What is healthcare branding?–Three essential differences from consumer goods branding

Why is it necessary to distinguish healthcare branding from branding executed on the part of consumer goods and services? Is it merely a category distinction, or is there really a fundamental difference between two models of applied research, strategy and actualization? And if the answer is the latter, then what are the differences in healthcare branding that make it an entirely separate species from its corresponding fauna in the consumer goods world? (For the purposes of this blog post, I am concentrating on regulated pharmaceutical and biotechnology medicines, and eschewing “life-style drugs” such as Cialis and oral contraceptives, or pro-health entities such as vitamins or Fitbits.)

Let’s begin with what healthcare branding is not: it is surely not the logo, nor the often-laughable brand names, nor the TV commercials of questionable value and taste. Those are aspects of healthcare branding—tactics to be precise—but certainly not the plutonium core of what constitutes healthcare branding. The origins of truly appreciating what we are talking about when we talk about healthcare branding are in the brand experience: what customers are deriving from their association with brands in healthcare. Not just pharmaceutical brands, but service brands as well, such as hospital, doctor and pharmacy brands, and even the patient advocacy groups—the so-called societies and non-profits (think the American Heart Association) amplifying certain principles in the healthcare transaction model.

A brand experience is the sum of brand interactions and encounters that constitute the relationship a customer has with a brand. It manifests itself in many ways: visually, verbally, virtually, in use, in special services and programs, in reputation, in popularity and, most importantly, in the way it reflects the values of the customer. This is as true for consumer brands as it is for healthcare brands. However, I argue that what constitutes a healthcare brand experience is so different from a consumer goods brand experience that it should be an entire branch of study and practice apart from the mainstream view of branding in general. It begins with this question: what are customers buying when they buy into a healthcare brand experience? They are surely not buying into a celebration of their own identities, a key characteristic of consumer goods branding. “I’m all about Armani clothing…or Clinique cosmetics…or the BMW driving experience.” Rather, they are buying into either a restoration of self or a protection of self. Illness robs people of who they are; it changes their identity. And the more serious and chronic the illness, the greater the identity crisis. People embrace a relationship with a healthcare brand not in the broad daylight of identity adornment, but instead in the private shadows of personal intimacy, where they can come to terms with restoring as much of themselves—their identity—as possible. “Who am I if I can no longer walk steadily?” an MS sufferer might wonder. “What’s to happen in my relationship with my spouse if I’m depressed all the time?” someone with a mood disorder frequently ponders. “I’m a burden to my family,” an Alzheimer patient realizes in horror. “That’s not me.” We have strayed very far from the world of consumer goods branding, where such questioning at the roots of one’s identity never comes to mind.

A healthcare brand experience is thus designed in a very different way than a consumer goods experience. Where the latter is outgoing, fun and celebratory, the healthcare brand experience is discrete, empowering and restorative. Where the latter is a means to clearly defining the shape of one’s identity as a “well” person in pursuit of an idealized self, the healthcare brand experience is a means to find normalcy again—or at least as much of a new normal as once can expect given the illness and the available remedies.

No one wants to engage in a healthcare brand experience; they have to. And because it is often not elective but rather a distasteful imperative, healthcare brands are not welcomed as the good friends who endorse one’s identity but rather as the annoying attendants who must be endured. No matter how good a hospital can be—no matter how good its services or atmosphere—no one wants to go near them unless they are driven to it (sometimes literally by an ambulance). And that Lipitor one must take every single day for the rest of one’s life? Never mind that it will probably prevent or significantly delay a cardiovascular crisis; it’s a pain in the neck and a constant reminder that all is not well in the world.

Lastly, the consumer brand experience is designed with the precept that the end user can make a direct purchase of the produce or service. That is, the goal is focused on buying the brand and staying loyal to it. Because regulated prescription drugs can only be approved by an intermediary—a doctor—the goal is focused on brokering a positive conversation. In fact, the conversation is an essential part of a healthcare brand experience, while it is completely absent in the consumer goods model. The brand itself must act not only as a product, but also as a catalyst for dialogue. A satisfying conversation is so valuable to both doctors and patients that it can compel them to select your brand over that of the competition.

So in the end, what is healthcare branding? It is a singular discipline of taking the essential identity values of customers that have been stolen by illness and helping them find their way back again to normal or a new normal. It is the polar counterpart of consumer goods branding, which focuses on how such brands enrich lives that are well, and in progress toward a more aspirational state of happiness. Healthcare branding is the discipline and art of playing tennis with a higher net than consumer goods branding. Healthcare brands succeed despite being resented for their very existence. And finally, healthcare branding must focus on fostering a positive dialogue as part of the customer experience, whereas consumer branding knows no such component. Understanding how to build a healthcare brand experience is not for any consumer agency or advertising firm that strives—and often fails—to treat healthcare brands like consumer brands. Healthcare branding is only for those who truly understand what people are buying when they buy into a healthcare brand experience.

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