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The Transformation of Marketing in Healthcare

Prof. David Edelman

David Edelman (MBA ’86), a Marketing professor at HBS, shares his experience as the Chief Marketing Officer at Aetna.

Tell us more about your background and what drew you to marketing.

Everything I did well at growing up combined left and right brain—analytics and creativity—especially playing saxophone, music directing shows, and playing on the math and chess teams. I was not a sports kid at all. When I arrived at HBS—36 years ago!— I was not sure where I wanted to focus but was looking for something that hit the right “chord” in me. First Year Marketing did that.  My professor, the legendary Steve Greyser, and the cases we did, had me hooked. To be honest, a dream of mine would be to have that effect on a couple of students this year.  I stayed in Marketing roles, in consulting, in helping set up an interactive agency, and then as a CMO, ever since. 

How is the marketing function structured at Aetna and how did it evolve during your tenure?

When I started at Aetna, I was their first CMO.  Marketing had been a secondary function, stuck under sales and broken up by division.  My charter was to turn Marketing into a strategic driver of growth, by building a central team that would raise the bar on strategic thinking, digital capability, and a new brand launch. Our Marketing team had strategic product marketers facing each BU, backed with centers of excellence in insights, creative, marketing ops, marketing tech, and media. We had to turn over 40% of the employees who had been labelled as “marketing,” adding senior strategists, a full in-house creative agency, media analysts, and researchers. Marketing was a “client-service” organization, enabling the growth objectives of Aetna’s major business units, but we were also an enterprise catalyst in developing and bringing a new brand to life, opening up new ideas of what was possible digitally, and launching the first customer experience improvement program. 

What was your biggest challenge at Aetna and how did you address it?

It was not easy.  First of all, I entered an organization that never had strategic marketing and just did not know, or believe, in our potential.  It took dozens of meals with my peers and with their direct reports to build credibility and prove we could understand their business needs well enough to generate realistic upside. I had to find and hire top talent into a sector— insurance,  which, on the surface, did not sound exciting.  But as I laid out our strategy for transforming health care by using marketing to get people to adopt better health behaviors and to grow the business through a simpler, more transparent customer experience, we built a passionate team. And we constantly faced the vagaries of fluctuating budgets and the business looked better or worse quarter to quarter.  That required building a rich understanding of how our marketing financials worked, and tightening our relationship with the CFO team. 

How has the health insurance industry responded to Covid-19?

Within two weeks, Aetna had thousands of call center employees working productively from home, a massive achievement, given all the hardware that had been the foundation of our call centers. We created new ways of explaining and selling Medicare digitally to seniors, and launched market-by-market communications with members to make sure they understood everything they could take advantage of as the pandemic spread. Telehealth exploded, as did mental health needs, both of which required new ways to help members get access and new procedures to ensure all claims were covered. Going forward, there’s no doubt that remote care, mental health support, and a dramatically expanded range of digital tools for consumers are here to stay.

How has marketing at Aetna responded to the emergence of digital advertising and influencers?

Digital advertising and influencers were not a sudden shock, they were already an issue when I joined Aetna in 2016.  It was a key reason I was hired.  We had to upgrade our whole marketing technology infrastructure to enable personalized messaging, attribution that would enable rapid test/learn cycles, and roll out a consistent online brand. We shifted substantial budget into digital channels, and built “war rooms” for our major digital marketing programs that had us constantly innovating, testing, tracking impacts, and remixing our media budgets.  Agile, agile, agile.  We also used a growing cadre of influencers who noticed and liked what we were doing to improve member experience to accelerate the spread of branded content that educated and inspired our members to take actions that would improve their health. 

What do you see as the future of marketing in health insurance?

Marketing in healthcare, ideally, will not feel like marketing, but will be an ongoing stream of support to people, matching their personal context, that helps them take their next step in their health journey. Through AI, experimentation, massive pools of new data available from devices and other digital interactions, and new ways to communicate with members, health marketing should become the natural support one expects in an experience with a payor or provider. New rules for common data schemas, and supporting a consumer’s right to move their data around, will enable more continuity of care. I am not sure where pharma marketing will go, as big campaigns to support high cost specialty drugs are unlikely to fade, but maybe better targeting, If highly private information can be made useful, this could reduce the noise. 

What advice do you have for students who are hoping to pivot into a career in marketing?

If great Marketing cases, like my favorites this year—Chase Sapphire, Cialis, and Hubspot,  get you excited about how Marketing can really be a strategic driver of growth, don’t stop learning and exploring the field.  Certainly, there are great second year courses one can take, and along the way read more—Adobe’s, Salesforce’s Marketing publications, and thought leadership in HBR and the output of all the major consulting firms. Think about the campaigns you see, changes in consumer needs that constantly emerge, and follow the developing world of digital media.  Invest in your Strategy course opportunities as well, given a lot of overlap between marketing and strategy. Look for a summer job where you’ll help shape a marketing strategy, and look for a position, either in a professional services firm—a top agency, or one of the top consultancies (all of which now allow you to focus on Marketing), or with a mid-size company where you can step into a role that is not too narrowly pocketed.  And I am always available to chat. Marketing always needs great talent, and great talent breaks through to transform companies through all that Marketing can bring. 


Dave Edelman (MBA ’86) is delighted to be back at HBS after graduating in 1986 from Section H. Since he was wowed by Marketing in his first year course, he has continued to build his expertise and reputation as a leader by creating new Digital Marketing practices at both BCG and McKinsey, helping to launch the digital agency Digitas (in between the two consulting gigs), and then becoming CMO of Aetna, continuing through the completion of its merger with CVS. He has published two articles in HBR: the 2010 cover story “Branding in the Digital Age,” and then the follow-up “Competing on Customer Journeys” in 2015, and has over 1.2million followers on LinkedIn. He is a passionate musician, playing saxophone as often as he can, and advises on marketing and healthcare issues outside of HBS.

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