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Liberty Mutual Drops the Research Institute — A Missed Opportunity

A couple (of) weeks ago Liberty Mutual announced it would be closing its Research Institute in June. The news came as a shock to many, including me. Just two months ago I had lauded Liberty for its ongoing support for research into disability.

Before we discuss the Institute’s demise, allow me to reprise that applause for Liberty’s decades-long commitment to the Institute. Just because they are shutting it down today does in no way diminish the great work it did for years, the commitment by Liberty and its policyholder owners to the greater good. We are all better off for that commitment.

On one level I understand why Liberty did this — it’s the dollars. While no one at Liberty has said so, it looks like a financial move, pure and simple. The Institute’s staff is well-paid, the research itself is likely expensive, and in these times of tight focus on unallocated expense management, cutting the Institute’s non-revenue-generating millions in expenses is a quick way to increase earnings.

But I’d suggest this is a mistake, for two reasons.

First, the financial benefit pre-supposes the Institute is “non-revenue-generating”. That’s true, but it could and should have been used much more effectively to advance Liberty’s brand. Yes, that’s not “revenue-generating” in the strictest sense of the term, but there’s NOTHING more important than a brand.

I asked Liberty’s Communications folks two questions; they kindly responded in a timely manner.

Here’s the first.

MCM – My take is Liberty didn’t aggressively promote the Institute or effectively utilize it in marketing and branding efforts. Yes there was the occasional press release or website mention, but it was rarely front-and-center. Why?

LM – We communicate to our customers and business partners in numerous ways on issues that are most important to help them best manage and mitigate risk. Our Research, Risk Control and Claims expertise all play important roles in helping employers and their employees manage current and emerging risks…
We are also keeping our Hopkinton facility open while discontinuing our peer-reviewed research efforts. Our Hopkinton facility will continue to house our Industrial Hygiene Laboratory and Driver Training program, as well as a personal insurance claims training center.

What is evolving is the way that people live and work, and the dynamics of today’s workplace reflect these changes. Liberty remains committed to helping people live safer more secure lives. We are revisiting our approach to accessing research while at the same time continuing to provide our Risk Control and Claims expertise to help commercial insurance policyholders improve both safety and return to work.

Liberty’s response didn’t address my statement about the relationship between the Institute and the company’s branding efforts. “Communicat[ing] to our customers” is talking to people you already do business with. And, communicating without weaving the brand message into that communication constantly and thoroughly minimizes its usefulness.

In my view Liberty didn’t effectively leverage the terrific work done by the Institute, never really connecting the work it does to support Liberty’s overall “lead safer, more secure lives” brand statement.

The lack of effective brand management is by no means unique to Liberty. Rather it is a major problem for the entire workers’ comp and P&C insurance industries. Every player talks about their people, their great claims management and effective underwriting, but few really differentiate. That is why this industry is commoditized; why buyers switch carriers for a few percent, why risk managers follow their consultants’ advice based on a spreadsheet.

Directly and consistently and broadly and cogently tying the Institute’s work to the impact it had on Liberty customers would have been expensive, arduous, in some cases tedious, and totally worthwhile. It would have greatly strengthened the brand by demonstrating Liberty’s depth of commitment to its brand statement.

My second reason is much more debatable.

In these days of awfully insensitive corporate behavior, the Institute stands as a shining example of doing good work without a direct dollar benefit. It is just the right thing to do. While corporations are obliged to support their shareholders, Liberty is a mutual insurer; its owners are its policyholders. One could, and I am, make the argument that the Institute was and remains prima facie evidence of Liberty’s commitment to its “owners”.

What does this mean for you?

Lots of terrific researchers are looking for work. Please reach out to them; here’s one source.

 

About the Author

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Joe Paduda, the principal of Health Strategy Associates and president of CompPharma, is a nationally recognized work comp expert and speaker with considerable expertise in medical and pharmacy management. Joe consults with managed care organizations, providers, insurers, employers, and private equity firms and conducts an annual payer survey on managing work comp pharmacy. In addition to writing the popular and controversial www.ManagedCareMatters.com, he is a founder and contributor of www.HealthWonkReview.com, a collaborative blog on healthcare policy.