12: Veronica Parker-Hahn, VP of Marketing at Oscar Insurance

Tips, advice, and insights from the industry’s top, award-winning marketers. “Oscar’s problem with the healthcare industry is that it’s viewed as inhumane. The industry doesn’t really focus on the individual, and it’s hard to navigate,” says Veronica Parker-Hahn, Vice President of Marketing at Oscar Insurance speaking to Alan Hart. “And we saw a great opportunity to bring a human component to healthcare.”

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Interviewer: Well, nice to meet you, Veronica. Why don't we start with just give me your name, your title, and your role.

Veronica: I'm Veronica Parker Hahn [SP]. I'm the Vice President of Marketing at Oscar Insurance, and basically that means I oversee all of our marketing and consumer outreach efforts.

Interviewer: You just won an FE for bringing humility to health insurance. Tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind that campaign.

Veronica: The inspiration was the company. So Oscar is about three years old. We are a start-up based out of New York, and basically the company was built to change the health insurance industry. It's the industry that's pretty inhuman. They're don't really focused on the individual. It's hard to navigate. And our founder saw an opportunity to create a company that really focused on the individual and brought simplicity and transparency, and a big component of humanity to the healthcare experience. So that's part of the ethos of the company, and that ethos drove the marketing campaign. So we wanted to be friendly, approachable, human, and bring out the personality of the company that had been developing. I think we accomplished that throughout the campaign.

Interviewer: That's a big endeavor, to do a start-up insurance company.

Veronica: Yes. It's pretty crazy.

Interviewer: What's the team like, that you work with on a day-to-day basis?

Veronica: Some of the smartest people I have ever worked with, across the board. When I joined the company, we were 23 people, and now we're at probably somewhat over 200. So we're rapidly growing but it's a group of people who are really passionate about what we're doing, are really innovative, creative, and really thoughtful about the consumer and the individuals we're helping. It's a great space to work in.

Interviewer: So you've got a great product to market, the company itself. Is there any research or tools or insights that you're trying to capture to drive into your marketing effort?

Veronica: Absolutely. Well, at the heart of everything we do as a company, is the individual. As a company, we don't offer group insurance. We don't work with big companies. We really are offering insurance to individual people and their families. So we're on the healthcare exchange here in New York and New Jersey. Then we're available outside of that as well, so thinking about who we're insuring down so that every single person drives the product, drives what we're building, drives our plans. From a marketing research perspective, we did a lot of work to understand what the uninsured population looked like with the implementation of these healthcare exchanges, who we're speaking to, where do they live, what are their passion points, how do they perceive the health insurance industry, and how can we stand out and change their minds when it comes to working with Oscar. So it really is about everyday people influencing what we do.

Interviewer: Oscar's got a unique position in the marketplace, or a voice, if you will. Where'd that come from? Was that something developed over time, or was it always there?

Veronica: I think it was always there. Even when I was interviewing with the company, there were 10 people at the company, that brand personality, that brand persona, it's inspired by the people who built the company, truthfully, people who wanted to change an industry that confused even them at the start. And so this concept of going against the status quo for the benefit of people, was always there. I always picked up on that. And then it came to this idea of, "Okay, how far do you push it? Do you really say that with attitude? Do you say it in a loving way? Do you say it in a friendly way?" Probably my personal preference as a marketer influenced a lot of that, but there's so much sappy advertising out there when it comes to healthcare companies, and rightfully so. It really impacts your life. But we had a story to tell. We wanted to talk about why we were entering this industry, and what we were trying to do. And launching a campaign in New York for New Yorkers, gave us a ton more freedom to have attitude in what we were saying and how we were saying it.

Interviewer: That's a very unique voice. How did you make sure that customers, especially coming from another insurance company, could trust you?

Veronica: We listened to them. I can't say that we went out and tested any of our original messaging, because we didn't, given the time but also just given how strongly we felt about the campaign. But we interact with our members on a regular basis, through our customer service team, through our healthcare guides. And so hearing from them, what they liked, what was important to them. And we still do that. That's a key component of what we do.

But then also realizing, like, we're consumers too, and we're not coming from the space of never ever buying health insurance before. We've been there. And so the frustrations and the experience of buying healthcare and how hard that is, we know. They were infused into the campaign. We were coming at it from a consumer perspective as well.

Interviewer: Making marketing decisions are, a lot of times, hard and especially in, I would imagine, a start-up where there's probably some fairly passionate leader driving the company in certain directions. Do you lean on anything to help guide those decisions, where to convince the folks which direction you need to go?

Veronica: When I started at the company, I started in July of 2013. We launched our first round of marketing in October of 2013. And at the time, the marketing team was a department of one, and we relied on external agencies to help round out that team. There was a need to just get going. There was a need for expediency and just understanding that we were all in it together. Thankfully, we had a strong strategy to start, and so that led to making decisions in a quick and easy way when we first started. So that was easy.

