A professional brander's advice for Obamacare
December 3rd, 2013
04:10 PM ET
10 months ago

A professional brander's advice for Obamacare

(CNN) – Even before the federal HealthCare.gov website got an overhaul, President Barack Obama acknowledged the need to "remarket and rebrand" his signature health legislation.

On Tuesday, the effort appeared to kick off with remarks touting the law's benefits, including a ban on denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions and allowing adult children to remain on their parents' plans.


But if Obama and his team really want to make inroads on Americans' perception of the Affordable Care Act – and by extension, his presidency - they're going to have to separate the website from the law, according to a top branding boss.

"He has to be clear about what he's rebranding. He needs to rebrand the Affordable Care Act, not HealthCare.gov. The website is a tactical implementation of what's really being rebranded," said Howard Belk, the co-CEO of the branding firm Siegel+Gale. "To do that you must think about what's driving the need for rebranding."

For Obama, the bulk of the problem lies in how closely the health law is tied to his presidency and that it will likely serve as the cornerstone of his legacy.

"I don't think we've seen a disaster like this in a while," Judy Smith, the crisis management expert who was the inspiration for Olivia Pope, the lead character in the hit television show "Scandal", said on CNN Monday. "I think it is very problematic really because this was the President's signature piece of legislation. And I think everybody agrees that the initial rollout has been an absolute mess. The President has apologized for it."

Private companies rebrand for a variety of reasons, Belk said, describing incidents when products either become outdated, like Kodak film, or are revealed to be faulty.

In the case of Obamacare, Belk described the problem as the poor launch of a product that many people regard as good, even though it was not ready to be launched.

"Sometimes a company launches poorly what is actually a good product," Belk said. "How can they rebrand and have people take another look at it?"

Shifts in opinion

Polling has remained consistent on whether or not Obamacare will have a positive impact – Gallup surveys taken in June and November on the law's impact on families are not markedly different. The June poll showed 42% of respondents said the law would make their situation worse; in November, 41% gave that answer.

But the rollout has seemed to affect attitudes over the government's role in getting health coverage for Americans – in 2011, 50% said it was the government's responsibility to make sure all Americans were covered. Today, the situation has reversed – now just 42% think it is the government's responsibility and 56% say it is not.

Belk said that shift can be traced back to the "political theater" of the Obamacare rollout.

"It is an execution and a communications issue. It's a storytelling issue," he said.

To turn the tide, the White House needs to communicate a few key points – like why the law matters and what consumers will get out of it – and identify the law's "brand assets" like its overall objective of getting Americans coverage.

The White House is planning a PR blitz to do just that, emphasizing one benefit of the law each day until December 23, when Americans who need individual insurance coverage by January 1, must sign up. President Obama and administration officials will emphasize preventive services and new rules that insurance policies cover pre-existing conditions.

"It's clear he's losing ground there," Belk said, suggesting a simple motto, or "benefit driven statement," that can help people understand what the law is about. "Keeping America Healthy" is one motto Belk suggested on the fly.

What's in a name

The name Obamacare – and the much maligned URL HealthCare.gov – have become associated with digital failure and government disorganization. Key to the rebranding effort is separating the two, according to Belk.

"They need to be clear about what they're rebranding. They need to rebrand Obamacare, not HealthCare.gov," he said. "They should change the name from Obamacare and go back to the Affordable Care Act for a whole bunch of reasons. First, because it expresses what it is."

That recommendation seemed to be in the works – the President avoided using the "Obamacare" title for almost a month – though he resumed using it at his event Tuesday.

And while the nickname Obamacare may be on the way out, Belk said the name of the website might be worth keeping.

"We've found there's latent power in names that are well known," Belk says, citing Time Warner Cable as an example. (Time Warner Cable is not associated with Time Warner, CNN's parent company).  While trying to get away from the negative associations that customers often have with cable companies, "Time Warner Cable considered a name change, but that name was stronger than any new name they could launch. The cost of new name recognition was expensive and we suggested they work on customer experience instead."

Timing is everything

Obama and his administration are embarking on a month-long effort to build new confidence in the law, starting with remarks Tuesday at the White House. The new effort will tout the benefits of law while encouraging people to look beyond the initial website issues.

They need to start signing people up faster if they want to reach their goal of enrolling seven million people on the exchanges by the end of March.

But instead of diving right into the rebranding, Belk suggests giving the website fixes, which are still in progress, time to settle in.

"I would get this fixed, have site experience really improved," he said. "Don't rebrand then. Let 90 days or more go by. Let people get experience with a really good set of features (on the website) that also help them manage their health care. Don't try to jam it in there."

For the Obama administration, the clock is ticking and the temptation to rebrand sooner may be strong. The health care law mandates that Americans enroll in health insurance by the end of March or face a fine.

Still, the risks of trying to rebrand the program before the website is fully operational are enormous, Belk says. "It's worse than not rebranding," he told CNN.


Filed under: Health care • Obamacare • President Obama
soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Donna

    Yessiree Bob! That is ALL that is wrong with this Obamacare PIG! The Obamacare PIG must be renamed from Obamacare PIG to ScrewU PIG which more accurately reflects its mission. And for good measure, ANOTHER trailer truck load of lipstick has been ordered to apply to the ScrewU PIG in order to further complete the makeover.

    Yup, that should just about solve the problem of MILLIONS of people losing their healthcare plans, losing their doctors, losing their hospitals, paying far more in premiums and deductibles all while traveling further for their treatment.

    And here I thought these incompetent fools had run out of smoke and mirrors long ago!

