A beFUDdled way to sell your brand


Duke Medicine wants us to think they’re like this guy….

I’ve heard the ad on Pandora about a dozen times. A major local healthcare provider, Duke Medicine, is threatening to withhold service from people who pick the wrong health insurance.

They don’t say it precisely like that. But the clear message is we care more about our bottom line than about serving people.

Is that any way to build a brand?

Here’s a transcript of Duke’s ad, slightly abridged.

Open enrollment on the healthcare exchange is coming to an end. Pick the wrong one and you could lose access to every benefit of Duke Medicine. Every doctor. Every hospital and clinic. Every therapist, nurse, and aide. Every piece of research, breakthrough, and life-saving innovation. Every part of the Duke System that matters most for your health.


….But they come off sounding more like this guy.

Duke probably conceived the ad as a quasi public-service announcement, with a chance to remind everyone what a top-notch hospital they have.

What I heard, again, was that for Duke the bottom line is more important than providing care.

Perhaps Duke misjudged their audience: people who buy their own health insurance, who aren’t looking for anything fancy and who want it to be as uncomplicated as possible. People who listen to Pandora with the ads.

What that audience hears, is almost certainly not the message Duke intended to convey.

In the software industry we had a word for that kind of marketing: FUD — for fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Apart from a few presidential candidates, most people don’t consider it an effective way to build a brand.

Duke’s ad ends with an invitation to visit a website to “learn more.”

On the site you’ll find a few links to videos with not-too-scary names like What if I get my insurance on the exchange? Hmmm….Maybe I overreacted to the Pandora ad.

Then, down the page, there’s this link: What if Duke isn’t in your health plan? It displays not a video but a case study that, at first glance, doesn’t seem germane. It features a woman named Michelle who appreciates the care she received at Duke. Toward the end, though, we find that Michelle is in a quandary:

While Michelle hopes her insurance company will agree to pay for the procedure…she says she has also learned a valuable lesson. “When I signed up for my insurance policy, I never thought we’d have to make the choice to go somewhere else….

“When we were faced with the decision, we knew it didn’t matter if we had to pay for the rest of our life, we’ll do what we have to do.”

The takeaway: We’re so good, you’ll come crawling to us — even if it puts you in the poorhouse for the rest of your life.

Uh, no, actually. In the market you’re serving, you have plenty of competition. As it happens, one of those competitors is also running an ad on Pandora — all warm and touchy-feely.

So I didn’t overreact. We’re hip-deep in FUD, with a haughty attitude to boot. That’s how Duke Medicine is choosing to define its brand. In this era of social media, of companies connecting emotionally with their customers, these kinds of tactics are passé — to put it mildly.

Perhaps Duke misjudged its audience. Perhaps they didn’t think about how their words might be interpreted.

Or perhaps they were too busy padding their profits, on the backs of people like Michelle, to care about their brand.

Disclaimer: Although I work for Duke University as a contractor, and although Duke University and Duke Medicine belong to the same corporate megalith, I have no direct association with Duke Medicine.

Image sources: Wikimedia Commons

3 thoughts on “A beFUDdled way to sell your brand

  1. vswish

    I don’t interpret the ad as Duke caring more about its bottom line than anything else. I’m not sure which sentence(s) make you feel that way. Notice I said feel, not think. That’s because this ad, and many ads, are targeting emotions rather than logic.

    I agree 100% that the emotions it is playing to are fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Very threatening. Very uncomfortable. A lot like the negative campaign ads we are about to be inundated with during the upcoming Presidential campaign.

    I would be curious to know if this type of negative campaigning works for Duke. It sure doesn’t make me want to jump up off the couch and switch to their brand.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Hi, Val. Thanks for your comment. It’s not anything in the ad copy that suggests Duke is placing its bottom line first. It’s what I read between the lines: We offer all of these great services, and we won’t hesitate to snatch them away from you unless you pick an insurance plan that pays us what we think those services are worth.

  2. Mark Baker

    I suspect it is very effective. After all, insurance is all about fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Without fear, uncertainty, and doubt, the whole principle of pooled risk goes out the window.

    The cruelty, therefore, may be more attributable to the system than to the individual provider. The insurance model does not really fit health care as a generality, since many of our health needs are know, not uncertain, especially if we have pre-existing conditions. Health care funding is really more of a case of generational transfer than insurance of risk. Getting insurance companies to administer generational transfer seems bound to lead to cruelties and complexities like this.

    The Canadian system is very far from perfect, but it at least gets this part of it right. Our hospitals don’t advertize like this. In fact, they don’t advertise at all.


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