But just also understanding what the company was really standing for, the ethos of the company, understanding the passion of the people behind it, myself included. And infusing that in the marketing made the process quite fun. It was definitely challenging because we were basically building the plane while flying it at the same time. But all the decisions had to happen quickly because we had a deadline. Everyone came together in a really collaborative way to make it happen.

Interviewer: Were there any gaps or kinda leaps of faith in your understanding of what you needed to do?

Veronica: Yeah, absolutely. Gosh, where do I start? Because we were a start-up, because we were a tech start-up, there's great technology behind everything we do. Some of our leadership comes from the tech world, so we were coming at it from that angle. And that's a space that traditionally hasn't worked with some of standard marketing platforms that we use today. We ended up testing the use of [inaudible 00:08:15] home and being on the subways here in New York. Traditional digital advertising. We even tested radio. Now, a lot of those platforms just aren't platforms that are natural to the tech space. So getting the team to agree to test those platforms was a huge leap of faith. And if anyone knows Oscar, they know that we've even gone further into that world.

But it was important to get in front of the consumers. It was important to tell our story and make sure that people really internalized it. And so some of those platforms that were unfamiliar to folks internally, ended up working well for us.

Interviewer: Any advice for folks that might be in your similar position and trying to make that convincing argument?

Veronica: You have to back it up with data, but you also have to have the trust of your team that you're going to test this, learn from it, and optimize moving forward. And that's what got me through. You know, we're gonna put a [inaudible 00:09:13] in the ground to start, but that doesn't mean that we're stuck with it throughout the entire campaign. And one of the things that we do, if not on a daily basis, on a weekly basis when we're marketing, is constantly studying how things are performing, optimizing it across the board, and then continuing to do that moving forward. I think people trusted the idea of being able to test and learn as we went throughout the campaign.

Interviewer: So winning an FE is about marketing effectiveness. How do you define effectiveness in marketing?

Veronica: For us, it's of course bringing consumers in, right? Growing our membership. But also, ensuring that what we're saying from a marketing perspective ties back to what we're actually doing as a company.

So if we were to go out and say, "Oscar's friendly and simple and human," and you got the opposite experience as a member, then we weren't really doing our job. But what we were really doing was portraying what Oscar's really all about, naturally. The close loop there really does exist. So we were friendly on the outside and probably even more so for our members when they join. And then to have our members actually evangelize about us in a natural way, without being prompted, is a cherry on top. And we definitely have that when you look at our social media feeds and what people are saying about us.

Interviewer: Stepping back a little bit from the campaign, the thing about you, you've achieved quite a bit of success. What is it that fuels Veronica?

Veronica: I love to be challenged. I mean, who starts at the start-up and then has to launch a campaign three months later? It's kinda crazy, but I think whenever I feel like I've done this before, is when I have to kind of look for the next opportunity. But as I'm being constantly challenged, I enjoy that. And I kinda wanna dig in more and see what I can do.

Interviewer: Marketers tend to be a student of marketing, and follow other brands. I'm curious, what kind of brands you look to or follow yourself, and why?

Veronica: It's all kind of brands. There's something really interesting happening in New York right now, where start-ups and tech companies are starting to kind of find their voice from a marketing perspective. And in a way, that's part of Oscar's Eco-system. So paying attention to some of those brands that are starting to do their advertising on the subways, or starting to do more digital advertising. We know one that's out there right now is Casper. There's another company called Namely [SP]. They're all trying to test out their voice, so it's really interesting to see. So I'm looking at those smaller brands, but then also those bigger emerging brands. Beats is really interesting, especially with the last World Cup and them trying to take over this space of sports and entertainment. And just trying to see how they're going to evolve and solidify that persona over time is really cool. And then I'm also looking at the bigger and older established companies, because a company like GE has been around for forever and continuous to innovate in their marketing.

So it's not just about the newbie that just comes up and is trying something different and flashy, but it's looking at the variety of brands in different life stages, just to understand what they're doing and learn from that.

Interviewer: You talked about learning from those other brands. What is it about learning that is important to you?

Veronica: I don't know everything, right? So I have to constantly be looking at what's happening in the world. It's not just the marketing world. It's paying attention to what's happening in pop culture, paying attention to what's happening on the street around you. If I just look inward to what I like and what I think, then I'm missing a whole opportunity out there. As a marketer, you have to be connected to the world around you. And I really work hard to try to do that and make time for that. It's easy to get focused on just your job and what you have to deliver, but you have to understand the people you're impacting with your product as well.

Interviewer: What do you think is the most important marketing trend today?

