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David Sawers: Generation Greta – the HI&P industry’s next challenge

Are insurers going to miss a trick again?
Generation Greta and Extinction Rebellion might be here to stay - and, believe it or not, HI&P insurers should start work on their marketing strategy now

Nostalgia, they say, is an unhealthy state of mind.

Yet, in June – “Pride Month” (it used to be Pride Day, then Pride Week – will it become Pride Year? Or Pride Decade?) – as rainbows appeared everywhere from churches to nurseries and schools and from high street banks to, for some reason, bottles of mouthwash (Listerine – well, Johnson & Johnson – in case you’re wondering), I felt a pang of it.

And I also a felt a sense of confusion about why the health insurance and protection industry seems to be out – not in that sense – on its own.

Wandering down nostalgia lane in London’s Soho the other day, I thought back to the first time I went to a Pride march/protest/party there, more than twenty years ago. It was at a time when I – a heterosexual bloke, not that it mattered then nor that it matters now – and chums, gay, straight, both or neither, spent lost weekends in “mixed” clubs, having the time of our lives to great music with other chums that were lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or, well, whatever.

“Mixed” seems such a quaint word today, but somehow far less divisive than “straight” or “LGBT”. In any case, LGBT has now become a superbrand in its own right – so much so that it has spawned an almost limitless number of sub-brands like LGBTQ, LGBT+ and so on – and the HI&P industry missed a trick by not getting on board earlier.

There are companies in the HI&P sector that have been championing Pride for some time now; the major private medical insurance providers have been for a decade or so (what took them so long?). They’re almost there in terms of brand awareness and corporate social responsibility (CSR); but I’m not convinced that they’re at the races, even at this late stage, when it comes to product, pricing, underwriting or engagement.

“I’m not convinced insurers are at the LGBT races, even at this late stage, when it comes to product, pricing, underwriting or engagement”

Check out Health Insurance & Protection’s coverage of how the world of corporate healthcare is wrestling with transgender issues here

The transgender “issue” is far from straightforward. As attitudes and trends evolve and “official” rules change at a seemingly ever-rapid pace, underwriting boffins and pricing whizzkids at insurers must be getting a bit dizzy, understandably, about having to start from scratch each month. At least they’re trying, though, bless them.

But I’m not sure the sector has really done enough to cover itself in, erm, pride, over the years when it comes to LGBT issues as a whole.

Its awkwardness – or in some quarters ugly silence – during the early years of HIV/AIDS was shameful. Trying to make up for it now by dishing out rainbow lanyards to office staff, way too late in the day, doesn’t quite make up for all that discrimination years ago. Consumer scepticism is a hard enough nut to crack for the insurance industry as it is. But it will take years of hard work – or perhaps even a new generation – to rebuild what little trust existed in the first place.

Better late than never – or cynical corporate rainbow-washing?

So I suppose that might be why, in purely commercial terms, the HI&P sector has been so slow to capitalise on the LGBT marketing phenomenon.

There hasn’t been a widespread effort across the sector to capitalise – and I mean really capitalise, in a commercial sense – on the LGBT wave as other very, very mainstream industries and companies have.

Even relatively uptight Marks & Spencer has its rainbow sandwich (although the food police must be having nightmares; it’s got three code red warnings for fatty, evil tasty stuff on the packet and I’m not sure what London Mayor Sadiq Ban, sorry Mayor Sadiq Khan, will make of that). Plus, there are many non-heterosexual people who have been bristled, understandably, by a major corporation interrupting their lunch hour to tell them it’s fine to be who they are.

A question of taste: the M&S rainbow sandwich divided opinion but was a clear marker of the corporate takeover of LGBT

Likewise, it’s probably not much fun being a lesbian with a ten month old baby who has had three hours sleep but gets handed a rainbow coffee cup in Starbucks at 6am to make her feel more, erm, “included” on her way to work.

It’s not just M&S and Starbucks. Pride has sponsorship of megabrands like Coca-Cola, Facebook, Nike, Google, Pepsi, Apple, Adidas and Burger King (special mention for the burger chain’s “Proud Whopper” which at least did the rainbow-washing with a camp, cheeky wink at the absurdity of it all).

