Five ways healthcare branding differs from consumer goods branding

I often find myself in competition for healthcare assignments against some very fine consumer branding companies.  However, while such stellar agencies excel with clients like American Express, Virgin Airlines and Chanel, they are ill-equipped to call themselves experts in healthcare branding.  Here’s why.

1. Healthcare customers do not celebrate the buying process: To begin with, we have to recognize what customers buy when they buy.  For consumer goods, it is often a joyful process—Hey, I got a new cell phone…I joined an elite gym…I follow a championship team.  It can also be an expression of Self—This milk has less fat than the other brands and is organic (I’m a good parent for taking care of my family).  Basically, it is a celebration of Self.  Not so with healthcare.  Customers buy healthcare products and services not because they want to, but rather because they need to.  And nobody celebrates this purchase—hey, I got a new medicine that will prevent my herpes from breaking out so often.  Healthcare customers, if anything, want to hide the fact that they need to purchase these goods.  Instead of a celebration of Self, healthcare consumers practice a protection of Self—a very different dynamic that only healthcare branding experts can discern for each different ailment.

2. The healthcare transaction model is completely different than a consumer goods transaction model.  With consumer goods, the customer can walk into a store or go online and make a direct purchase.  With regulated healthcare brands, the customer has to admit that maybe he/she has a problem, then go to a doctor—who writes a prescription for a healthcare brand—then the customer has to go to a pharmacist—who may substitute for the brand based on an insurance company’s policies—and only then can the customer receive the goods.  I’m exhausted just outlining it.  The point is that a consumer goods brand has to focus on only one customer, whereas a regulated healthcare brand must focus on every link in the chain.  In addition to appealing to the customer, the brand has to appeal to the doctor as a reflection of that doctor’s practicing identity.  It also has to appeal to the pharmacist so he/she can endorse the doctor’s advice.  And it has to appeal to the insurance company representatives so they feel that they are providing the best value for the money.  What do consumer goods branding companies know about such mediated transactions?

3. Every disease state is different than every other one.  For the sake of convenience, we talk about customers going to the doctor as if this is a homogenous experience.  This is a reductive fallacy.  A customer seeking a remedy for psoriasis has emotions and motivations and concerns that have nothing in common, say, with a customer seeking to lower his/her cholesterol.  In the former example, the customer must have to deal with the stigma of the condition, the fact that everyone can see that they have it (i.e. lesions on the arms and legs), and the fact that there are no easy therapies available that are both safe and effective.  In the latter example, there is no stigma, it is a symptomless (i.e. invisible) condition, and there are many effective and safe therapies from which to choose.  The intricacies of understanding how each customer deals with each different condition is impossible to master unless healthcare branding is 100% of an agency’s focus.

4. Every physician specialty is different.  The flip side to reason number three concerns the party that needs to advocate for a healthcare brand: the doctor.  And just as patients with different conditions undergo a different brand experience from one another, so too do physicians.  While doctors have many things in common—a desire to work in the healthcare field, a college education, a medical school degree—the reasons they became the kind of doctor they are vary immensely.  What compels people to go into the field of Plastic Surgery has nothing to do with their colleagues who choose Urology.  Even among physicians who are in family practice—general practitioners, Pediatricians, and even Ob/Gyns—have different motivators and Self dynamics that must be considered in order to create a healthcare brand to which they can identify.  Again, it takes years of experience to understand the intimacies associated with creating healthcare brands that a doctor will esteem for his/her own specific reasons.

5. Healthcare brands have less ways to create a brand experience than do consumer goods brands.  Consumer goods brands can avail themselves of every venue that exists to carefully build the brand experience and attract loyalists.  Packaging.  Social media.  Television commercials.  Buzz campaigns.  And so on.  Healthcare customers rarely see the majority of regulated healthcare brands’ packaging. They usually view the similarly shaped and colored pills inside a green or brown or white plastic bottle dispensed by pharmacies.  Regulated healthcare brands cannot advertise on television unless the ad includes “fair balance” language—the warnings and side effects read aloud by a voice-over for about a third of the spot.  Imagine this: the new Porsche 911—warning, this car comes with a huge luxury tax and maintenance bills that dwarf what Toyota owners pay.  Buzz kill.  And as far as social media is concerned, it is the third rail to healthcare companies because the unregulated conversations online threaten to alienate federal authorities that hold these companies responsible for content out of their control.

Healthcare branding companies understand that their task is to play tennis with a higher net.  The brand experience must account for—and overcome—the forces at work to undermine all the good a healthcare brand can do for customers.  The path to launching and nurturing a successful healthcare brand is tricky, and any misstep could be very costly.  Choose your healthcare branding partner wisely.  Professional driver.  Closed track.

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