It’s hard to accept the deaths of Rock Stars when—like David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Paul Kantner—they pass on at 69, 67 and 74 respectively. They’re supposed to die before they turn 40 if they die at all (looking at you Keith Richards). That’s part of the mystique of being a Rock Star: they are not like us. But the recent deaths of these iconic musicians are remarkable not because their lives were cut short by suicide (Cobain) or a drug overdose (Hendrix) or murder (Lennon), but rather because they succumbed, again respectively, to cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and sepsis—medical conditions that make them all too human. From now on, the Starman’s identity—formerly characterized as a God-like presence, “waiting in the sky”—gets brought back down to Earth by another, mere mortal brand attribute: cancer victim.
Today, wellness and illness are among the primary drivers of our own identities—of how we subjectively define ourselves in relation to the world.
This is the reason why branding healthcare concepts—diseases, products, services and companies—is so vital to our collective consciousness. We do not see health as it is; we see health as we are.
Today, wellness has left behind its reputation as merely the converse of illness. Health is now perceived by people—each in their own fashion—as an aspirational state of being where one is at one’s best. It has moral as well as physical implications. The guilt one feels biting into a cupcake. The runner’s high. The righteous burn in pursuit of a personal duty. “I’m going to be good today,” many of us have thought, because to betray one’s health rituals is a betrayal of self.
One great influence behind this sea change is the ready availability of therapies that make it hard not to comply. How can any reasonable person say “no” to one pill once a day for many conditions that used to cause serious morbidity and compromise our longevity? Heart disease, diabetes, depression, even AIDS can all be medically well managed with less effort than ever before. This has helped create an imperative to embrace health as a self-defining value. The simpler it is to achieve health goals, the more people want to set them. Wear a pedometer and make your steps goal for the day. Track your sleep habits. It’s both a psychic and physical reward.
Because medical and technological advances now put an idealized state of health within easier reach, we have become the kind of people who feel that we are not being true to ourselves if we neglect to grab hold of it. Pharmaceutical and Biotech companies are not the only active force in the dynamic. People implore healthcare manufacturers to help them boost whatever they feel is holding them back from their idealized healthy selves, whether it is a disease or just normal signs of an aging body. Wrinkles, pregnancy and baldness may not be pathological conditions, but that doesn’t stop people from insisting on Botox, oral contraceptives, and Propecia (finasteride) respectively. And they do insist on them, not because healthcare manufacturers have brainwashed the country into becoming “patients,” but rather because people now more than ever demand greater control over their bodies; and the technology exists to empower them.
Today health and wellness extend into all aspects of life beyond therapies and Big Pharma. Walking down the cereal aisle in the grocery store, you would think you entered a clinic of sorts as you read how Cheerios and other whole grain products are part of a heart-healthy regimen. Chairs and car seats are now ergonomically designed so that the alignment of your spine mirrors the alignment with your self-perceptions about doing right by your body. Spas issue a siren’s call to all whose mental wellbeing craves care and feeding. Fitbit, Jawbone, and other accessories keep us in touch with how far we’ve walked or biked or how deeply we’ve slept. Dating sites demand that we declare if we are “drug and disease free.” From cosmetics to clothing to sunglasses to emotional support animals, there is hardly a product or service that doesn’t strive to appeal to how we use health and wellness to define ourselves.
Just like Rock Stars, ever mindful of how illness can rob us of essential traits in our own identities, so too do ordinary people make brand choices about healthcare to protect their image from crashing down. The same person who proudly wears Prada suits, reads Fortune magazine, drives a hybrid sports car, and subscribes to a posh gym doesn’t want anyone to suspect he or she has herpes, depression, or any other condition that would otherwise mar their polished façade.
When creating healthcare brand identities, I often counsel clients that the best thing their brand can promise people is that no one will know that they have the condition being treated. I can see the disappointment bloom on their faces when they grow to accept that the subject of their careers—while very helpful or even essential—has the potential to turn people off.
But this is the essential truth about healthcare branding: the greatest aspect of a drug or device’s identity is how it preserves and protects the identity of its user.
There is a research exercise that I sometimes perform to help understand just how a particular illness is incorporated into customers’ self-image. I ask each research participant to jot down the different roles they play in life. For example, mother, wife, Catholic, real estate agent and good friend are not uncommon, to name but a few. What I inevitably find is that some chronic health conditions have become an integral part of the self-definition. Mother, wife, Catholic, hemophiliac. Or cancer survivor. Or diabetic.
Likewise, I invited a neighbor over for dinner and asked if it was OK to serve red meat. “Not really,” he sheepishly replied. “My wife’s a cardiac.”
When I heard that David Bowie had died, I really felt a sense of tragedy (I’m not that big of an Eagles fan). How could he turn out to be so normal that cancer could take his life? Now, to the brand personality traits of Visionary, Fearless and Chameleon-like, I cannot help but add “cancer victim” to the list. But if any revelation is to be had, it’s that wellness and illness—in the end—come to define us all, whether we admit it or not. To think otherwise when you are branding healthcare concepts or making choices about which brands of drugs to select for yourself: now that’s the real tragedy.