Insurance giant AIA recently released findings from a research initiative called 'Healthier Together', which aims to help people combat the stresses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, by revealing eight key ingredients that enable people to live "healthier, longer, better lives."

The study is a key pillar in AIA's overall goal of transforming itself from a traditional insurance provider to a more digitally-focused health and wellness partner. Conducted by Kantar, the research report involved interviews with more than 80 experts across Asia-Pacific, along with a survey of 6,000 consumers in the region's key markets. 

AIA group CMO Stuart Spencer, along with Kantar senior partner Mark Kennedy, recently spoke to PRovoke Media about how the study advances AIA's marketing goals, how the company is approaching thought leadership, and what constitutes success for an initiative of this kind. An edited transcript follows:

How does this study, this new study in particular, support AIA’s goal of helping people lead better, healthier, longer lives?

Stuart Spencer: I want to be clear, it’s not a tagline, it’s the enshrined purpose of AIA. So everything we do as an enterprise must fundamentally deliver upon healthier, longer and better lives (HLBL). We wanted to go into the mental, the rational, the emotional space, not just the physical space of wellness. And in a way, if we have a brand promise of healthier, longer and better lives what does it actually mean? How do you achieve it? How do you actually realise what is healthier, what is longer, what is better?

I actually wasn’t surprised to learn that the overwhelmingly most powerful reading of leading a healthier, longer and better life was positivity and optimism, which is extraordinary in the context of when this work was done in the midst of the pandemic. But I think people were still believing that there are silver linings associated with everything that was happening around us and if anything it added impetus for people to find new meaning in their lives. So we felt we had an obligation and a responsibility and a duty to our customers and beyond to say, you know what?, here’s some guidance, here’s some silver lining, here’s some help, here’s some direction, that we stand behind.

We were dealing with an epidemic of lifestyle diseases even before the pandemic showed up, so healthier, longer, better lives had originally been more geared towards driving awareness, inspiration and engagement to lead a healthier lifestyle, principally through AIA Vitality. Because as we know, 70, 80, 90% of all disease diagnoses across Asia emanate from lifestyle diseases — diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, cancers, hypertension, you name it, drinking, smoking, lack of exercise, poor diet. So here we are exposed to all these risks associated with the epidemic of lifestyle disease and then the next thing happens, we have a pandemic of communicable disease.

We felt like the emphasis on healthier, longer, better lives needed to better incorporate the mental side, how we live our lives and how can we actually demonstrate to our customers and our broader communities a formula for an approach to wellness that is sustainable and that is really grounded on fact, not just what AIA thinks but we’ve really done intimate, intricate research to try and find these correlations.

What we are learning from enquiries and site visits to our AIA properties where I work with Google, we see that people are searching for answers on life, health and wellness now relative to pre-pandemic times by 30 to 40% more. So there is a surge in interest in wellness. That’s a product of the pandemic. 

Looking at the survey findings specifically, were there any that you believe were perhaps unique to the study and maybe even surprised you?

SS: Consistency. I thought there would be tremendous variants driven by geography, culture and whatnot, so I was pleasantly surprised by the consistency and the overarching, kind of rallying around what we saw to be the eight key ingredients of living a healthier, longer, better life.

Mark Kennedy: The other consistency was not just across markets but actually the consistency of experts in saying well actually these are the things that really matter. There’s a very clear understanding, it’s the doing that’s the problem. I think the biggest thing was driving the work into tangible real life situation actions that you can do which actually have a big benefit in the long run.

With a study like this, given the marketing and thought leadership objectives, how do you measure its success?

SS: So there are the reactions that we get, the impressions, the engagement views. Obviously there was a very heavy social media orientation to this, but there’s also been a massive deployment across the group to really help drive our distribution focus as well to be able to extend the message of the Healthier Together study through our agency, and also we are applying this to our region through what we call our regional ambassador programme.

We are trying to create a multiplier effect on social media to in a way get the word out. And what we are doing is building the community of opinion leaders to be relevant and ubiquitous and visible and influential where people are. And people are on their devices. People are online. So it’s really critical that AIA as a marketer is as prolific, as ubiquitous in the online space as we are in the offline, traditional, life agency model in which we have operated for over 100 years.

As you know, throughout most of Asia, insurance is a traditional advisory, face to face model. It has been that way for more than 100 years. The advent of the pandemic preventing actual face to face has brought about the revolution of digital face to face, so you still acquire the advisory but you don’t have necessarily the proximity and that is something that we have, in a very agile way, adjusted, adopted and applied, quite frankly, across the group since February, March of last year.

Regulators are now allowing for digital signatures and so forth to enable video-based communication so that consumers can receive protection. So while we are not in any way suggesting the demise of face to face, what we are saying is that it is going to be a digitally empowered face to face model that is going to be even more productive, even more effective and efficient, particularly in the midst of a pandemic.

