Union Benefit Life

THE CHALLENGE


In the early 1990s, Union Benefit Life, a newcomer in the student lending industry, began utilizing an outreach technique that had never been used before in the student finance arena: direct-to-consumer marketing. Unfortunately, while this technique proved very successful in generating loan applications, it strained the relationship between Union Benefit Life (UBL) and college Financial Aid Administrators, who were not used to lenders taking such a proactive approach to market loans. Within a year of UBL’s entry in the business, Financial Aid Administrators (FAAs) nationwide had begun a brutal campaign of criticism against the company, most notably on the FAA’s listserv, which featured email after email charging UBL with misleading advertising and deceptive mail practices. UBL’s CEO contacted Fabrizio Balestri to help.

It’s important to note that UBL was not doing anything wrong—they were getting the word out about an important and highly viable loan product that benefited many families. They just needed to share their message more effectively.

At this point, Fabrizio had been in the student lending arena for several years, most prominently with national lender Sallie Mae. He was well known in the industry, and received a significant amount of criticism for leaving such a reputable organization to join UBL.

He knew he had to act quickly to turn around the industry’s perception of this dynamic organization.

THE SOLUTION


First, Fabrizio set out to teach the employees and management at UBL about the student loan industry—a very complex system of interdependent groups. Then, he began a personal outreach campaign, contacting schools to explain his purpose in joining UBL, and advising them of upcoming changes to the mail UBL was sending to families. He attended industry meetings and put a face to the name of “UBL”, explaining the company’s position and reiterating its desire to work well with all industry parties. It was not always easy, and it was slow going—clearly, he needed to take efforts to the next level.

Fabrizio decided to invite a few well known Financial Aid directors to come to UBL and speak with management. These were contacts he’d developed over time, and they agreed to meet with UBL and learn what the organization was trying to do in its outreach efforts to families. In return, they shared their perspectives with UBL on how to communicate better with both schools and parents. This meeting was the beginning of UBL’s first Advisory Board, which allowed UBL to make enormous strides in gaining school and FAA support, while crafting direct to consumer marketing campaigns that were clear, accurate, and highly successful.

THE OUTCOME


Within eighteen months, UBL had repaired many of its relationships and were beginning to have industry partners call on them. UBL had remade itself into such a smart, savvy marketing company that when American Express announced its interest in piloting a student loan marketing company, UBL won the right to test a very tightly controlled marketing campaign under the American Express banner. American Express valued school opinion highly, and the UBL Advisory Board continued to give outstanding input as the company took on this new challenge. With the Board’s insight and Fabrizio’s guidance, management at UBL decided to reform the organization as a new student loan company, Educational Funding Company, and bring on school representatives to launch a marketing channel that worked directly with schools.

In less than two years, Fabrizio’s work with UBL had resulted in a new name, a new business, a new direct marketing approach, the beginning of a school channel, the industry’s first Advisory Board, and a winning proposal that created outstanding results for American Express’ pilot student loan marketing program. Shortly thereafter, Educational Funding Company was successfully sold to American Express.

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