The health care business is in a period of upheaval. Particularly for the companies that provide insurance and health care management services to employees and individual consumers, there are four very significant trends that dramatically are affecting how health care coverage is marketed in the United States.

1. As the national debate between providers, insurers, pharmaceuticals, regulators and hospitals escalates in intensity, health care companies are likely to need enhanced “balancing” skills to align resources and markets–and to do so quickly and within regulatory guidelines.

It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which an entire provider network might suddenly become unavailable, or an entire state in which the economics of health care delivery shift dramatically and quickly. This possibility speaks to the need for flexibility and speed in the ability to shift marketing focus, and to the availability of processes and tools to enable that need.

At the same time, that national debate might very likely to devolve into an all-out battle for the hearts and minds of Americans as they form opinions and choose sides, fueled by aggressive media exposure–and overexposure–to the issues. Direct marketing communications could become a much more important component in the brand experience as health care companies look for avenues in which they can reach consumers in order to advance their viewpoints and agendas.

2. The aging population is changing the marketing landscape dramatically. There really is no such thing as a “typical” senior. Some sit and knit, some still work productively, and some spend their time in search of enriching life experiences. This growing (and wealthy) segment of the population already has begun to exert enormous influence over virtually all aspects of daily life in the U.S.

Recognizing and addressing those individual viewpoints and the consuming/buying motivations they engender will be critical for marketing success in all businesses but especially in health care. Segmentation will become increasingly important, and the industry will move closer to a model of true “one to few” marketing communications.

3. Consolidation in the industry is creating new, more aggressive competitors with deeper pockets. Some of these competitive pressures can appear suddenly, removing the opportunity to plan accordingly.

The victors in these skirmishes will be the health care companies that already have deployed the technologies, processes and people required to be both proactive and reactive. Instead of a focus on either acquisition or retention, it will be necessary to become skilled at both, and effective execution will provide the winning edge.

4. Brand is becoming more important as the surviving major players seek to differentiate themselves in an industry overtly regulated to minimize product and pricing variation. Provider networks and service will become more important than ever, and messaging key member and prospect segments to communicate those advantages will be critical to achieving growth and retention objectives.

Addressing The Challenges

Direct and database marketing tools and skills can provide important support to the branding and sales efforts that will be required to address those trends.

Health care companies will no doubt focus on geographical differences in designing their media plans. Understanding the demographics of an individual market is important, of course, but it also will be helpful to understand how each market responds to specific mixes of multiple media choices.

One way to approach that question would be to analyze, for key member segments, the media sources that generated the initial leads that ultimately developed into member relationships, weighting such an analysis to adjust for media bias–for example, one market may have a preponderance of DRTV-sourced relationships if the company historically used that medium heavily. This kind of analysis should provide important guidance on the most efficient way to reach key member and prospect segments effectively with product offerings and brand messaging.

A second approach to market differentiation for brand messaging would be to profile the members themselves by geographical market, isolating the demographic, psychographic and attitudinal variables that most accurately describe those members within a specific market. Consumers and employees in Peoria are different from those in Biloxi or in Seattle.

This market-tailored segmentation approach can strengthen and add significant depth to the creative brief that ultimately drives messaging execution on a market-by-market basis. It is easier to hit a target that is well-defined, and nothing does that like hard data. An overall demographic and psychographic look at consumers both nationally and by region will reveal some significant differences that can affect brand positioning and creative execution.

The senior market, for example, varies dramatically on a regional basis from standard whole-population demographic distributions. As an example, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, there are more than 40 million Americans who can be classified as Medicare-eligible, but only about 900,000 of those are Hispanic. The universe itself skews toward Caucasians, and Hispanics are clustered geographically.

Since relationship-building is all about relevance from the member’s point of view, if variable messaging is developed for specific member and prospect segments, the database and campaign management capabilities that database marketing uses can create an executional platform for efficient and timely delivery of those messages when direct media are employed.

There is a brave new world coming. As competition heats up and new players enter markets that might have been dominated previously by a specific health care company, existing enterprises are going to need the tools that make their marketing communications more efficient and the ability to adjust marketing velocity quickly. The landscape is set to change–suddenly, dramatically, often and unexpectedly.