Happily, the HI&P industry has found its way to the party in the end, albeit a bit late in the day and albeit left standing awkwardly in the corner, wearing a too-tight naff rainbow t-shirt like an embarrassing dad.

So if it has been late for that party – and despite its protests, it has – what’s the next party going to be? And how is the sector going to make sure it doesn’t miss out?

For marketeers, LGBT is surely at its peak. The results of the latest British Social Attitudes research, published last week, suggests that “acceptance” of gay relationships has “plateaued”, with 66% of people saying same-sex relationships are “not wrong at all”.

Burger King is proud of its Whopper – but it’s not for vegans

Go figure. I’m not quite sure what contorted thoughts occupy the tortured heads of the other unfortunate 34% but the best thing about diversity is that it includes – or at least should include – diversity of opinion without discrimination.

In any case, that survey – and it’s a reliable one among the many crank polls and samples out there – suggests that the surge in popular opinion when it comes to all things LGBT has hit the ceiling. There are some that even believe that a changing broader non-LGBT societal mix means that there will be a bone-headed return of fetid anti-LGBT sentiment, largely due to a resurgence of ancient puritanical dogma. Ironic, isn’t it, that research which shows that LGBT “acceptance” has plateaued was released just days after Pride Month ended.

Even if that does happen – even if LGBT’s marketing clout – like everything else, fades as consumers, corporates and their employees get bored by the big brand rainbow-washing, then what’s next?

“Even if LGBT’s marketing clout fades as consumers, corporate and their employees get bored by the big brand rainbow-washing, then what’s next?”

Disability has been done, although not very well and HI&P marketeers obviously think it’s boring and there’s clearly no cash left in that piggy bank. It could make a comeback, perhaps.

Nobody, especially the insurance industry (by the way, there is a social care emergency – a real “emergency” – if anyone in the HI&P industry is listening) seems to care about old people, so that’s an obvious non-starter.

Mental health has exploded in fashion and the HI&P industry is scrambling to catch up with something that some parts of it – yes, I mean you, private medical insurers – had put in the “too complicated” box for too long (although cash plan, protection and group risk providers have pulled their weight to some extent).

There might be something around vaping and e-cigarettes; if technology advances quickly enough so that health concerns over vaping go up in a puff of smoke and e-cigarettes become a widespread societal norm, then that might be worth looking at (although San Francisco in the US just banned them and much of what West Cost America and Silicon Valley do, we tend to follow).

That will take time in any case – and vaping might still be too tight a scientific Gordian knot for health and protection underwriters. The optics for HI&P brands might also be a bit too, erm, smoky.

And so my money is on greenism and vegetarianism/veganism.

Burger King’s vegan cheesburger: it’s not a Whopper and it’s not proud – but it might be the shape of things to come

The veg lobby groups are shouting louder and louder and their message – that to save the world from imminent environmental armageddon, then everyone must stop eating or producing animal products – chimes perfectly with 2019’s “War on Plastic”.

“Meat-free Mondays” hasn’t quite caught on yet. But if Davos and the Academy decide, as they have with the multinational roll-out of the anti-plastic campaign championed by Sir David Attenborough, that greenism/vegetarianism/veganism must be how we all live, then it shall be so and they will happily take the profits while, quite understandably, scanning the horizon for the next money tree, be it wooden, plastic, or whatever.

Energy companies have been accused of ‘greenwashing’ – or are they simply promoting their genuine investment in environmental-friendly alternatives?

The green gold rush has only just begun and is only set to get more competitive as energy companies, car manufacturers and others tussle to get to the lucre first. I’m not going to blame them.

Climate Change Ltd’s curious marriage of soothsaying green socialism and opportunistic green capitalism looks like it could last – and the HI&P industry has to be faster out of the traps than in the past.

There have been efforts in the past to launch life cover for vegetarians; they failed. And I’m not sure how underwriters and pricing strategists could build greenism/vegetarianism/veganism into their modelling.

