow members’ retirement balances — or pen­sion, as it is commonly known interna­tionally — and provide them with their best possible retirement outcomes. 


And on paper it clearly outperforms the competitors: It is ranked number one for long-term investment returns,4 has been recognised as the most trusted super fund in Australia for the past eight years5 and, importantly, has been one of the few funds in Australia to deliver a positive annual return during the COVID-19 pandemic.6


More than 35 per cent of the 400,000 people who joined the Fund in 2020 cited reputation and a strong brand as their number one motivation,7 while leader­ship and ethics were named as its strongest attributes by large businesses choosing it for their employees.8


Despite its enviable track record, how­ever, AustralianSuper’s brand and market insights revealed that emotional drivers were not increasing at the same rate as rational drivers (Figure 1).9


This posed both an issue and an oppor­tunity, particularly in the light of Binet and Field’s findings that emotional cam­paigns yield stronger long-term effects and are more profitable, particularly over a longer time frame.

Charts featuring Rational Brand Reputation and Emotional Prife for AustralianSuper and Competitor Funds
Figure 1: Charts taken from AustralianSuper’s brand and market diagnosis tracker, 2019. They show the rational and emotional drivers recorded for AustralianSuper vs competitor pension funds in Australia and show that emotional drivers were lower.

Letting the customer lead the way

Part of the challenge for the superannu­ation industry in Australia is connecting people in their working lives to their retirement years. Throughout your working life, a com­pulsory direct contribution scheme pay­ment is made by your employer into a chosen super fund, with the aim of build­ing up enough savings to support you financially in retirement. In Australia, this is currently mandated at 9.5 per cent of a worker’s gross wage. While this means the majority of the population has ‘super’,10 customer insights show that many people — particularly when retirement is not imminent — fail to see it as a large financial asset that will support their future lifestyle. 


The challenge presented to us was how to help the Fund iden­tify emotional territories that would strengthen its brand voice and tangibly link back to purpose and products and drive commercial outcomes. Tackling this disconnect to start build­ing a long-lasting connection between people and their money necessitated, reviewing the brand value proposition and looking at areas that could create differen­tiation in a crowded marketplace.


Paramount to the project’s success was a focus on consumer intent and market orientation — not just business intent — that would build on existing work and meld current and new inputs, rather than starting from scratch. 

This customer-centric thinking is not new. 

Dr Philip Kotler detailed the evolution of marketing — from selling to creating value — in 1967, and his definition still sums it up best: ‘Marketing is the science and art of exploring, creating, and deliv­ering value to satisfy the needs of a tar­get market at a profit. Marketing identifies unfulfilled needs and desires’. 


Dr Kolter’s thinking is more relevant today than ever. You must start with the customer and fully understand their pain points, as opposed to starting with a prod­uct or sales-first mentality. In order to leverage unfulfilled needs and desires, particularly through owned and earned channels, you must story tell in a way that talks to rational and func­tional pain points, rather than focusing on segmentation and data. 


In terms of AustralianSuper, this meant designing a strategy that was entirely member first. The goal was to arrive at a distinct set of narrative territories, led by emotion, that the fund could begin to ‘own’. By deepening the relationship between accumulating super and its future purpose, and positioning AustralianSuper as the best fund to help members live their best retirement, the Fund would be uniquely positioned to win the hearts and minds of consumers. 

Adding value to the conversation

Focused territories help create distinc­tiveness in brand voice, and go above and beyond advertising. They determine where a brand can add value to the con­versation and, most importantly, where it can lead conversations that are strategi­cally important to its positioning. 


In this case, it meant making superan­nuation resonate beyond just a mandatory payment.


The opportunity was to identify where to add value to the conversation about super in order to deepen the Fund’s rela­tionship with consumers — and, ulti­mately, drive greater brand awareness and salience. This led to some bold territories, with the goal of:

The emotional territories needed to ensure that AustralianSuper could better leverage the power of owned and earned channels to reach more people within its target market, while also differentiating, building brand salience, improving media spend, monetising through an integrated marketing strategy and ecosystem to grow the Fund and realising scale benefits for members.


This focus on owned and earned is essential, especially when you factor in Binet and Field’s findings, which show that campaigns including owned online media are 13 per cent more likely to report very large business effects than those that do not, while those with earned media see an increase of 26 per cent.

Mapping the brand experience

The ‘brand experience map’ methodol­ogy works by correlating data against the digital consumer journey and sales funnel, ultimately unlocking customer insights to optimise POE marketing with tactics such as television creative, performance mar­keting and content.

From a customer perspective, this approach blueprints how their connection is established with the brand, its channels, events and partners in ways and moments that make sense to them.

This meant benchmarking Australian Super’s content marketing maturity and putting in place a plan that would accel­erate the Fund’s owned media sophistica­tion — a critical step to ensure long-term success, given that a large part of a brand’s ability to monetise and scale is determined by how effectively it integrates its POE channels (Figure 2).

