Why it was a mistake to call it Obamacare

This post is about lessons we can learn from the brand confusion between Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act. It is not a political post, and please don’t make it into one.

A brief history lesson – the introduction of the term “Obamacare”

During the 2008 presidential primaries, healthcare reform was a hot topic of debate among both Democrats and Republicans, as there were 45 million Americans not covered by health insurance at that time. Not yet knowing what these plans would look like, news outlets would speculate using terms such as McCain-care, Hillary-care, and yes, Obama-care. These terms were all temporary stand-ins until the outcome of the election was known and a formal plan was introduced. Reference: The Atlantic “Who coined Obamacare?

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, shortened to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), was introduced in late 2009 and signed into law by Barack Obama in March 2010. Reference: Wikipedia.

Mistake #1: Not creating an official name soon enough.

Since 2007, the placeholder term “Obamacare” had been getting thrown around in the media. Granted, it makes sense to not introduce a different branded term while one is still a presidential nominee, but it would have been a smart idea to put one out there way before the end of 2009 – which was nearly a full year into the president’s first term.

Since there was no new name introduced, there was no handle out there for news outlets and others to use when referencing the anticipated bill. So, everyone continued to default to the previously used term of Obamacare.

I know that a name – a brand – is hard to come up with, but I would have hoped that two years of debating the need for healthcare reform would have surfaced some potential name ideas to have in your back pocket in case you were elected. The Obama administration – even before having final details of the new plan – could have sat down and developed both a brand strategy and a name. It could have been based on the intention of the plan and how they wanted it to be perceived and received. The “Affordable Care Act” is a perfectly fine name – it just needed to be out there a lot sooner so people knew what to call it.

Since the Affordable Care Act name did not come out until late 2009, it had to compete with 3 years of Obamacare branding that was happening organically and being used regularly. That’s an uphill branding battle.

Why “Obamacare” doesn’t work as a brand name

The issue with the name “Obamacare” is that it inextricably links the product (the ACA bill) to one specific individual. In addition to the fact that it was a bill developed by a bunch of people working together (not the work of one individual), for the benefit of millions of people, it is risky to tie a brand name to a single person. We’ve seen this in the commercial sector just with celebrity endorsements, not even product names, where a spokesperson acts ‘off-brand’ and it impacts perceptions and sales of the company and its products (à la Tiger Woods, Ryan Lochte, Lance Armstrong, and insert other names of athletes here).

If you’re a fan of President Obama, then you’re cool with it being called Obamacare since it gives you positive associations. But the real downside to this, is that the world of politics it is a heavily divisive playing field. Having a plan or act linked to one political party, let alone one person in one political party, makes it vulnerable to attack. Not because of the merits of the plan, but simply because Obama introduced it and, by association, so did the Democrats.

Mistake #2: They owned the name “Obamacare”

Republicans, being pretty damn media savvy, knew that the late introduction of the name “Affordable Care Act” was an opportunity, and continued to hammer home the term “Obamacare” and openly oppose it. The Obama administration made the fatal error of owning the name, saying: “you know what, my name is Obama and I do care”. I love the sentiment behind that, but in the brand world – it’s a mistake. You should not allow others to rename your brand especially when it can have negative consequences.

You won’t hear Howard Schultz ever saying: you know, everyone is calling it Shitbucks and Starsucks, so let’s just go with that from now on.

Fighting for the brand “Affordable Care Act” would have gone a long way in helping the product itself, for these reasons:

  • It’s much more of a political risk to oppose something called “affordable care” without presenting some concrete reasons for why it needs to change.
  • It reduces the natural divisiveness caused by party lines and focuses attention on the act itself, not on the man who proposed it.
  • It gives the bill a chance of having a shelf-life longer than the term limits of the president who introduced the bill.
  • It would be clear to everyone that the Affordable Care Act is the healthcare reform bill, and it has been from the very beginning (one-third of Americans unaware Obamacare and ACA are the same).

If the administration had stuck to their guns and built out the ACA brand, then there could be much more informed and calm discussions about what is working and what isn’t.

In summary: what we’ve learned from this

  1. Don’t wait too long before creating your brand or product name. If you have a product or business out there already, or if your audience is anticipating something, give it a name that people can start to use right away. If the product isn’t complete yet, then create a name based on the intention of it. Don’t leave room for others to make up names while waiting for yours.
  2. Think carefully if you want your brand name to be associated with just one person. If the business has the potential to eventually be bigger than just you, or if there are business risks associated with linking the business to one person, then reconsider naming your brand after a person. (Yes, this is advice coming from a person who named their business after themselves, and it was a decision I thought long and hard about.)
  3. Own YOUR brand. Don’t let others decide what your brand or product should be called. Nicknames are fine and you can embrace and reference them. But your task is to continually promote and reinforce YOUR brand name so that it retains its intention and integrity.


Check out other mistakes: Why it’s a mistake to call it a shark attack.