Case Study: Blue Retail for Kansas City Blue Cross and Blue Shield

LiveBlue: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City
Project Title
Blue Retail for Kansas City Blue Cross and Blue Shield
September 2012–August 2013

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2014 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 19 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments below.

As the new Affordable Care Act was approaching, many health insurance companies were scrambling to reach members and non-members alike to meet the October 1, 2013 deadline. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City (Blue KC) sought a solution to maintain its lead in the local market by introducing retail outlets throughout the area. They were positioned to provide one-on-one engagement throughout the metropolitan area but uncertain about the approach.

We were asked to help develop the retail experience with their architect, Helix Architecture. As a not-for-profit organization, Blue KC wanted the new retail concept to show their investment in making Kansas City a healthier community. The solution is a dynamic space that invites the community to learn about fitness and wellness as well as information about health insurance options. The goal was to increase brand awareness, not necessarily sell more plans. The client is pleased to find customers perceiving them now as a health company, not an insurance company.

Project Brief

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City planned to open four to five retail stores in the Kansas City region by August 2013. The catalyst for this new strategy was the Affordable Care Act, which was causing confusion and uncertainty among both consumers and employers. Starting in 2014, the law would prohibit insurers from denying coverage or imposing penalties to less healthy applicants and would also require uninsured individuals to buy government-approved health insurance.

Blue KC saw an opportunity to create a disruptive sales channel to encourage first-time applicants to visit the new Blue Retail stores. By positioning Blue Retail as a branded destination that promises and delivers trust, guidance, convenience and simplicity, consumers would begin to associate Blue Retail as a place to help them understand and navigate their health care and insurance options.


Analysts speculated that the law would bring younger and healthier people into the system and force current customers to make new selections (with the exception of those who were grandfathered into the system). Today, consumers basically have two choices: assisted sales through brokers and reps (80%) and direct sales through unassisted online and e-health platforms (20%). The market was projected to change from 80% assisted to 60% assisted as the law went into effect in 2014. This would have meant a significant drop in revenue for Blue KC.

Yet Blue KC saw an opportunity in those numbers. Of the 300,000 uninsured consumers in the area who would enter the market, 75% would prefer an assisted, face-to-face experience to an unassisted online experience. McKinsey reports that these new customers are seeking channels that promise trust, guidance, convenience and simplicity.

By providing straight talk while building trusting relationships, Blue Retail would be the first mover in the KC region with a direct-to-consumer retail approach. Blue Retail would offer a more individualized and personalized experience that is brand- focused as opposed to sales-focused.


Development budget: More than $50,000
This project is: A retainer relationship
Production/execution budget: More than $100,000
Source of funding: Client


Willoughby began working with Blue KC and Helix to develop an approach. We worked congruently to fast-track the brand experience to coincide with the architectural parti for the space. Scouting potential locations and reviewing programmatic needs along with potential marketing efforts, we quickly convinced Blue KC to scale back the prototype to one environment for use as a laboratory for additional locations. We were also challenged to develop a brand experience that could connect back to a corporate branding initiative that wouldn’t launch until late spring –months after shop drawings were due. This meant very close collaboration with Blue KC’s corporate marketing group and their agency of record.

Our first step was to understand the Blue KC customer. They had identified seven customer segments ranging from young and uninsured to retired and insured. Consumer personas were developed to drive design according to varying functional and emotional needs paired with a reason to believe in the brand. From this exercise we created a brand platform that laddered back to the national Blue KC brand strategy. Luckily, we found some common ground.

Next steps involved developing the business model for the retail concept. Along with the architect, CEO and Blue KC retail group, we considered various combinations of retail community space and sales functions for the new location. For inspiration, we studied concepts in banking, personal finance, health and wellness and upscale restaurants.

We also looked at other recently introduced Blue KC concepts across the country. One environment we considered was a full-service sales and customer service destination. Another imagined a large community “third space” that groups could reserve and where members or non-members could register for cooking or fitness classes and seminars, maybe even meet with a life coach. All of these options were vetted against limitations of space, budget and regulation.

What came from this exercise was a symbiotic balance between a community gathering place focused on wellness and an information and support center for guidance through the complex world of health insurance.

Willoughby developed a communication platform and theme for designing and communicating the space: Be Inspired. Be Informed. Be Well. The word “inspired” was the goal for developing relationships with Blue KC members to encourage others in their quest for better health. This is part of the long-term brand build.


Our team visited and toured similar concepts across the country to learn best practices and opportunities for improvement. We observed how users interacted with spaces and talked to the operators to understand how things could be improved. We realized that in order to attract people to our new concept, we would need a lure that was meaningful and authentic to the Blue KC brand. We also understood that it had to be easily managed, staffed and flexible to adjust to each customer’s needs and health trends.

Design Solution

After exploring a range of names, from the straightforward “The Blue KC Store” to metaphorical “Living Room”, we selected Live Blue. It reinforced the brand, connected to a new Blue KC “Live Fearless” campaign, and made the space more approachable as a lifestyle center instead of simply a storefront.

The “Living Room” concept still guided the design parti and programming. Locations were selected based on pedestrian traffic as well as proximity to neighborhoods and other retail destinations. The team wanted an inviting space that didn’t look like a used car sales floor. The architect selected finishes that were clean, modern and inviting.