Content marketing benchmark diagram by Ubiquity Lab
Figure 2: The most important first step to accelerate owned media sophistication is to benchmark your capability and pinpoint exactly where you sit on the road to achieving content marketing utopia

Finding the nexus between emotion and content

Synthesis was required to establish a cohe­sive, interconnected approach that would complement and extend the work of everyone involved, and allow the research to be guided by AustralianSuper’s 34 inter­nal stakeholders across 12 teams — brand, acquisition, retention, segmentation, SEO, content, digital and corporate affairs, to name a few. 


A workshop to map the teams’ activity started to create an overarching visual of the brand’s interconnectivity, highlight­ing where specific commercial outcomes could be aligned, which target segments would enable that and where there was clear air from both direct and indirect competitors. 


The brand experience map crystal­lised which areas presented the strongest opportunity, such as the advocacy work on gender inequality and the gender pay gap. The opportunity for the Fund was to highlight its achievements in the space, which extended from assisting individ­ual members through content and digital assets to addressing issues within the super industry and supporting change in policy and legislation. 


The insights also allowed the dissec­tion of the Fund’s competitors, from both outside its own category — thus giving a critical consumer perspective — and different categories, such as banks and financial planners, which might directly compete in the financial security space. This synthesis allowed all data points to converge, creating a set of hypothesis nar­ratives that connected back to customer interests and existing proof points and business objectives. 


By using this method to find the nexus of what the customer actually cares about, you reveal where your voice can have the biggest impact — all mapped to key stra­tegic imperatives and commercial drivers.

Using data to unlock intent

Search data is like a truth serum, a purview into what consumers want at different stages of the journey. In order to make data-led decisions, you need to understand the true intent of what people are search­ing for online. 

The consumer journey is not linear, and you have to maximise all touchpoints to influence the various stages of the cus­tomer journey — whether that is cus­tomer acquisition or retention. 

At the top of the funnel, it is about unpacking the ‘life stages’ that prompt someone to search for a solution — whether it is information, advice, a prod­uct, industry or service. This ‘trigger’ often will not correlate to your brand, but it will spark research and discovery, so the oppor­tunity is to provide utility and begin nur­turing the customer and capturing data. 


Off the back of the AustralianSuper workshop, more than 13,000 keywords were dissected and categorised, up to four times each — more than 50,000 data points. This started to reveal category clus­ters that could be mapped to each phase of the customer — and sales — journey. 


Sorting data in this way also serves to reveal your competitors for attention, and not just within your category, and helps you dissect what you can and cannot ‘own’ from an organic perspective. When overlayed with its owned data this helped AustralianSuper validate and evolve the territories developed during the workshop (Figure 3). 

data graph featuring intent-led emotional territories by Ubiquity Lab
Figure 3: A sophisticated, data-led strategy enables you to create content that delivers sustainable, tangible business returns. This diagnosis should be informed by key qualitative and quantitative insights, as well as business priorities.

Unveiling the key insights

The Fund knew that navigating super was not easy for consumers, but the data pin­pointed where it needed to focus, both holistically and to evolve its communica­tion at a more granular level. Some of the resources and revelations were as follows: 

The data also revealed significant con­sumer interest in key themes the Fund already focused on, such as gender ine­quality and the gender pay gap. It went even deeper, however, by highlighting consumer behaviour; it revealed the con­sumer’s complete journey, right from the start. This meant that rather than honing in on what it thought the majority of people wanted to know, the Fund was empowered to target niche audiences, for greater effect. 


The data’s revelations so aligned with the company’s ethos that it helped to cement a set of a core territories. That led to the next step of exploring what emotionally rich content and broader engagement looked like, in order to start building a deeper connection and engaging members beyond just performance and strong returns. 

Reaching the core narrative

The insights could now be leveraged to develop emotional territories based on customer intent.


Analysing what people were searching for led to the creation of more nuanced customer conversations via content mar­keting and other activities at every stage of the marketing funnel. 


In turn, this led to the creation of four discrete territories, all straddled by the overarching theme of navigating super. 


These territories and narratives act as guide rails, focusing the brand’s creativity and aligning outcomes for greater market impact across the business (Figure 4). 

These were conversations Australian Super wanted to own and lead, given that they would positively impact members — existing and new — and extend and strengthen the brand’s purpose.

This process helped the brand to think beyond customer data (head), and shone a light on areas into which it could dive deeper (heart) by presenting stories and information to its audience that would resonate and grow the brand, thereby driving greater salience and building that emotional connection it was missing. 


Using data insights in this way builds a more rounded and stronger voice for brands, leading to an increase in trust and, in turn, helping the brand’s sales and marketing teams and its overall commercial objectives. 

Adding equity to the equation

A number of systemic issues relating to women’s participation in the workforce contribute to many women currently retiring with less super savings than men. In fact, on average, women work in lower paid occupations, are paid 14 per cent less than men, take more time out of the workforce for carer responsibilities, are more likely to work part time and retire with 42 per cent less super.11


This is an issue that AustralianSuper is passionate about and where it has the authority to lead when it comes to super and retirement outcomes. 

The challenge was, how to get women — especially parents, single women and women with intermittent work patterns (the most vulnerable segment) — to con­nect to their super and take financial con­trol of their future? 

