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Branding healthcare: Why it matters

COVID-19, legislation, specialty pharmacy growth, technology, market disruptions, generic drug pricing and industry consolidation are among the many factors impacting healthcare on a global scale. But perhaps the most significant impact will come as patients begin to see themselves as “real consumers” demanding a new retail approach to healthcare. So what does that mean for branding in healthcare? What changes can we anticipate? How can healthcare companies equip themselves for future success?

Fari Rastgoo (Marketing Manager at MetaDesign) spoke with Rupali Steinmeyer (Managing Director MetaDesign US, Head of Growth) in this connection. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

FR: Rupali, you have a lot of experience working with healthcare companies. When you look at the current situation, it seems that so much has happened in an incredibly short time in the healthcare space. What are the most striking developments of late?

RS: To me the role of patients as consumers is slowly but surely shifting the balance towards greater individual choice, giving people a bigger voice when it comes to healthcare. Add to that changes in insurance, legislation, and advances in technology. Healthcare is an extremely complex space and as a result many of these changes are slow to have a real impact on us as individuals. But there’s no getting around the fact that the traditional model of healthcare is giving way to a new retail landscape.

FR: So, what does that mean for brand-building when it comes to healthcare? What shifts might we see?

RS: I feel the biggest shift will come in the way healthcare brands speak with patients. I’m under no illusion that healthcare is a big business. It is. I see patients “consuming” healthcare and so to me they are consumers. So, as with all brand-building, establishing and maintaining trust is the first step in the conversation. You’re dealing with individual lives, so trust is a healthcare company’s most valuable currency. Long-term growth will only come on the heels of trust.

It doesn’t matter where you’re located. Or what your healthcare system is set as. Private, universal, government-supported or otherwise. Over the years we’ve been involved with many healthcare brands in markets such as USA, Germany, China and India, and what is common to all of them is the act of building relationships, which is intrinsically linked to trust.

So essentially, healthcare brands will begin to speak to consumers in ways that they can relate to, via channels that they typically consume, challenging the divide between B2B and B2C communications. Safety, efficacy, accuracy, reliability are important to communicate clearly. People understand the value of these without needing to wrap them up in fancy packaging.

FR: Can you give me an example of how communications to consumers looks like in the U.S. versus in Germany?

RS: Let’s look at direct-to-consumer advertising. The US exercises a great deal of freedom in this area. In Germany on the other hand this is highly regulated. This is perhaps one of the biggest differences between network TV in the US and Germany. Turn on the telly in the US and every few minutes you will be served up adverts for pharma you can “ask your doctor for more information about.” You hardly ever see that in Germany. Whether regulations allow for such direct communication or not determines how messages are branded. It also affects the way in which patient education is set up or how sales representatives from healthcare companies are equipped to market their products and services.

FR: So, what can healthcare companies in different countries learn from one another despite the differences in regulatory systems and structure?

RS: A lot. Let’s just look at a few examples for the sake of brevity. For one, what Germany can learn from the US is how many US healthcare companies position themselves more as technology companies and brand themselves accordingly. Positioning, corresponding brand strategy and visual expression shape how the market views a company. It affects long-term investments and buying potential. Tech companies brand themselves very differently when compared to traditional healthcare entities such as pharma, medical devices, hospitals and clinics. Tech companies typically lean into digital-led brand expression, which comes off as being more “advanced”, helping them attract a different group of stakeholders.

The US on the other hand can learn a great deal from the German universal, multi-payer healthcare system. The system of “all for one and one for all” ensures that everyone has access to medical care - at the very least a decent base level. This is of course a structural difference, with implications for branding. By and large, the German system places a great deal of trust in the medical profession, as do its citizens. Which is why you will find markedly less direct-to-consumer types of messaging. It also means healthcare companies are spending less on advertising, and putting the money to use in more “meaningful” endeavors. My feeling is that consumers in Germany rely more on medical professionals to dispense healthcare-related information, rather than first turning to marketing materials for the same.

FR: Let’s turn to technology. How does digital transformation play out in healthcare branding?

RS: Digital transformation is a huge part of healthcare change. Think about the volumes of data shared between patients, hospitals, clinics and healthcare companies as part of the many electronic medical records systems. This is directly linked to trust, data security and privacy. In the right hands this can be a matter of lives saved. What I mean is that rapidly making medical information available to different stakeholders in the system could be vital to receiving the appropriate care in many instances.

There have also been a wealth of advances in medical technology thanks to digitization in areas such as wearables, precision medicine, robotic surgery and imaging. These advances need explanation and communication. And a trusted source will be in pole position to have a consumer’s ear.

FR: How best to communicate these changes?

RS: The basics from yesterday will still hold good. Ensuring that your digital assets like websites or apps are created for the optimal user experience. Paying careful attention to all your branded assets so that they are consistent across all touchpoints and media. Taking the time to prepare meaningful content. Yet people really are in the best position to communicate changes. You can have a great website, a terrific mobile app, and cool-looking marketing collateral. But at the end of the day, if brands are unable to make a real connection with consumers through their own people owing to poor communications, there is little use trying to create a superior user experience.

Brands would do best to invest in their people because they are ultimately your biggest brand champions. Your people are a sure measure of how you are performing. If you give them a reason to believe – a purpose which unites everyone – you have the beginnings of a winning strategy. One thing people often forget is that brands start from the inside. Creating a sense of pride, a sense of ownership is important. That’s when you see positive impact and results.

FR: Is this true for all industries? How similar is healthcare branding to other industry branding?

RS: In many ways very similar. The consumer is at the center of everything. Any healthcare offering should come on the heels of understanding user habits and preferences. Consumers want to be acknowledged and be valued. And since with healthcare one is dealing with human and animal lives, it is especially important to understand user habits and preferences. Credibility plays a big role in healthcare branding especially when it comes to matters surrounding experimental drug trials and medicine. Beyond the metrics, it is also important to carefully consider ethics.

FR: You’ve helped brand many healthcare companies including 23andme, Allscripts, Avenel, the Center of Digital Health Innovation at UCSF, Propeller, Millipore Sigma, and San Francisco City Clinic. Did they present some common challenges?

RS: Good question. Although very different organizations, a common goal for all of them was using brand language that was direct and open – like having a conversation. Apart from that, we advised them to approach branding very systematically. Starting with creating a strong brand foundation. Using creativity to bring the strategy to life. And designing an overlay of brand experience to ensure loyalty and preference. Brand-building takes time and effort. When clients ask us to help them accomplish in months what we did for Audi, which took a good 10 years, we tell them that we’re probably not the right partner for them.

FR: What questions should healthcare brands ask themselves when thinking about their own brand? A rebrand for example?

RS: I would say you first ask yourself why you think a rebrand is going to help you accomplish your business goals. Secondly, is there enough of an appetite within the organization for the long-term? Next ask yourself whether there is a willingness for investments, whether financial or time and effort? And perhaps the most critical question: Can you mobilize your organization behind a reworked brand? Not just ideologically but also practically. Do you have the bandwidth to get this implemented? Can you go the long haul? There are really no short-cuts to branding.

FR: And that’s a wrap, Rupali. Thank you.

If you want to find out more about how we exactly helped healthcare brands transform, have a look at some of our cases.

23 and me
B Braun
University of California
Center of Digital Health Innovation at UCSF