Willoughby integrated the iconic Blue Cross and Blue Shield logo throughout the space in unexpected ways using sports equipment including jump ropes, skateboards and racquetballs. We wanted to translate the logo into something more consumer facing.

Members and non-members could register for yoga or Zumba classes, learn the basics of a healthy lifestyle or attend seminars on how the new healthcare reform might affect them or their families. Cycling and running groups would be invited to use the space as a meeting place. Willoughby created spaces to help promote these events including a calendar wall to mark events in a colorful and inviting fashion.

We also designed a mock retail space at the entrance. This provided a framework for seasonal or monthly displays. For example, the first month featured running equipment curated by a local running shop and club. Another month focused on nutritional facts and information on products. When passing to window-shop, visitors may be drawn into the store.


Our approach was driven by balancing an aggressive timeline while coordinating with a national rebrand done by another firm. We realized that we would have to work closely with all stakeholders internally and the architect in order to fast track and coordinate with the various initiatives.

We knew the president of Blue KC wanted four to five locations by fall 2013 in order to cover the metropolitan area. We cautioned them against opening so many without prototyping and testing out at least one location. In the end, we were able to start with one concept that opened in August to test our design approach.


According to our client:

“The Live Blue locations have been incredibly well received by the community. Our objectives included two main components: 1) Provide a face-to-face experience for our members to be able to connect with our brand and get the sales and service support they need. 2) Provide an environment that supports all members of the community in their efforts to build healthier lifestyles.

“With regards to objective #1, we have seen considerable engagement from the community in leveraging our sales and service expertise. Throughout ACA open enrollment, we saw customers leveraging our appointment scheduling capability. We assisted numerous customers in purchasing coverage through health care reform, both through the federal marketplace and direct from Blue KC. We are also seeing growing numbers of customers leverage the locations for customer service questions, plan guidance and bill payment.

“On objective #2, we have seen tremendous engagement from the public with our health and wellness classes. We are currently hosting over 80 classes per month at each location, most of which are more than 75% of capacity. We are also touching the community through other programs, hosting Girls on the Run programs at each location, Weight Watchers classes and education classes through some of our hospital partnerships.” —Jason Spacek, Director, Consumerism & Retail Marketing, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City

Since opening the first prototype in August 2013, there has been an increasingly steady stream of visitors. Introductory fitness and wellness classes are popular as are appearances by local professional athletes.

To date, word-of-mouth is the big driver bringing people in the doors. Live Blue is currently getting 60% members and 40% non-members, but the goal is to attract more non-members and convert them. At the same time, Live Blue is tweaking its model to provide one-on-one customer service to existing members. Customer survey results show that this concept is tracking with consumers.

  • 91% of customers report that we exceeded their expectations during their visit.
  • 95% report they are “completely satisfied.”
  • 94% indicate they are “very likely” to recommend the location to someone.
  • 92% overall satisfaction with our classes, 92% agree the instructor exhibited strong knowledge.
  • 87% “learned something I will be able to use.”

Additional information

The Live Blue KC - Zona Rosa Facebook page demonstrates how the staff continues to connect with the community. We enjoy seeing how our concept is living, evolving and adopted by the community.

      Comments from the Jury

      “This retail experience isn’t what you would expect to find in your typical suburban strip center. The design team found a great way to introduce the complex issue of healthcare coverage into the built environment by blending smart architecture with strong graphic design. Together, the 2-D and 3-D execution creates a delightful and immersive experience.” —Dana Arnett

      “To use design to promote clarity and preventative measures with regards to healthcare is a worthy cause. The space feels modern and the graphic design is approachable. This provides people the opportunity to quietly find out information or go to the next room for a Zumba class. It would be great to see lessons learned and an update after a year of use to see if the graphic design and interior design worked as desired.” —Kate Aronowitz

      “Transforming information into an experience is no easy task, especially in healthcare. LiveBlue is an incredible way to connect a community to personal health not by emphasizing illness but by promoting preventive engagement. I hope to see more of these environments in health risk communities.” —Cameron Campbell

      “While we debated the role of graphic design in this one, we netted out on a positive outcome for those seeking better health and wellness.” —Joe Gebbia

      “The brick and mortar store solved new industry challenges brought on by the Affordable Care Act in 2014. By integrating health and wellness education into insurance sales, the design team made the retail experience more than transactional.” —Jennifer Kinon

      “This project repackaged the banal task of buying health insurance into an interactive, activity-based prevention-first program. Through an Apple Store-like approach to retail space, the designers demonstrated what is possible in creating positive experiences with life’s less than poetic necessities.” —Jeremy Mende

      “This is a remarkable example of how context and focus can define (or redefine) a brand. Using the familiar and comfortable environment of a retail store, the designers helped customers relate to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City in a completely new way. By focusing on knowledge and resource sharing rather than sales, the organization gained the trust and esteem of existing and potential members. From an aesthetic standpoint, the experience feels contemporary and smart, with clear messaging and clever infusion of brand elements. It’s an out-of-the-box solution that works brilliantly from strategy to execution.” —Christopher Simmons