In order to drive emotional connection, AustralianSuper needed to focus on a spe­cific part of its customer base. Targeting the term ‘women’ in its messaging was, how­ever, too broad and, ultimately, pretty use­less. Equally, AustralianSuper’s messaging needed to be tailored to different life stages of women, with messaging that matched their experience, whether it was starting out in the workforce or starting a family.

Bringing the territory to life

While gender equity had long been an ‘always-on’ topic for AustralianSuper, it did not have an integrated approach and was not employing its work as a collective voice through POE channels.


To address the lack of connection in this area, it developed multiple owned assets to leverage in its marketing mix, from webinars to inform and educate to thought leadership articles from its execu­tive team.12 It also utilised existing content, such as a white paper created with a lead­ing university, entitled ‘The Future Face of Poverty is Female’,13 which explores the complex cultural, structural and eco­nomic reasons across women’s lives that can lead to superannuation poverty.


This territory focus helped to develop stronger cross-functional thinking, while focusing on simple, evergreen content assets was a time- and cost-effective way to start addressing the issue.


Importantly, this helped AustralianSuper build a sophisticated owned marketing strategy that could be equally atomised across multiple paid and earned channels, and extended to all users of the category — customers as well as non-customers.

Making content do the work for you

This singular focus on gender equity has enabled the brand to create multiple content assets and start building an authoritative voice, which is now recognised by search engines.


Building up organic traffic is essentially generating free leads, and AustralianSuper is doing this really well thanks to clear data.


The Fund is starting to rank on page one for terms such as ‘women and super’ and ‘gender and super’, and it is seeing mas­sive increases in the organic traffic coming through. This is a result of connected assets, and the focused voice that is emerging.


And this is a sustainable approach, with weight growing month on month as opposed to the instant decay of short-term activations.


The Fund’s brand and content teams work closely with SEO and digital mar­keting teams, so they know exactly what people are searching for. Their focus is going after discrete, intent-based searches, such as the gender pay gap with a super­annuation focus, rather than big generic keywords that already have massive vol­umes of competition.


This is pulling people into the Fund’s marketing ecosystem, where they are engaging with content. And while they are there, AustralianSuper is able to con­nect customers to their next best action, thereby nurturing their journey and mov­ing them deeper down the funnel, or towards tools or product pages.


Meanwhile, the insights that remain after the consumer has left provide a deeper layer of data and enable far more effective performance marketing.


This is how AustralianSuper uses its content as the glue that builds data and provides insights, allowing it to engage and pull people into its marketing ecosystem. It is not the standalone answer, but when it is integrated with paid and earned and extends your broader marketing message, it is incredibly effective (Figure 5).


While it is still early in its journey, the Fund has seen brand, emotional connection and performance marketing efficiencies. It is also starting to see measurables in how content is contributing to increased Net Promoter Score (NPS) and is leveraged across POE channels.


This approach to the consumer jour­ney is now leading AustralianSuper’s brand content focus, and is not only help­ing teams listen to their audience, but also ensure the Fund is truly heard.

Graphic framework of content performance marketing by Ubiquity Lab
Figure 5: Data and content is the lynchpin that enables you to ‘pull’ people into your marketing ecosystem.


  1. BBH LABS [Internet]. (2017, December 4) ‘Most marketing is bad because it ignores the most basic data’ (accessed 18th June 2021).
  2. Binet, L., and Field, P. (2013, June 11) ‘The long and the short of it: Balancing short and Long-term marketing strategies’, IPA, London.
  3. Binet, L., and Field, P. (2017, October 16) ‘Media in focus: Marketing effectiveness in the digital era’, Thinkbox (accessed 18th June 2021).
  4. Number 1 performing super fund over 7, 10, 15 and 20 years. Based on the AustralianSuper Balanced investment option compared to the SuperRatings Fund Crediting Rate Survey — SR50 Balanced (60–76) Index, periods to 31 July 2021. Returns from equivalent investment options of the ARF and STA super funds are used in calculating returns for periods that begin before 1 July 2006. Investment returns are not guaranteed. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future returns.
  5. Trusted Brands Australia. (2021) (accessed 18th June 2021).
  6. SuperRatings. (2020, December 31) ‘Fund crediting rate survey: SR50 balanced (60–76) index’ (accessed 18th June 2021).
  7. AustralianSuper. (2020) ‘Voice of customer direct join survey’ (accessed 18th June 2021).
  8. AustralianSuper. (2020, September) ‘Business relationship study’, Jumbo Business (accessed 18th June 2021).
  9. AustralianSuper. (2019) ‘Brand and market diagnosis tracker’, (accessed 18th June 2021).
  10. Rice Warner, Rice. (2020, June 30) ‘Super projections report’, (accessed 18th June 2021).
  11. Riach, K., O’Hare, C., Dalton, B., and Wang, C. (2021, June 18) ‘The future face of poverty is female: Stories behind Australian women’s superannuation poverty in retirement’, AustralianSuper and Monash University
  12. AustralianSuper. (2021, June 18) ‘Gender equality isn’t tokenism’ (accessed 18th June 2021).
  13. Ibid., ref [11] above.
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