But the dial has changed and corporate Britain has been ordered to embrace Attenboroughism – and the majority seems to have been swept along too. It’s a tiny step from that for the CSR prefects to decide that companies must promote vegetarianism/veganism in some way – if only as an “environmental” or “health” consideration, as opposed to “just” an animal welfare one.

If that happens and if vegetarianism/veganism and the parallel greenwashing catches on in a big way – and if internal comms departments at corporates start pushing the message out on intranets and beyond (green lanyards made out of daisy chains and sustainable moss, anyone?) – then the HI&P industry should make sure it doesn’t miss the boat (again).

It missed the LGBT boat years ago and now looks a bit like someone hopping up and down on the harbour wall waving their hands, shouting “Come back! I’ve got gay friends, honest!”

In stark contrast, the supermarket chains, no slouches on turning trends into turnover, have been on board with vegetarianism/veganism for some time. They’ve brought in extra – and growing – sections dedicated to “meat-free” or “plant-based” products. Tesco sold four million own-branded vegan meals within the first eight months from launch, prompting it to double the range on offer. On the high street, sales of the Superdrug chain’s own-brand vegan range have soared by more than 400% since 2015.

Vegan Heaven? Big brands capitalising on Britain’s plant-based, meat-free craze in Derby

They’re not alone: fellow high street chains Leon, Costa Coffee, EAT, Pret A Manger, Subway and others have all been given the vegan thumbs-up from animal rights, erm, “enthusiasts”, PETA. Even Greggs, the bakery chain which produces Britain’s (un)Official Sausage Roll, got a surprise thumbs-up from PETA. The marketing people for Greggs deserve all the gongs in the world for their work over the past year or two, not least for the way they gained wall-to-wall media coverage with this year’s launch of the chain’s infamous – and coincidentally horrible – vegan sausage roll.

And when nationwide pub chain Wetherspoons – the bellwether for when something niche goes mass-market – has a (quite tasty, in fact) vegan curry and a (horrible) vegan Full English breakfast on its menu and gets a gong from PETA for doing so – you know the direction of travel.

The list goes on. No wonder; in the UK, veganism has soared by 360% in the last ten years and a quarter of Brits now drink milk not from cows but that is “plant-based” (mostly oats or almonds, apparently).

All of that means that the HI&P sector would be daft not to take a bite of the action (but not an actual bite of the vegan version of the Greggs sausage roll itself – yuk!). If it’s up for a bit of rainbow-washing late in the day, then why not capitalise on the commercial potential of the growing vegetarian/vegan craze with a bit of greenwashing before it’s too late?

16 year-old Noble Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg

The next generation will regard green/veg as second, erm, nature. The generation of 16-year old Nobel Peace Prize nominee (!) Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion might not be so quick to sigh into the reality of world-weary, pot-bellied middle age as this and past generations have – especially if the marketeers get it right. Rubber-stamped (recycled rubber-stamped) by Sir David Attenborough and indoctrinated by the BBC, the liberal left media and an overwhelmingly left-wing school age and higher education system, youthful zeal will harden into self-righteous moral indignation (after they’ve done their long haul flights for their gap years, skiing holidays, safaris and all the rest).

At the moment, everyone, for better or worse, has their hands full with mental health (whatever that is or turns out to be). But that obsession won’t last forever, and HI&P product development and marketing departments should’t overlook the commercial potential of the green/veg trend.

It’s hard to imagine that one day there will be those who look back on the era of Extinction Rebellion and Ms Thunberg – an era when children were encouraged by parents and teachers to bunk off school to take part in protests that brought London and other cities to a halt – with nostalgia.

But that time will come, especially if the green gold rush turns out to be as profitable as it seems it might be.

It is, of course, too early to know if the “science” behind Generation Greta’s green/veg freneticism is sound.

And whether or not the motivations, ethics or profits that are manipulating that especially febrile generation are right or wrong I can’t say.

But whether or not HI&P insurers capitalise on it – well, that’s down to them.