So the survey, the study, the ambassador programme or the way that we monitor and measure the impact of social media, the way that we use our army of agents across Asia to connect with our customers and fill our customers in on the work that the group is doing and how they too can lead healthier, longer, better lives, is all ultimately what we are looking at.

Are there going to be tangible leads that drive tangible revenues from this? Sure, and we are tracking that, but I want to emphasise that that wasn’t the point really of this. It’s not a lead gen programme, it’s not necessarily a way to sell more insurance. What this is about is really helping to solidify our brand promise and to really be able to deliver real proof points that we actually are doing everything we can to enable healthier, longer, better lives for the people across Asia. That’s what we ultimately care about. 

In line with that transformation you’ve talked about, whether that’s to become more digital but also to go from a traditional insurance position to one that is focused on improving people’s lives, have you seen shifts in perception at AIA?

SS: We have what’s called a brand power monitor. That measures brand momentum, brand salients. And we are constantly tracking our brand, ultimately our brand impacts, on the impression that we make, the ability to influence, how we are perceived etc. And what we are seeing through the brand power monitor is an increasing identification with our brand promise. It varies obviously, from country to country, but the more visible we are in the public articulation of healthier, longer, better lives, the greater we are seeing that correlation being built.

So, obviously, my goal and ambition is to have a very consistent appreciation for AIA’s commitment to healthier, longer, better lives across the entire group. We are hearing directly from our agents who in a way are our eyes and ears on the market, that there is now a surge in demand that they are trying to support as people recognise how fundamentally under-protected they are, they see AIA as a brand that provides them with solutions, provides them with protection. Consumers want to do business with a brand that’s clear about what it stands for and we are clear about what we stand for.

Do you feel that there are any risks involved when a company like AIA, which is sometimes viewed like a utility, moves towards a thought leadership stance where you are actually taking a point of view in terms of events that are happening in the world?

SS: Risk is our business as a health insurer so risk is something we know very well. I wouldn’t say we took as much of a point of view here as we did try to illuminate findings that are relevant to supporting our brand promise, to be useful. You called us a utility. OK. So utilities should be useful and we believe this study is useful because we know people are searching for direction, guidance and answers in the midst of a pandemic.

We’re not saying if you don’t do them then woe betide you. We are saying look, we’ve done our homework, we’ve really got fact-based, empirical evidence, we’ve gone out to more than 6,000 people, we’ve crafted this with luminaries and experts in their fields, psychologists, educators, you name it, and we believe that this is the real deal. We believe that this is important stuff that is valid. And guess what? It is consistent across geography from Australia to China.

MK: Given the challenges that the world is facing, the real risk is businesses of this scale of AIA not being useful. That’s the real risk. You know if you are sitting there to make money in the current environment then I think you are abdicating your responsibility to serve broader society. I think if organisations are in the current world and they don’t believe in anything other than money then that’s the real risk. The biggest risk, certainly from a Kantar perspective, is not to be part of a conversation when conversations need to happen. What AIA is part of is part of helping people finding those better ways to live. The risk of having a point of view is far less than the risk of not having a point of view.

SS: We are regarded as the leader in our industry in Asia and as the leader you’ve got to lead and you have to take risks, particularly in thought leadership, and I feel like this project is also about legitimacy. It’s one thing to say you want to help people live healthier, longer, better lives, it’s another to really do it and to find ways to be seen as doing it literally. This study is just another example of what we believe really matters and we will continue to do more thought leadership, and there is more thought leadership in the pipeline.

In some companies reputation management and marketing are very disparate. How does reputation management play into your marketing goals?

SS: I’ve talked today a lot about credibility, about legitimacy, about proof points, about bringing our brand promise to life, about mobilising the organisation to concentrate on delivering on our brand promise, so I feel like, we believe we’re trying to harness the energy of the organisation to burnish our reputation the right way.

Our motto is “do the right things in the right way and the results will come.” I think that our frontline efforts across the pandemic as an example, to provide free coverage to our customers and to others in the community, for example. Things we do across the group every day to help improve the quality of life for the people in the countries where we do business is not about necessarily selling insurance, it’s about being a responsible member of the community.

Another example, the AIA scholarships which you may have seen in Hong Kong. We have committed US$100m to educate extensive future generations of Hong Kong leaders, putting them through university. Hong Kong is our home base. You know what’s been going on in Hong Kong for the last two years. So we really felt an obligation to invest in its future. So we are putting our money where our mouth is. Nothing could be more vital and crucial than education and the education of future leaders. It’s not about selling insurance, it’s about AIA demonstrating its commitment to Hong Kong and to really serve our purpose of healthier, longer and better lives.