Medica's first major marketing campaign is a head-turner. One billboard shows a lesbian couple holding hands. Another, a close-up of a studded ear. A third, a baby holding a toy block.

The Minnetonka-based insurer's ads, which went up Wednesday around the Twin Cities, are aimed at families, young "invincibles" and those who need nontraditional coverage.

As a group they're most often uninsured or underinsured, and reaching them is a critical growth strategy for insurers like Medica.

"Especially for a younger age group, it's important to find a way to break through, get their attention, give them a means to get information on their own terms," Medica spokesman Larry Bussey said.

Marketing directly to consumers is new ground for many of the nation's health insurance players, who traditionally have sold their plans through employers and independent brokers.

But as health care reform rolls out over the next two to three years and people flock to insurance exchanges to get required coverage, Medica and its competitors are jockeying for a piece of that expanding pie.

"It's very strategic and timely that Medica is doing this now," said Stephen Parente, a professor of health finance and insurance at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "It's clear the exchanges are going to be the vehicle by which people will be getting their coverage. You want to have as much brand recognition in the market as you possibly can."

Medica's individual business has been a significant part of its growth in recent years, expanding by about 45 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to the company. It is a distant second to market leader Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, which has more than half of the individual market and a longer history of pitching high-deductible individual plans to consumers.

Medica is spending $250,000 on the marketing blitz, one of the largest it has done for its individual business and its first to pitch specific plan options, Bussey said.

The ads tout a suite of high-deductible plans that come with incentives for preventive and routine care. Medica has always offered individual plans for families and singles, but the campaign promotes a new option called Encore. The plan covers two people, but is flexible in how the "dependent" is defined. It could cover traditional couples, same-sex couples, a mother-daughter, an aunt or nephew, or any number of combinations.

A billboard went up Wednesday at Hennepin and Franklin in the Minneapolis Uptown area and at the transit hub at the Mall of America in Bloomington. There also are signs at bus shelters, skyways and inside the Xcel Energy Center to take advantage of crowds at the boys' state high school hockey tournament. Radio ads have been airing for several weeks.

In April, signs will go up around Target Field, atop gas pumps and inside restrooms across the suburban metro area.

The ads contain QR readers, the square matrix barcodes that let people connect to Medica on smart phones and get instant quotes on coverage costs.

"Part of what we're doing is to provoke curiosity and conversation," Bussey said. "But we're also giving consumers relevant and useful information they can use right away."

The campaign, with the tag line "Plans that fit your life," was designed by a Minneapolis brand and marketing firm, Level. The agency has been working with Medica for 11 years, but Level's Kim Thelen said that until recently the health plan has been "a little quiet" about promoting ways it differs from competitors.

This campaign marks a new era.

"We're trying to show how each individual is unique and how Medica fits you, instead of Medica is a one-size-fits-all," said Thelen, Level's vice president of strategic planning and client services. "In some cases we're using extreme photography. It's not just about pushing the message out, but figuring out a way to get people to engage in the brand."

As health plans' advertising budgets expand in the days ahead and competition for consumers heats up, another marketplace shift is likely to occur: the role of insurance brokers.

The health reform law requires that 80 to 85 percent of premiums goes toward patient care, and not to administrative costs. With brokers getting fees as high as 15 to 20 percent, the U of M's Parente said plans may look to reduce or eliminate their role down the road.

"Brokers' fees are going to probably be the first things on the block," Parente said. "If a consumer can buy directly from a health plan and essentially mitigates the broker, that works quite well for these plans."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335