The Digital Brand: how technology enables brands to be more like themselves


It is common wisdom to suggest that rock and roll was invented by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard or Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley.  But the most un-heralded father of rock and roll is not a person at all; it’s the electric guitar.  Jimi Hendrix couldn’t be himself without it.  Neither could the Rolling Stones or The B-52s or Nirvana or any legendary brand of rocker. Pretty brands naturally look good on paper; dynamic brands take full advantage of TV; and experience brands, like hotels and stores, work wonders with fabric, amenities and smiles. And with the birth of digital technology, brands have a chance to do something they’ve never done before: perform on a new kind of stage and do the equivalent of trashing their drum-sets, setting their guitars on fire and watching the arena stand on its feet and sing along.

I’m not talking here about brands that are part of the digital revolution, such as Google, Microsoft, and Facebook.  I’m talking about product brands that you’d find in stores or on pharmacy shelves or in hospitals—healthcare brands, pharmaceuticals and devices: the closeted nerds of the branded world.  People don’t want to buy them; medical conditions compel people to.  People don’t celebrate the purchase experience as they would with a new car or Channel bag; they want to keep the purchase a secret.  For decades, these brands were like shut ins.  Up until 1996, they couldn’t appear on TV.  Their packaging was standard and mostly white, reflecting the fact that they were dispensed in little green or brown bottles to the patient, or taken out of the wrapping in surgery while the “recipient” was unconscious.  Their only chances to strut their stuff came in the form of magazine ads (with an adjacent page that basically undercut the marketing message), sales materials to physicians, or on the convention floor, where they had about as much room to promote as a busker on a crowded subway.

Now these restrictions naturally come with the territory: healthcare brands are basically forced to operate in a very controlled and regulated manner because they require a learned intermediary—a doctor or pharmacist—to insure that they are properly consumed and won’t do adverse harm.  It’s no surprise, then, that most pharmaceutical brands were (and still are today to a lesser degree) positioned around their functional attributes rather than their emotional benefits.  Effective and safe.  Convenient and tolerable.  (Imagine if Coke or Nike had to live with this?)  They also developed fairly dull personalities: confident, straightforward, trustworthy.  Mind you, these are not bad traits to have for serious medicine.  It’s just that they are rather one-dimensional.  Enter the digital age.

Healthcare brands are still figuring out exactly how to deal with their digital selves, especially in the realm of social media’s “unregulated conversation”—the bane of the FDA’s existence.  It seems as if healthcare manufacturers are still developing their ideas on paper, and then asking agencies to “digitize” them—a very poor use of the medium.  Marketers instead should embrace the unique aspects that the digital world can bring when they set strategy for brand identity early on.

First, broaden your brand personality goals.  I don’t know how many brand teams I’ve seen in workshops shy away from truly engaging personality traits on which the digital venues thrive.  The prospect of an imaginative user experience, combined with the ability to dialogue and interact with customers, can help your brand spread its wings from Confident and Reassuring to Fun, Helpful, Bold and Brave.

Second, because of its multi-media capabilities, digital venues offer healthcare brands the ability to eschew “telling” in favor of “showing.”  I’m not talking about mechanism of action videos—which serve their purpose—but rather the ability to take customers on a journey of discovery and wonder.  I recall a particularly imaginative user experience for a hair loss remedy that allowed customers to upload photos and witness, through time-action imagery, how their appearance might change with continued use.  (This feature also helped manage expectations as typical users always anticipate unrealistic results.)  Challenge your agencies to raise the performance capabilities of your brand on line.  Let it be Dramatic, Inspiring, Enlightening.

Finally, the digital venue affords healthcare brands an unprecedented opportunity to truly put customers first.  Many healthcare marketers claim they are customer centric.  However, they invariably start a customer dialogue with the ironic dialectic: “I am really interested in how you’re feeling.  So, how do you feel about me?”  The digital venue can help healthcare brands demonstrate their selfless side.  Instead of pushing information about the product, solicit information about the customer—information that is really about them, and not just about your ability to target them.  “What are your greatest concerns about how your condition will affect you?”  “Post the image that best represents your expectations for resolving your condition and tell us why you chose that image.”  Opportunities for engagement such as these help your brand show customers that it is Intuitive, Understanding and truly Interested in them beyond their purchasing power.

Any brand can show up on the Internet.  But the brands that allow themselves to take the stage and really put on a great show for the crowd will win the hearts and minds of customers better than the other acts.  And the fans will keep coming back for more.

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