    December 3, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  2. Dan J

    Obama needs less time and effort selling the product and more time fixing the product. A good product sells itself.

    December 3, 2013 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |
  3. otlset

    "adult children" Lol! Yep, they're all over the place now since Obama took office - how else to explain his re-election?

    December 3, 2013 04:29 pm at 4:29 pm |
  4. The Real Tom Paine

    Gee whiz, lets get that IT and Marketing genius Tim L in here because he is a mid-level manager at one of the largest companies in the industry. He knows so much more than the rest of us, so lets let him dominate the conversation.

    December 3, 2013 04:44 pm at 4:44 pm |
  5. Gurgyl

    ACA is a Law, not going away because idiotic rants from GOP garbage, fox thugs.

    December 3, 2013 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  6. Logictox

    It's funny they want to separate the website from the law, the law is the worst part of it. Looking back the website will probably be a high point for this entire fiasco!

    December 3, 2013 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  7. Ed N

    No amount of rebranding is going to fix the mess that the ACA is. It has a few good ideas that wrapped around a rotten core. Rebranding will fix the fact that we will be subsidizing the middle-man. Insurance company stocks are on the rise. They love this law. Making healthcare affordable is something completely different than making insurance more affordable by subsidizing it.

    December 3, 2013 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  8. Ed N

    Fast typing resulted in some typos. The few good ideas are wrapped around a rotten core and rebranding will NOT fix anything.

    December 3, 2013 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  9. don in albuquerque

    Gosh, it will be a tough pill to swallow if ObamaCare becomes a big success over the next few months. I guess we will just move on too the next screeching point.

    December 3, 2013 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  10. Silence DoGood

    @don in albuquerque
    Gosh, it will be a tough pill to swallow if ObamaCare becomes a big success over the next few months. I guess we will just move on too the next screeching point.
    -----------------
    I think it might be fun for Tea-Hats to go with "Obama in league with space aliens". I mean after birthers, Benghazi, death-panels, they are going to have to go bigger.

    December 3, 2013 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
  11. Eric

    Obviously, President Obama should trumpet the law which will take a few more years to be a clear failure, over the website that may become a success someday, but to actually believe Obamacare will be successful takes more than faith, it takes willful ignorance.

    December 3, 2013 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  12. simplyput

    @Don
    "Tough pill to swallow if ObamaCare becomes a big success over the next few months."
    Not a problem. Start the *rebranding* now with your favorite color of pig=stick...I vote for *Hideous Pink.* That is the biggest "if" ever spoken. Can't believe Liberals don't know or understand that bad laws have to be rewritten or repealed. It's like you're on drugs...check into rehab, please.

    December 3, 2013 05:26 pm at 5:26 pm |
  13. don in albuquerque

    "How else can you explain his re-election....."
    Can you spell MittWitt?

    December 3, 2013 05:34 pm at 5:34 pm |
  14. tom l

    MALZBERG, HOST: A lot of people said you weren’t going to be able to keep your health care, but also they focused on the death panels, which will be coming, call them what you will, rationing, is part of it...

    HALPERIN: No, I agree, and that’s going to be a huge issue, and that’s something else on which the president was not fully forthcoming and straightforward.

    MALZBERG: So, you believe there will be rationing, a.k.a. death panels?

    HALPERIN: It's built into the plan. It's not like a guess or like a judgment. That's going to be part of how costs are controlled.

    Halperin writes for Time Magazine and works for MSNBC. Can he not stand having a black man as president?

    December 3, 2013 05:36 pm at 5:36 pm |
  15. don in albuquerque

    @simplyput-Must be nice to be smarter then every person on the SCOTUS. Check into third grade.

    December 3, 2013 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
  16. CryBabies

    Grow up moderator!!! You can call a pigs rear-end a "tushy" but the smell stays the same.

    December 3, 2013 05:39 pm at 5:39 pm |
  17. O'drama ya Mama

    simplyput

    @Don
    "Tough pill to swallow if ObamaCare becomes a big success over the next few months."
    Not a problem. Start the *rebranding* now with your favorite color of pig=stick...I vote for *Hideous Pink.* That is the biggest "if" ever spoken. Can't believe Liberals don't know or understand that bad laws have to be rewritten or repealed. It's like you're on drugs...check into rehab, please.
    December 3, 2013 05:26 pm at 5:26 pm |
    _________________________________________________________________________________________________

    Hows that Republican "rebranding" going?

    December 3, 2013 05:39 pm at 5:39 pm |
  18. rbockman

    still can't log into the system, obama is a failure

    December 3, 2013 05:41 pm at 5:41 pm |
  19. Ol' Yeller

    When Thomas Fulton rigged the first paddleboat with his new steam engine in an effort to create the first steam powered ship, a heckler stood on the bank of the river gleefully yelling, "He can't start her. He can't start her", the whole time he was installing and attempting to get the contraption to work. Finally, Fulton had it tweaked and started the steam engine up and it began chugging along; the huge paddle wheel began to to turn and the large steam powerd boat began to move up the river (a feat previously only accomplished by flatboats being pushed by 'Polemen' – see Mike Fink of American Tall Tales). Without missing a beat or losing any of his exuberance, the heckler began to shout, "He can't stop her, He can't stop her!!"

    That my friends is the republicant party. You could cannot make them happy, you cannot please them, they live to complain and criticize (unless it is one of their own), and they will try and stop progress at the risk of looking like complete fools.

    Proceed Governor.....

    December 3, 2013 05:53 pm at 5:53 pm |