By Graham Westrop, Program Manager in Hotwire London’s Corporate Strategy team

John Hancock recently announced that its life insurance policies would ALL move to an incentive-based system that tracks users’ activity through wearable devices, which offer policyholders discounts and rewards for hitting exercise goals.  

In Orwell we trust 

I’ll be the first to admit that my first reaction was to run for the hills screaming “I told you this would happen!” and proceed with a Henry David Thoreau-like life in the woods, away from this so-called civilised society. Perhaps I read a little too much sci-fi in my time but you have to admit, it sounds a tad Orwellian.

Before I donned my tin hat and bid you all adieu, I thought perhaps it was best to actually read more about this plan and let common sense prevail. What I found was an interesting messaging conundrum that many businesses face when positioning a new strategy.

Knowing what you’re up against 

The company notes that its policy incentivises “Healthier choices linked to physical activity, nutrition and mindfulness.” I’m not against this. In fact, I’m one of those annoying people who brings salads to work and tries to get a few workouts a week into my schedule, with varied success.  

John Hancock’s announcement includes research from the Oxford Health Alliance that tells us just four choices — physical inactivity, an unhealthy diet, excessive alcohol and smoking — now cause more than 60 percent of deaths and 80 percent of the disease burden globally. Its press release also points to results; those already signed up to its Vitality program are apparently living longer and reducing hospitalisation costs when compared with the rest of the insured population.

The messaging gives sound reasoning to its strategic shift. Using credible research to legitimise its thinking was a good move. Showing the success of its existing program, another. It has clearly considered its stakeholder groups and planned accordingly.

Sincerity is the best policy 

Media feedback to the announcement has been mixed, highlighting firstly that not all reacted the same way as yours truly, which is in and of itself proof that the approach was not entirely a bad one. Whilst some have reported on the benefits of the scheme, others, like the BBC, noted that critics have said the announcement was creepy and dystopian. TNW, ABC and Medical Express all raised concerns about privacy, security, and the effects on low-income workers. That’s not even touching on how the scheme could be exploited. It didn’t take long for one of the Twitterati to suggest that his next job could be to take people’s wearables for a walk – genius!

So what do we think John Hancock missed from a comms perspective? We think some scenario planning around potential campaign backlash was overlooked here. Planning for issues or crises, especially around controversial announcements or milestones, is a critical step for brands that don’t want to fall into the trap of alienating their valuable customers. Once trust is broken, it’s almost impossible to regain in a world where consumers have tens if not thousands of alternative options at their fingertips.

The crucial point missing from John Hancock’s initial communication was the why of it. Why make the policy compulsory? Outside of some figures around the policy’s success, I – and it seems others – haven’t been convinced that the move wasn’t financially motivated. A quick glance at the company’s Twitter page shows that the company failed to engage with any of the backlash, choosing instead to focus on the positives. This lack of engagement is alienating and can quickly encourage consumers to look for alternatives... of which there are many.

If you’d like to hear more about our crisis communications capabilities, either as part of campaign planning or more generally, please get in touch –