Products generally come to market because they are either what the company wants to sell or what the client wants to purchase.

Do you remember the Edsel car from the 1950s? It’s famous both in car culture and in the history of marketing as a disaster. The manufacturer succeeded in meeting its own goal, but not the public’s needs or wants.

More recently, we have seen the mainstream introduction of hybrid fuel-source cars, such as the Prius. That car and its hybrid counterparts are an ever-growing success story, because they were created in response to market changes combined with evolving customer needs and wants.

The Edsel-hybrid example provides a snapshot of what’s going on in our universe of employer-paid group plans and voluntary benefits. Health care reform is changing our marketplace at the same time that our clients’ needs and desires are changing – both as a result of the evolving market and of even bigger cultural phenomena, such as the consumer desire for customization and the increasing use of Web-based technologies.

There’s no question that the marketplace has changed, and continues to do so. The same is true of clients. Will we offer them Edsels or hybrids?

In the world of employer-paid and voluntary benefits, an “Edsel” is the same old set of products wrapped in a new package or given a new name. These regurgitated products will cause the same negative reaction in the insurance market today that Edsels did in the automobile market of the 1950s.

The “hybrid” of our industry, on the other hand, is the portfolio of products that respond to market realities, offer more options and more freedom, and enable clients to choose what they need.

Let’s get to the nuts and bolts of this: You want to offer what your clients want, not just what a carrier wants you to sell. Here are some things to look for:

  • Carriers and products with strategies that are grounded in the realities of health care reform, and that have an understanding of such market conditions as benefits inflation and the move to more voluntary benefits.
  • Carriers that give employees more choice over their coverage.
  • Carriers that you can rely upon to be there when you need them.
  • Carriers that offer a single point of contact, or that are moving in that direction.
  • Carriers that are solutions-oriented and focused on resolving issues and meeting needs.
  • Channel-driven carriers that want to do business your way.
  • Innovative bundles of products and services, with especially broad portfolios of voluntary products (dental/vision/supplemental life).
  • Effective, targeted marketing initiatives such as PDP programs, GA programs, and concierge-level services and support.
  • A competitive set of products that is meaningful to everyone in the cycle: you, your client, and their employees.
  • Consumer-driven product solutions.
  • Integrated customer access points, service, and support. For example:
    • Simplified product design, streamlined underwriting, and business rules that together represent seamless solutions.
    • Consumer-driven analysis tools that engage customers in a positive way.
    • A “universal” enrollment platform concept.
    • A move toward the Internet as the communication vehicle and product delivery system.

Your clients trust you to know what they need and want. With an appropriate carrier and product mix, you can deliver what they are asking for. And isn’t that the goal – to offer the “hybrid” instead of the same old thing?

Steve Howard is vice president of marketing for Benefit Solutions, a division of American General Life Companies.