Lee Schafer
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The financial services company Thrivent has handed out about 7 million T-shirts in the past five years that say “Live Generously” on the front, usually with a big heart image that happens to be the old corporate logo.

Consumers with no idea what this Thrivent organization even is would have to assume they were looking at another T-shirt encouraging a better way to live, kind of like those produced for the Life is Good brand.

And many consumers really did think that, Thrivent CEO Terry Rasmussen said.

The company has learned in its market research that people either loved Thrivent or had never heard of it. And yet, even those who thought well of the company couldn’t really say what it did beyond supporting charities.

That’s part of the explanation behind a new marketing campaign that’s just getting started to build more awareness of Thrivent as a financial services business that remains interested in helping people live a life of greater purpose. That’s why the T-shirts aren’t going away; just being redesigned to fit the new look.

As we say in Minnesota, it could be worse than being known for giving away money or turning out volunteers. It sure beats having Wells Fargo’s recent marketing challenge.

Thrivent, just moving into a new headquarters in Minneapolis this year, has long been intriguing as a local Fortune 500 company in financial services that doesn’t quite sell the traditional promise of making more money or feeling more secure.

“We are not going to be the ‘What’s your number?’ company,” Rasmussen said. “We are going to be the ‘What’s important to you?’ company.”

Thrivent is a fraternal benefit organization that exists to support members who share something in common. Not that long ago, Thrivent broadened its mission to serve all Christians rather than only Lutherans. And it’s still a business that wants to grow.

Investor-owned financial services firms have launched some iconic campaigns, like Merrill Lynch pitching growth and optimism through its use of a bull and Prudential selling the certainty of life insurance by using the Rock of Gibraltar.

More typical is the recent RBC Wealth Management campaign for the U.S. unit of the Royal Bank of Canada. It launched its first national ad campaign a couple of years ago around the tag line of “Strengthening your financial security.”

Strength, security, optimism: These are all good things to pitch when proposing to manage someone’s money or sell them a life insurance contract. What Thrivent is selling, though, is the notion that money is just a tool for making a better life, not some sort of a goal of life.

The first of the ads released in the $35 million campaign, put together when the pandemic was already making it difficult to film live actors for advertising, was an animation that asked simply “What are you invested in?”

If the answer is “mutual funds,” maybe there’s a different way to think about your money.

This campaign is not a radical departure for Thrivent, more of a refinement in message, although one thing that’s new is that there is a big ad campaign at all. Rasmussen said Thrivent’s financial advisers have been asking for advertising at least since she joined the company 15 years ago.

One priority in a new approach was ensuring that they could effectively serve younger people, the millennials and the generation following behind, which pollsters have found to be far more interested in living a purposeful life.

Rasmussen, CEO for not quite two years, said the campaign developed following a recent planning process at Thrivent, where executives and managers discussed the company’s purpose, promise and principles.

The purpose for Thrivent came “very quickly,” Rasmussen said, but the promise part, what the company exists to do for its customers, took longer. And the answer finally was all about helping people find financial clarity.

“And it just clicked for us,” she said. “That’s what we can uniquely do now for those we are serving.”

As Rasmussen defined it, clarity is pretty much as it sounds. It means helping people gain a much deeper understanding not only of how much money might have saved, or maybe the real risk if becoming ill and being unable to work, but how their money could help lead to what clients have identified as their purpose in life.

Rasmussen served for years on the board of the InFaith Community Foundation, the charitable arm for Thrivent’s financial advisers and their clients, where she saw how meaning and gratitude could develop with people who would never think of themselves as rich.

“Every February we would pick a location and we’d go visit donors,” she said. “And every time, I would sit next to a donor, and it could be a retired pastor, could be a retired schoolteacher, but they would always share how they never, ever thought that they could be philanthropists. And here they were, they were philanthropists. And it gave them great joy.”

The new campaign talks about what Thrivent does, too, promoting its investment funds and investment expertise, to fill in the story for those who may not really know Thrivent.

Yet it’s still fascinating to see the words Thrivent chose for the last images in its new advertising:advice, investments, insurance, banking and then generosity.

The first captures the preferred way the company wants Thrivent’s members to receive its services, then three that simply describe categories of financial products it sells.

Then there is still that key word at the end to remind people that there are benefits in living generously.

lee.schafer@startribune.com • 612-673-4302