Industry Voices—Wellness programs aren't working well. Here's what insurers can learn from Starbucks

To combat inertia and make wellness programs more effective, insurers can apply key learnings from leading loyalty programs across industries. (Pinkypills/Getty Images)

Over the past several years, health insurance companies have increasingly made large investments in their health and wellness programs for both individual members and company benefits packages.

Cigna, Aetna and Cambia Health Solutions, among others, have all launched new programs and partnerships that offer incentives and rewards based on activities like meeting fitness goals, scheduling annual wellness exams and connecting with health coaches.

Many assume workplace wellness programs contribute to healthier employees, thereby helping to bring down medical costs and insurance premiums. But how well are wellness programs achieving business and patient health outcomes? Recent research published in JAMA indicates that wellness programs are driving minor advances in areas like employee weight management and regular exercise.

They aren’t, however, making an impact on clinical markers of health, healthcare spending, absenteeism, tenure or job performance. Eventually, insurers may struggle to successfully market wellness programs to employers as part of an overall benefits package if there's little evidence of their efficacy.  

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Why are wellness programs failing to achieve desired outcomes? Current incentives are not proving to be a motivating factor for the target audience. The members who need the program the most—those who exhibit unhealthy tendencies—are least likely to engage as it will require making big lifestyle changes.

Simply put, if you’re used to staying seated all day, it’s a lot easier to stay seated than to start walking in order to earn points or other rewards. But it’s these members who must be motivated for insurance companies, employers and the employees themselves to start seeing the positive health and business outcomes they desire from wellness programs.

To combat inertia and make wellness programs more effective, insurers can apply key learnings from leading loyalty programs across industries. Impactful loyalty programs leverage customer experiences and are designed to trigger emotional and behavioral response. By applying similar tactics, insurers can design and improve wellness programs that motivate members to change their lives for the better, while also reducing healthcare spend.

Use multiple drivers of behavior modification

Increasing customer engagement often requires finding different ways to drive behavior change. The techniques used in other industries to reward customers for brand loyalty can also be leveraged in healthcare. Health insurance leaders should look to a wide range of personalized rewards, incentives, communications, experiences and other benefits, to achieve better outcomes.

Take Walgreens, for example. Its recently relaunched myWalgreens™ loyalty program has a variety of engagement touchpoints designed to get customers to visit the store more often or purchase its private label products.

The new program provides 5% Walgreens cash on private label products (and 1% on all other purchases); in-app ordering for in-store, curbside or drive-thru pickup within 30 minutes; tailored “only for you” exclusive deals that are personalized to individual users; and numerous health and wellness services for customers, including 24/7 chat with a pharmacist and easy appointment scheduling.

Walgreens’ strategy has made its app one of the top shopping apps in the Apple app store. By leveraging the personalized and multi-faceted approach like the one used by Walgreens, insurers can more effectively engage members on their own terms.

Provide access to unique experiences

Insurers can also garner long-term engagement and change member behavior by offering a wellness program that provides something members can’t get anywhere else. This type of exclusive, member-only access helps drive word-of-mouth and enhances the perception that customers are part of a special cadre of people who get to engage with a brand. Imagine if a wellness program could generate the kind of addictive appeal that successful loyalty programs do.

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No loyalty program provides “must-have” offerings as well as the Starbucks app does. The app improves the purchasing process by enabling pre-ordering, storing gift card and credit card information, and keeping track of “stars” (rewards points).

It also offers its most devoted customers novel ways to interact with the brand. Its central feed features music playlists to listen to while drinking Starbucks coffee, articles about local community volunteering by its employees, and offers that enable members to earn more points toward free drinks. Collectively, this provides users with a wholly different experience than they’d have at any other coffee shop while giving them a reason to keep coming back for more.

Educate customers and reward desirable behaviors

Loyalty programs are already successfully used to promote desired healthy behaviors. From Apple’s newly minted Fitness+ program to the Peloton phenomenon, companies are weaving together a potent combination of technology, brand allegiance, and healthy living leveraging such loyalty strategy tactics such as convenience, relevance and gamification to drive continued engagement. Wellness programs could consider partnering with these brands or better yet emulating their success.     

Nike is one such company that uses its loyalty programs to align a healthy lifestyle and compelling brand narrative with cool, new tech. It offers a variety of apps today, including Nike Run Club and Nike Training Club (which provide workouts, challenges, workout reminder notifications and tools like GPS tracking), and the Nike app itself (for purchases).

Nike knows that its customers are more likely to keep buying shoes and clothing if they’re exercising regularly and getting value out of their purchases, so it makes sense for Nike to help users build healthy behaviors and eliminate ones, like missing a workout, that prevent engagement.

Across industries, designers of loyalty, rewards and membership programs know how to motivate customers to engage with brands in ways that are mutually beneficial. Those learnings can be applied to wellness programs to improve results, expand reach and create robust relationships with members.   

Stephanie Cohen serves as senior loyalty strategist at PK, the experience engineering company.