Veronica: Something that we're probably doing at Oscar, which could be scary for some people, we're trying to figure out the balance between doing creative work in-house and even doing media planning in-house and working with external partners. And something that we've started to do, is instead of having a main agency for everything we do, working with best in class partners on a variety of platforms is quite challenging for an internal marketing team because it then requires you working with a ton of different folks. But it gives us a ton of flexibility creatively, flexibility in the media plan, flexibility in our spend, while giving us a chance to work with people who are just really good at what they do.

I've seen other companies starting to do that or have done that in a way. I don't know if it's a trend, but it's just something that we're testing out, that I think should be thought about.

Interviewer: I've definitely been reading more about that, brands bringing things in-house as well. How do you make those trade-offs between picking a niche partner versus a multiple service partner? I'm just curious.

Veronica: For us, there's such rapid growth. There are many of us who have been there just from the beginning, and we know the company so well. We're living it and breathing and building it. And it can be hard to bring someone in from the outside, and then have them quickly really get that. There are companies who have done that, and we've worked with some amazing partners who really do get that clearly. But often times, there are just certain nuances to the way that we operate, the way that we think about the consumer that not everyone gets.

I'll give you an example. We're a health insurance company, but we're a consumer brand. We're focusing on people. And often times, I get vendors who wanna work with us and they use other health insurers as an example of what's great about what they've done. Well, if you stop and think about who we are and how we present ourselves, it's not the way in. But when we find those partners who actually think beyond just the label of the company, you find a good partner in that group. But often times, just looking inwards, you're gonna find that great creativity but you still need the right partner to actually execute it and bring it out.

Again, we're in this place of trying to figure out the right kind of balance, and that will evolve over time, but we're really experimenting in that area.

Interviewer: Does that stress the level of talent that you have to have on your team to manage that?

Veronica: Absolutely. I mean, you know, you have to have top talent. And I'm very picky. And I'm building my team now. I mentioned that it was just me in the marketing team to start, working closely with the co-founders. Now we're a team of four people and looking to grow more, but it's gonna take some time to find people who are up for the challenge of what we're doing, are excited about it, and then also bring that great talent to the table.

Interviewer: What are the key ingredients to that talent, you think?

Veronica: You gotta be scrappy. We're growing so quickly. You have to be smart, incredibly creative. These sound like standard things but these are important things to surviving at the company. You have to be up for the beating. Like, take every issue and think it, and over think it, and turn it around and try to find every angle and permutation. You have to be willing to teach in some ways too, internally, and share your experiences but then also be willing to take on the input of others who come from a different angle. So you have to be incredibly collaborative. And then finally, you have to be cool with working without a net, and taking chances.

Interviewer: What do you think is the biggest challenge that marketers face today?

Veronica: Keeping their contact fresh, especially companies that have been around for quite a while. That's gotta be a huge challenge for them; continuing to connect with people in a meaningful way, continuing to stay top of mind. Part of that is telling your story about who you are as a company, but keeping that interesting and fresh over time, and then continuing to move forward as the industry evolves, as the platforms we use evolve. There's tons to talk about, content promotion now and content strategies and what that might look like. So keeping your company voice but finding a way to use those new platforms, and the right way for you, I think, has always been a challenge.

Interviewer: As a start-up, I'm sure maximizing every dollar is critical. How did you approach doing that with this campaign?

Veronica: Well, we're very much data-driven. And if you read some things about us, we talk about changing the industry and doing what we do, supported by data, technology, and design, right? Data is a really important piece of that. We work with part of the data team that manages our acquisition efforts. And so that's monitored really closely, tracked very closely. And we have really clear goals set as we go into the campaign.

But there are also awareness driving platforms that are a little bit more nebulous. But we do awareness studies, we ask people when they come and sign up for Oscar, "How'd you hear about us?" Which actually lead to understanding that a huge portion of our members hear from friends, which is amazing. Another big portion hears about us from the [inaudible 00:19:56] we've done here in New York. As much as possible, we really are monitoring, testing, and tracking every component of what we do.

And then once the campaign is over, because we focus on a certain time of year, we do a deep analysis of everything that we've done so we can parse out learnings and opportunities for the next year's campaign.

Interviewer: What do you think the future holds, if you have your crystal ball?

Veronica: I don't know. I think the future holds a lot of. . . Not a lot, but probably more companies trying to do what Oscar does, which is take young talent, take the talent that can make the next cool app, and use it to actually change industries. There's just space for the Snap Chats of the world and things like that. There's also a space for changing these established categories, having companies and having industries focus on actual people that they're helping or that they're selling to. I think that it'll be interesting to see what else happens in the healthcare space, what might happen in the financial space with these big Behemoth industries being changed by small companies that are trying to do things differently.

Interviewer: Good. Well, thank you very much.

Veronica: Thank you. I appreciate it.

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