Sticks and Stones: The Power of Words in Health

Confucius asserts, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” As communicators, we face language challenges every day. Whether marketing a product, a condition, or even a whole category, it takes a significant mental shift to even imagine a different way of describing something when we feel wedded to the way it’s always been described. Our language can feel locked down. Immovable. But to accept that a rose, once called a rose, must always remain a rose to smell as sweet, is to miss an opportunity.

Words as a Gateway

Our words have the power to shift perceptions, and often our job is to ensure that they do. With the Internet of Things, our words, rather than HCPs’ words can be the gateway to a condition, a disease, or a treatment, and can shape how people think, feel, and respond to it.

Though even the Romans felt the benefits of drinking fermented milk, as recommended by Pliny the Elder to treat intestinal problems, talking about “micro-organisms” has always been a communications challenge. Terms such as “friendly bacteria” dispelled some of the fear, but simultaneously softened the potential medical benefits. But as a piece of language, “probiotic” gave credibility to a broader range of potential benefits, from digestive health to ulcerative colitis and atopic dermatitis, unlocking the power of microbes for many more consumers.

The power of new language to open up a category shines through in the language of yoga, which just a few decades ago was wreathed in patchouli-scented mystery—hardly the fitness phenomenon we know today. As descriptors like “Hatha” and “Ashtanga”—words that most people had to research to understand—received a purposeful makeover into “relaxing” and “powerful,” people could immediately grasp the benefits of each practice, and a $27 billion industry was born.

Create a New Language

When we use standard established language to communicate, it’s valuable to stop and wonder: Is there another way to use words to change our customers’ perceptions of our brand or industry? Just as Soul Cycle transformed the drudgery of “spin class,” a new descriptor can convince people that the new rose smells even sweeter. Sometimes it takes new language to define a new category and create brand ambassadors. Language gives people the tools needed to talk about your brand. The right word can change conversations, help people re-evaluate what they think they know, drive awareness, and even affect diagnosis and uptake of treatment.

A shining example of this in pharma: Viagra, with its surrounding language of “erectile dysfunction,” a descriptor that decisively moved the conversation away from “impotence” into the language of medicine and mechanics. It signified this was a legitimate condition that could be treated, rather than a permanent state of personal failure. It gave people the words, and with them, the courage to talk about and receive treatment for the condition.

As the American philosopher Alan Watts noted, “We think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.” People need the words to have the conversation. It’s our job to craft this language so that it shapes the market, creates new opportunities, sparks awareness, and broadens the impact of healthcare to the empowered consumer.

  • Dominic Leung

    Dominic Leung is Senior Director, Strategy at Interbrand Health. Dominic is responsible for leading and shaping strategies for global clients and progressing thought leadership efforts in healthcare, with a specific experience in and knowledge of European markets and a special interest in the emerging markets that are redefining our industry.

  • Katherine Knowles

    Katherine Knowles is Consultant, Verbal Identity at Interbrand Health. Katherine enjoys helping her clients to find unique voices and convey powerful messages that get to the heart of their brands. She previously worked as a television writer both in the UK and in the U.S. before finding her niche in branding.


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