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Its A Pity, But Doesnt Have To Be

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Pity the poor consumer. That phrase keeps running through my head when I see complicated insurance marketing materials cross my desk. The terminology and detail is pretty opaque, especially for people who have a hard time figuring out how insurance differs from, say, securities.

Consumers are not the only ones in the insurance food chain who need a little compassion on this score. Another group is the cadre of people who put all those daunting materials togetherthe marketing and public relations (PR) folks.

The marketing people perform not only market research and segmenting but also the product positioning, promoting, sales campaigns, etc. The PR folks zero in on promotion, media outreach and image development. Sometimes, professionals wear both hats. And both work (or try to work) with sales, advertising, legal, tech, management, public interest groups and a host of others who have a stake in the product.

Based on my experience, most marketing/PR people are bright, upbeat individuals endowed with innate ability to paint the big picture of a product and its landscape. They can talk endlessly on just about any topic, and they are always very busy “pulling things together,” as they like to say.

Why reserve a little compassion for these behind-the-scenes toilers in the field of product promotion? Because they, not unlike the end consumers, must continually translate technical, regulatory and legal nomenclature into something comprehensibleand its darned hard to do.

Sadly, the proof of the “hard to do” statement is in the pudding: Many people are baffled by the product brochures, bullet points and bar charts the companies put out. Not that the marketing/PR people intend to obfuscate. The problem is, they actually may be too successfuli.e., their materials communicate exactly what is there, which is a very complicated financial contract with lots of moving parts, legal terminology and compliance-approved language.

That is why they deserve compassion: They are tasked to turn dry dust into crystal clear water. They can use every jingle and tagline imaginable, but considering what they are working with, its a very tall order. Insurance products are a bear to simplify for comprehension by ordinary folk.

Ordinary folk, did I say? How about executives at major corporations or doctors in private practice? They scratch their heads right along with the moms shopping for school supplies at the local discount store. Huh? What does it say? How do I make a withdrawal? Where do I call to make a claim? Do I have to use the Internet for this?

Just so you know, I merit some compassion, too. At a community meeting not long ago, a pleasant, well-educated woman asked me what I do for a living. When I told her, she said: “Oh that must be awful!” Mystified, I asked why. “Well,” she said, “thats such a dry subject and no one understands it. How can you possibly write about something like that?” She was so convincing, I probably should have cried, just to let her know I felt her pain (or mine). Pity the poor insurance journalist.

This gulf between product and understanding is hardly new. The pages of National Underwriter have weighed in on it for a long time. Still, lets see if we cant move the discussion forward a notch by going in a new direction.

Dont blame the messengers. Help the marketing/PR people get a grip on the product. Remember, they know less about it than you. That means, dont just ship it over and say, “go thou and do your thing.” Say, “The consumer can do this and this and this. The owner can use it to.The client invests (or pays) so much, and then we….”

Invite the marketing/PR people in on the ground floor. Their input can assist you in deciding features that will fit different markets and fit with target customers. Most importantly, they can serve as an ever-present reminder that some things are just too complex.

Take an interdepartmental approach. Its embarrassing if someone from another department or division catches a glitch or doesnt get it, so for political reasons you just might want to avoid a broad internal review. But lets not forget that pride goes before the fall. Getting such feedback may be just what you need to bypass customer confusion later on. Even if a product is actuarially and legally correct, if it misses the mark, you might as well pack it in.

Listen. When consumers, family or callers tell you they dont get it, listen hard to what confuses them. For sure, you did not mean to confuse them (lets hope not), but apparently you have. Sometimes a person might be slow on the uptake, but that doesnt mean the person is wrong or that the product is right just as it is. Keep an open mind.

Check, test, recheck. Thats what engineers do, why not the product team? Dont just put the clarity burden on the backs of marketing and PR. Whether you are at a company or an agency, you work there, dont you? Urge the powers that be to take a second look at the design before it goes out. Maybe suggest passing it by a focus group, or non-industry family members. Is it clear? Does it make sense? If not, what would make it better?

Many firms do apply those measures but not all and not consistently. If your office is getting a lot of complaints about complexity, broaching the subject (tactfully, of course) could help. In fact, not trying to make it better would be the real pity.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, April 29, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.


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