Insurers Innovate, but They Don't Communicate

The insurance industry must learn to express new ideas clearly and simply. A good idea executed poorly is no better than a bad idea rendered well

Last time, in our column "Insurers: Effective Innovators—Almost,", we said—in total sincerity, we want to stress—that insurance had the potential to be one of the most innovative industries on Earth.

The response to that column was actually better than we expected. Yes, some of you laughed, others got offended, and more than a handful of you questioned our sanity (a special "thanks" for the offers to pay for the psychological counseling you felt we needed). But most of you got our point: To consistently launch successful new products, insurance companies, just like the firms within your industry, simply have to do a better job of understanding and aligning the three critical underlying components of innovation.

Marketplace success occurs when:

1) You discover a significant need.

2) You conceive of a new product, service, or business model to meet that need.

3) There is clear communication that connects No. 1 to No. 2.

Our point last time was that most insurers—like most businesses in general—spend the majority of their efforts discovering and fulfilling the need, and as a result short-change the communication portion. Innovation is a three-legged stool. If you get the insight and idea right but get the communication wrong, your launch will tip over. It will fail.

To keep that from happening, let us give you three and a half ideas to help you get the communication right. We often tell clients that a bad idea executed brilliantly is the same as a brilliant idea executed badly. They both result in failure. Insurance companies everywhere are sitting with two out of the three ingredients for innovation success in hand. They have created amazing financial tools to help businesses and people in a myriad of ways.

If you met with a creative expert in the insurance industry (they exist), you would soon find out that there are thousands of challenges—everything from putting your kids through college to dealing with the economic downturn—that insurance can help you meet right now. But very few people know about these solutions insurance companies can provide, because the industry has done such a lousy job of communicating about its innovative products.

As a high-ranking marketing friend in the insurance industry recently told us, "If our innovation score was like the SAT, we'd score very high in math but woefully low in verbal."

So how do you correct this issue? Let's say that, like the typical insurance company, you have identified a significant need in your market. And let's also agree that you have a new product, service, or business model that meets that need. Here are three and half ways to make sure your idea resonates with your customer or end consumer. (We'll continue to use the insurance industry as an example, but feel free to substitute your industry—or better, your company—every time you see "insurance.")

1) Speak English

Do you know what "Universal Life," "Variable Life," or "Whole Life" is? Like most industries, insurance often forgets that insurance professionals are the only ones who understand its language.

It is critically important that you constantly keep this in mind (and act accordingly): You are not the true experts of the benefits your products deliver—your customers are the experts. They use everyday words when they talk about their wishes, dreams, and fears. If you are not using the words your customers use to describe their needs as you go about explaining what you have to fill them, you are making your job 20 times harder than it has to be. The voice of the customer must resound clearly in all of your communication.

1.5) One Voice

If everyone has to agree on the key characteristics of the message you are going to communicate, you will end up with a really bland message. The higher the number of people who have to agree, the worse this gets. Create a small innovation team—or just one person—and empower that team. Get out of the team's way. Let it live (or die) by how often it's right. You will get a clearer, better message to market faster.

2) Get the Benefit Right

"Life insurance"? Seriously? Somebody decided to call it "life insurance"? We have a feeling that life insurance got its name because nobody wanted to sell something "death insurance." But people aren't buying life (or death) insurance. They are really buying benefits such as an inheritance for their kids or a paid-off home for their surviving spouse.

The point: Would you rather buy "Education for a Whole Entire Family Insurance" or "Whole Life Insurance"? When companies connect the correct insight/benefit (legacy) with the product (insurance) and communicate the benefit evocatively, e.g., "The Five Generation Scholarship Plan," something magical happens. It sells.

3) Engage the Influencers

Now more than ever, social media sites have allowed us to find those who really care the most and get them engaged in the new idea. We can ask for their insights about how to communicate it, and give them credit. Make them evangelists and carriers of the message. Once your campaign starts, they will be attached to it and help propel it.

This idea is critically important when it comes to people who sell the product directly—like agents. It is important for other advisers, too. For insurance, this would include CPAs. Think: Who are the influencers, advisers, and agents in your industry? When was the last time they helped you discover a need, invent an idea, and launch it?

It is easy to think a great idea sells itself. It doesn't. Learn to use the voice of the customer to communicate what you have while you are formulating the product itself. Your odds of success will increase dramatically.

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