Sun Life executives say the company has sold $2.5 billion in variable annuities as of the end of the 3rd quarter, up 64% from $1.5 billion for the same period a year earlier.

Sales were “up big time,” observes Wes Thompson, president of Sun Life Financial U.S., Wellesley Hills, Mass., part of Sun Life, Toronto. “Historically, we had not been successful in the VA market.”

Part of the reason for the surge in sales has been defections of wholesalers and producers from other annuity manufacturers whose credit ratings have tumbled, Thompson notes. “We started with a low base but were not caught up in the fire storm of a year ago and stayed above the fray,” he said, referring to the damage done to the fiscal standings of other VA manufacturers by the financial crisis.

So far this year, Sun Life U.S. has hired 43 new wholesalers, many who had lost faith in VA providers they previously had been dealing with.

“In all cases, we’ve been attracting their best,” Thompson says.

Meanwhile, Sun Life’s new corporate-image campaign is succeeding at the company’s goal of building awareness of the company here in the states.

“We have tremendous name recognition in Canada, but in the U.S., where we’ve been for over 100 years, consumer awareness of us had been almost non-existent,” says Terrence Mullen, president of Sun Life Financial Distributors.

The company had wide awareness among financial advisors but wanted to build recognition among consumers, Mullen said. “The campaign is the first step in introducing our company to a broader audience.”

The heart of its new campaign, Get to Know Sun Life, is a series of TV commercials that are airing on college and National Football League games and in a “Frozen Fenway” event planned for Fenway Park in Boston this winter, featuring an ice rink, an NHL game and college football.

The campaign is supplemented with print ads, a Web site and “viral videos.”

Like its VA sales, Sun Life’s new campaign has benefited from the recession, Mullen says.

Due to reduced advertising and marketing by businesses in general, the company’s ads have been getting higher-than-expected attention, he says. The costs of commercials have been down due to low advertising volume experienced by TV networks.

“The recession has had an upside for us in getting heard and in value,” Mullen says.

Thanks to the campaign, the company’s Web site has totaled about 300,000 visits and is totaling about 7 times a day what the site has seen previously, he reports