Many health and wellness clients make a significant distinction between marketing to consumers (Direct to Consumer or DTC) and marketing to patients. While cleaving the group into the sick and the well may be an easy way to partition resources, it sets up a false premise that creates significant barriers to how these audiences identify with healthcare brands.
Conventional wisdom argues that consumers should be engaged in the same way, whether the pitch is for snow tires or pain medication. As such, clients often bypass experts in healthcare branding, preferring instead to hire consumer-advertising agencies. The reasoning: consumer agencies know consumers, ergo they are the best source to align the values of consumers with the values of a healthcare brand. Nothing could be farther from reality.
To begin with, the terms Consumer and Patient are woefully inadequate, even antagonistic. That’s partly because healthcare brands and their manufacturers occupy an unfortunate position in the minds of customers, especially in the US. Healthcare, like any other industry, is an enterprise competing for market share and dominance. The companies deserve to make a profit, even in countries with socialized medicine. Ironically, people also consider their health to be an inalienable right, and recoil at the idea that companies make money off of their illnesses. So when it comes to healthcare brands, the term Consumer earns resentment from subjects who feel like pawns in a financial game where they are compelled to “consume” medicine for corporate gain. The term Patient is antiquated as it suggests a passive recipient of care, wholly at odds with today’s activated, empowered population of information seekers and social network devotees. Everyone reading this has at some point come down with some kind of illness, whether acute or chronic. What do you expect from a healthcare brand? What we all do: to return to a state of normalcy (i.e. an “unsick” state) as much and as quickly as possible given a particular disease or condition. You want to resume your pre-sickness lives even if that resumption is not completely back to the levels before you became ill. Therefore, a more enlightened view of the customer for healthcare brands is the Re-Sumer (ree-zoom’-er): a consumer who has become ill and seeks to restore essential aspects of Self that illness has compromised.
Let me elaborate. Buying behavior for consumer goods is nothing like buying behavior for healthcare brands. With consumer goods, it is a celebration of Self—an outward expression of embracing brands that help reflect the buyer’s personality (or aspirational personality). Hey, I bought a new car! A new suit! I go to a cool gym. I follow a championship team. However, the key insight in the matter is that when people get sick, they are not themselves. They become someone else, a meta-version of their consumer personas. Illnesses—each in their own way—compromise the Self, distracting it from its aspiration, and in turn, fundamentally altering the way the sick person behaves and—more to the point here—buys. With healthcare brands, it is not a celebration of Self, but rather a protection of Self.
Depending on the disease or condition in question, subjects do the opposite of celebrating; they attempt to hide the fact that they are sick. Sickness is “abnormal,” a diminishment of Self, and in some cases, as with Herpes or Overactive Bladder (formerly branded as incontinence), embarrassing and stigmatizing to the subject. In some non-Western cultures, sickness is even considered a weakness of character. With lifelong diseases, such as Multiple Sclerosis and Diabetes, the subject even redefines the Self to incorporate the malady as part of his/her personality. One research subject characterized herself in a self-definition exercise as follows: “I am a mother, wife, MS sufferer, Catholic and animal lover.” Tucked in among consumer touchstones such as mother, wife and animal lover is MS sufferer, a piñata-concept that consumer behavior cannot begin to understand let alone define.
Unlike a consumer good, perhaps the best quality a healthcare brand can have is Discretion. Perhaps the best message a healthcare brand can make is that no one will know you have the illness. Yet our TV and magazine ads are replete with afflicted subjects cheering and celebrating (usually on a beach, usually with a golden retriever) the relief brought to them by the brand being promoted. Such is the problem when sick people are marketed to as consumers or patients: the brand doesn’t reflect their values. Where consumer goods are products people want to buy, healthcare brands are products people need to buy. Where consumers can make a direct purchase in a store or showroom, sick people must run the gauntlet of an arduous set of steps such as seeing a doctor, dealing with a pharmacist, going to a hospital or infusion center, and dealing with insurance claims. Therefore, branding healthcare products must go well beyond the usual ideas of consumer insights to embrace illness-buying behavior. It’s bad enough not feeling like yourself; having to endure the extended healthcare transaction process literally adds insult to injury. Healthcare brands must account for this by appealing to the entire transaction community so that it meets with endorsement every step of the way, speeding the sick subject’s journey toward a less sick state.
Consumers buy clothes and fragrances and living room furniture. Consumers buy brands to define the Self. Re-Sumers buy a return to normal as much as possible, and as such, buy back parts of themselves and their abilities. Let no healthcare brand ever again confuse or confound the two at great peril to its equity and stature in the marketplace.