Building Patient Trust Through Authentic Imagery in Healthcare Marketing

With rapid advancements in healthcare and science, it is important that underrepresented communities don’t get left behind as new products are developed and brought to market. Visually representing diversity in marketing can help expose your brand to new and underserved audiences, which not only helps close that gap, but can increase impact and drive successful campaigns. Getting diversity right isn’t always easy. In my work as a designer, I have to be careful to avoid tokenism and stereotypical depictions, which can erode brand trust. Here are some of the things I consider when ensuring creative assets resonate with the right stakeholders.

Representation Matters for Patient Trust

Trust in healthcare is crucial when it comes to improving patient outcomes. It affects everything from acceptance of treatment, adhering to treatment plans, to overall patient satisfaction. When there is a lack of trust, it further exacerbates problems in vulnerable and socially disadvantaged communities who lack quality care, healthcare education, and representation. It’s important with every project to take time to truly learn and understand the circumstances, qualities, and pain points of the audience that the product is trying to reach.

Misrepresentation and Lack of Representation Are Both Harmful

Brands are consistently missing opportunities to create connections because of the lack of visible diversity in their marketing. With potentially 67% of general audiences preferring brands they trust, the need for meaningful connections via diverse and authentic imagery is clear.

The power of branding is shown to increase trust and transparency between organizations and their customers. In order to portray a community well, it is critical to know them well. That helps integrate as much of their story as possible, and aids sensitivity to what may be perceived as stereotypical. A common pitfall in healthcare marketing is perpetuating stereotypes by misusing imagery—a sure way to break the trust between a brand and its audience. As an example, being aware of the difference between the style of a traditional cultural hair wrap and one used by a patient undergoing certain treatments can ensure creative work leverages the right imagery for the right situations.

Stock Photography Can Feel Stuck in Time

Sourcing stock photography with a focus on diverse representation can be a challenge because of algorithmization of racism and sexism in digital image databases. So, how can designers navigate stock libraries that are still behind to deliver authentic, diverse image libraries?

In some instances, different healthcare brands will utilize the same woman from the same stock library for multiple campaigns. This is very much a case of creative teams only utilizing the first page of an image search, and not willing to dig deeper or search stock sites such as Getty with nuance. While this one image may work easily with multiple concepts, going the extra mile ensures that a strong brand will have their own unique faces that create a more compelling and relatable campaign.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies and health systems sought to bring attention to their testing or vaccination efforts. However, lack of diversity in stock image libraries further marginalized groups with documented vaccine hesitancy, namely Black Americans and Latino Americans. For example, a study on health-relevant stock photography found that the keyword “vaccination” included darker skin tones in just 20% of results.

Seemingly minor details can also be important, such as the difference between hospital wheelchairs vs. active ones made for independent wheelchair users. Knowing the difference can support better representation and avoid harmful or dehumanizing portrayals. Oftentimes a brand will feature an independent disabled person in an image to be inclusive, only to use a transport chair, which has a high back and handles for caretakers to move patients from one room to another. A more accurate representation is a wheelchair that has a lower back so that a person will have the mobility to self-propel.

Searching with specificity can also help you avoid stereotypical image results. Using keywords to add nuance is one tactic to enrich descriptions beyond just physical characteristics; consider emotions, style, and culture. Lastly, consider options beyond preconceived boundaries. For example, an image of a parent doesn’t always have to have a child present. Ultimately, getting first-hand opinions from members of the community you are depicting when selecting imagery will provide the highest quality and most authentic choices. When it comes to seeking feedback, “Nothing about us without us” is the ideal.

A Custom Photoshoot Gives Greater Control

Designers may be limited to stock photography due to budget. However, when possible consider setting a custom photoshoot. Here’s why:

Stock libraries have clear limitations in quality and representative imagery. It is also possible that the same models will be used in a competing brand’s imagery, risking creative fatigue and poor ad performance. With a photoshoot, brands can create a fully ownable image library. Custom photography will achieve both authentic representation and maximize your ability to tailor imagery to the brand. One recommendation for post-production cases that include people of color is to ensure that skin tones are not overly processed or blown out, as long as lighting schemes are kept balanced.

Improving Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Imagery Comes in Many Forms

Educate yourself and listen to underrepresented voices. While many marginalized groups have limited representation in mainstream stock imagery, community-led efforts are bridging this gap that you can support. By engaging in these discussions with colleagues, you can help ensure others in the industry are well-informed and help make diverse representation a priority.

Don’t hesitate to push for change if you feel imagery or imagery direction is misrepresentative, performative, or harmful. If it is safe to do so, advocate for or find support to address these concerns.

Your Audience Is Paying Attention

With 61% of Americans believing diversity is important in building trust in brands, and 38% are more likely to trust a brand when they show diversity in their ads. And while trust can be earned, it also has to be maintained. In a 2019 survey, 53% of Black respondents will actually stop trusting brands that don’t show diversity. When evaluating marketing strategy, particularly points of engagement and digital user experiences, it is important that the imagery used represents more than one race, gender, or age group. It is impossible to assume the background of a potential customer, so excluding any specific person from feeling represented can be detrimental to conversions and overall success.

Brands can show their commitment to improving human health by aligning with all communities and reducing stereotypes and stigma. Although choosing diverse and authentic images may be challenging and require thought, it is paramount that imagery still reflects the real world. By incorporating images that depict people of different ages, genders, ethnicities, abilities, and cultural backgrounds, a healthcare brand can demonstrate its dedication to providing equitable and accessible care. I believe it is our collective responsibility as decision makers and designers to represent diversity authentically—not just in spite of limitations but because of limitations.

  • Amador Jaojoco

    Amador Jaojoco is the Senior Art Director/Digital at Audacity Health. In addition to creating compelling digital experiences, he is the President of Audacity’s DEI committee. Amador is passionate about helping clients incorporate authentic, diverse representation to advertising and brand storytelling.

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