What’s the difference between a brand and a name? A brand is something we use as a shortcut when we have too much choice, too little time. We’ll buy the Heinz Baked Beans because it’s an easy sell given their brand equity, the familiarity of a label we’ve grown up with. Sometimes a brand doesn’t have to compete on price because it’s as much about how it makes us feel when we see it in our cupboards as the taste and flavour of what’s in the tin…in the case of beans.

Consumer brands traditionally build their allegiances with consumers by creating an emotional pull above and beyond the quality of product. Yet why is healthcare so far behind other markets when it comes to forging emotional connections to their target audiences? Yes, the sector is highly regulated, but has the fear of stepping out of comfort zones really clipped the creative wings of healthcare marketers? Instead, should they be thinking more laterally to gain consumer buy-in across all media channels?

We now have a nation of consumers who are more empowered than ever before – those who reach for Google like our grans used to reach for the health encyclopaedia, that tome of advice and reassurance next to the china hen on the dresser. We have firmly moved from the “age of deference” where we did what our elders did to the “age of reference” where we do our own research, suck up peer-to-peer recommendations and seek out like-minded souls to chew the cud before making a decision on what to buy, where to go, what service to pick and yes, even what treatment or medical advice to take. The old cliché of knowledge means power is like every other cliché – absolutely true.

And nowhere is it becoming more evident than in the relationship between consumers and the healthcare sector.  While we should never see patient power overriding the expertise of doctors – the General Medical Council (GMC) trumps Dr Google every time – the healthcare industry has a real opportunity to build better relationships by creating more emotional resonance with people to show that it is not only relevant to them, but it understands them.

The sector used to be able to rely on capturing the minds of consumers with clear evidence of efficacy of treatments, drugs and services. Clinical trials, research and expert opinion were more than adequate convincers. But now it is equally about the hearts that work in tandem with those minds. That means healthcare comms needs to think more creatively about fitting into the lives of those it markets to.

Of course, hard, fact-based media coverage will always be the foundation of a great campaign. But with health and wellbeing now linked so intrinsically to everyday life – brands should no longer be focused solely on trying to get coverage in the health sections of the media. It’s a bit like buying a property – if you’ve waded through to the property porn of the Sunday Times you’re already interested which means half the battle is won. Brands need to start thinking bigger. They need to start associating the diseases and conditions they treat with broader lifestyle issues to widen the debate, make it more topical and to show how they are personal – “for you”.

Some already do it brilliantly. Think Voltarol and think spritely pensioners, kung-fu kicking great aunts. Think Berocca and think fulfilling your potential, your best version of you. Think Tena and think nothing as piddling (excuse the pun) as incontinence getting in the way of living life to the full…even zipwiring to your wedding! Yes, this may apply more broadly to consumer health rather than pure pharma brands, but these companies must also start adding a more creative element to their comms in a bid to exploit an ever-fragmenting media landscape.

And that landscape is an exciting one which means looking at more channels than ever before and tailoring content accordingly. Instagram continues to reign as does short video content on social channels – perfect for Millennials with an attention span of about 10 seconds. Combine these with, as Jennifer Aniston said on shampoo commercial “the science bit” for the more specialist areas of the media, and you really do start to hit all bases. Yes, we must be mindful of the regulations, but that should not be to the detriment of being creative and reaching your audience in a relevant and impactful way.

To break free from traditional health comms constraints, we need to popularise issues while not trivialising them. And how do we do that? We must start adding a lot more colour to the world of white coats.

About the Author

Chris Lawrence has more than 25 years’ experience as a strategic creative lead and board director at key London agencies – on consumer and corporate clients, many of them health related.

As a former journalist he is passionate about storytelling – not PR piffle – in a bid to raise awareness and change behaviours among target audiences.

Chris is one of our Collective Members.

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