The Private Lives of Doctors: Who are you really talking to?

One of the classic misunderstandings that keep healthcare manufacturing and service clients from connecting better with their audiences is the reductivist practice of assuming that all doctors are relatively alike.  Strange as it seems, clients spend a significant effort in researching “It Beliefs”—what doctors think about their product/service (It)—when they’ll use It, for whom will they recommend It, how often they’ll use It, and what they’ll substitute It for.  They are narrowly focusing on what they are selling instead of concentrating on what their customers—doctors—are buying.  Clients should focus significantly more attention on “Me Beliefs”—how doctor see themselves when they use/recommend a brand—and “Them Beliefs”—how doctors feel others see them when they use/recommend a brand.

It’s essential to realize that doctors are doctors only while they are on the job.  That is, they have private lives beyond the job—personalities, preferences, hobbies and so on that are almost universally ignored.  Like everyone else, doctors relate to healthcare brands less because of the features of the brand, and more because of how the values of the brand create a flattering reflection of their private lives.  If you ask an IT specialist to name a brand they esteem—Apple, for example—they’ll say it is because Apple provides the hardware, operating systems and apps that address their businesses needs.  However, ask the same IT person when he/she is off duty and they’ll say it’s because Apple is cool, innovative, intuitive, popular and so on.  What they are really saying is that they fancy themselves as cool, innovative and popular.  This relationship to brands is no less valid for doctors who slip into their real clothes once the day is done.

While it is true that people who become doctors all go to college and medical school, the differences in who they turn out to be is where the true insights lay.  I’ll skip over the vast landscape of differentiation that concerns age, gender and geography, and go straight to my central point: medical students don’t become doctors; they become specialists in different fields of medicine that reflect their own unique disposition, and in turn, their own relationship to the healthcare brands they employ to define their personal and professional reputations.

While working with a top hospital device company several years ago on surgical supplies, I was brought in to help them solve a mystery: why does their brand of liquid sutures (think professional Krazy Glue) have 98% awareness, 96% esteem and only a 2% share of the closure market?  They had tried everything: changed advertising agencies, re-organized the selling materials, interviewed surgeons about their preferences, interviewed surgical nurses about their influence in the OR—everything except discovering the surgeons’ Me and Them Beliefs.  By putting surgeons through a series of behavioral exercises designed to help them paint self portraits—and NOT asking them about the client’s product brand—they revealed the Me and Them Beliefs that made liquid sutures anathema to them.  Here’s a couple:

Q: Do you refer to yourself as a doctor or a surgeon?  A: A surgeon.  Q: Why?  A: Because a surgeon is a doctor who actually fixes something.  Q: if you were a mode of transportation, what would you be?  A: A steam locomotive.  Q: Why?  A: Because it’s part of a long, noble tradition, it can keep on going strong from coast to coast, and very little can derail it when it gets a full head of steam.

It became apparent that the people who went to med school and became surgeons did so because, in their private lives, they were uncomplicated, preferred to follow daily routines, have an extraordinary self-image as “fixer,” and see themselves as the strong engine that “pulls” everyone who depends on them along for the ride.  They did not see a flattering reflection of themselves in liquid sutures.  It just wasn’t powerful enough and traditional enough to get their attention.  (The solution was to reposition the brand, in part, for small wounds/laparoscopy, but that’s off the point.)

Transition to the world of Pediatricians (or Peds), who (while doctors) have nothing in common with their surgeon counterparts when it comes to self-image.  Similar behavioral research discovered that the people who become Peds are altruistic souls, suffering the misunderstand and lack of appreciation for their talents in the pursuit of purity and honesty.  They are the Rodney Dangerfields of the doctor world: they get paid less than almost any other specialty, prefer preventing illness to “fixing” things, prefer to work with children  (pure/honest) because they (Peds) really don’t think much of adults (dishonest) and their gross (impure) lifestyle problems (diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, obesity), and whose expertise is constantly challenged by parents who read “something terrible on the internet” about the life-saving vaccine the Ped is valiantly trying to administer to their vulnerable baby.  Look what a ripe opportunity we have here to brand healthcare products that will create a more positive self-reflection of these poor, toiling men and women who only want to do what’s right regardless of the obstacles they face in doing so.

Pick 10 different specialists and you’ll see 10 different types of subjects who all went to medical school and became the kind of doctor that they were all along in their hearts as people.  We don’t create brands for doctors.  We create fascinating puzzles for the people who become Neurologists, or secret passwords for the people who pursue Oncology, or enduring relationships for those who chose General Practice, or magic tricks for the sleight-of-hand artists who become Plastic Surgeons.  If you wish to create brands for people that have graduated medical school, then remember to ask yourself: what’s the private life of the man/woman who goes out each working day and heals in his/her own way?  Who exactly am I talking to?  The answers will not only surprise you, they’ll also endear you and your brand to them for a good long while.

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