Thursday, October 24, 2013

Barack Obama, “Obamacare” and “Brand Experience” marketing

The bad marketing job that killed
the Ford Edsel is a tragic
historic milestone.
Will Obamacare be another?
President Obama may have seen to it that what is now called Obamacare became law, but he has flunked Marketing 101. The delivery system of The Affordabled Healthcare Act is so far a total flop. And not for lack of demand. The president forgot, or didn't know, that ordering and delivery are part of the marketing mix.

Once the bill passed, the president pretty much pulled back into his shell. He needed to be talking to the nation – constantly talking –  explaining how the plan would work, why it would work, why it was better for the nation than the lack of national healthcare we’ve had for all except Medicare and Medicaid recipients.

If you’re old enough to remember John F. Kennedy, think about how Kennedy would have talked up a prized bill, at frequentl intervals, with unforgettable and inspiring eloquence. 

Instead, we had the once eloquent ("Yes you can!") Barack Obama occasionally, and evidently without enthusiasm for the job, umm-ing and uh-ing his way through it, but only when he seemed to have no choice. Nor did he proceed, pedal to the metal, to prepare either the nation or the Internet for the arrival of the badly needed product that is Obamacare.

It’s a shame. Not only do huge numbers of Americans want the Affordable Care Act despite the President's less than spectacular sales job, but the Republicans did the President a great favor. They gave the Affordable Healthcare Act a memorably nifty brand name — Obamacare. For that, the President ought to send the Tea Party a thank you note. They inadvertently helped market affordable healthcare more than he did.

But a great brand name, and even some advertising, rarely sells anything unless every phase of the product lives up to the advertising. We used to have a saying on Madison Avenue, where I worked for over 45 years,  that nothing kills a bad product faster than a great ad.

The reason was simple, lots of people, moved by advertising, would buy a product in a hurry. If they didn’t like it the product they’d stop buying it in an equal hurry and the market would collapse.

Now it happens that Obamacare is a great product, with a few exceptions (such as the prices charged for it in rural areas due to lack of insurance company competition.) What sucks is the order and delivery system – tagged with the misnomer, “computer glitch.”

Mr. President, it’s not a glitch. It’s a massive fuckup. For the sake of good public relations you ought to acknowledge it as such and get on with the business of properly fixing it – and do the acknowledging sooner, rather than later. Trust in the brand, smooth ordering and flawless delivery are part of how people think of Obama care, too. And so is the opposite of smooth and flawless.

Imagine if, as the Christmas season approached, you couldn’t find Big Hugs Elmo,  one of the season’s most-wanted toys, in the stores. If you were a parent trying to make a child happy, and if your child, having been exposed to the advertising, was pining for a Big Hugs Elmo, you’d be mighty angry. You’d get angrier each day you got closer to Christmas and you were in danger of disappointing your offspring. Eventually, you might try to placate your child by saying, “Big Hugs Elmo’s no good anyway. Let’s get some ‘Despicable Me’ figures. Do you suppose they make a Ted Cruz figure?”

What the White House has forgotten is that consumers aren’t sold only by brands or the advertising for them. They’re sold by something called the “total brand experience” ­– any and every thing having to do with the brand that has touched their lives. If you get stuck in a phone tree for two hours trying to contact your cable company, you’ll hate that company's brand even if their cable carries great programs (which you can’t get) and offers cheap rates. Another cable company could easily lure you away.

President Obama, you’re soiling your own once-sterling healthcare brand, and you’re in danger of letting voters get lured away, over time, by Republicans. You need to do what a smart marketer would do when faced with a similar problem:

  1. Apologize to the nation for unexpected delivery problems and offer them the equivalent of a make-good. “We’re sorry most people haven’t been able to buy your Obamacare healthcare insurance yet, especially since it’s such great healthcare insurance. To put your mind at ease, we’ll delay the fines for non-compliance one day for each day a fully working, non-crashing system is delayed.”
  1. Stop the Silicon Valley “surge” nonsense. The implicit notion of, “Throw everything you’ve got in Silicon Valley into Washington" smacks of an old Leslie Nielsen movie gag. The last thing we need is a huge bunch of nerds with undefined or fuzzy technical assignments bumping into each other in Washington. Instead, what you need to do is recruit one Internet star with the technical knowledge, creativity, and proven organizational genius to figure out how to fix the problem. Maybe a Bill Gates. Maybe a Jeff Bezos. (And how I wish Steve Jobs were alive!) Conscript the right person, if necessary. Then stand back and let him or her figure out who else is needed — and how long it will take — to solve the mess and get the system operational.
  1. Kathleen Sebellus is a great Secretary of Health and Human Services. However, she’s a thoroughly lousy Secretary of Computer Network and Order System Construction. Take away her authority to oversee construction of the Obamacare Internet order system. Give that to Gates or Bezos. Leave Sebellus in charge of making sure we’re all inoculated against the flu.
  1. Also, don't even think about seeking out somebody to punish. Everybody at the top, including you Mr. President, is guilty ­­of taking on a project without the technical skills to follow through on it. That’s not a crime. It’s the ineptitude caused by inexperience. If you could forgive the Bush-era players who dragged us into Iraq instead of prosecuting them, you certainly can forgive the klutzes who don't know what it takes to get a health care system on line. Let's find somebody who knows how to do the job and then get out of their way.
Further, the job here is not to punish the inept or to cover up the ineptness. The task is to fix the system, get it on line, get people insured and save the brand before Obamacare goes the way of the Edsel.

Mr. President, you gave America a great healthcare insurance system. Please stop screwing it up. Fix the brand experience now.

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