Research. Strategy. Target audiences. Social media. Message development. Claims approvals. The tone of your campaign. The content. The inevitable client feedback.

We all spend months analyzing the granular details of a healthcare marketing campaign. And, every component matters. But if you always remember and are guided by three fundamentals of good strategy—insight, simplicity, and courage—during design, execution, and evaluation stages, you’ll have a greater likelihood of success.

Some of you, I suspect, are nodding. And, maybe you are already nodding off. I recognize I may sound too esoteric and banal. But how often do we really take a step back and gain a fresh perspective of the work we do? Instead, try thinking of your marketing strategy as a play with three acts.

Act One: Insight.

Obviously, when you’re compiling the exposition and putting together a campaign, you begin with your research. When you’re researching, you’re looking to learn some under-the-radar truth that—once you find it—will have people nodding in approval. But, go beyond what you read.

As much as possible, you should be observing surgeries, shadowing reps and doctors, and listening to what physicians and patients say to each other. In other words, you should be watching as much as possible. Go online and see what your target audiences are saying. In the new book by Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, The Ride of a Lifetime, he recalls the debate on whether to buy Pixar. He went to the Disney parks and sat and watched to see which rides his patrons were headed. He saw, firsthand, that people went to the Pixar rides more than the Disney ones. He could have read that in a research report, but instead he saw it himself by observation, and it helped push forth one of the biggest (and most successful) acquisitions in history. Regardless of the industry, you need to spend time watching your customers. They will give you insight.

If you really want your message to resonate, and for people to say, “Wow, you really get me,” you first have to know your audience and then know how to speak to them. There are very few shortcuts to get there.

At HCB, we do a lot of work in ophthalmology. At an ad board, one of my colleagues started asking a few of the cataract surgeons why they chose that as a surgical specialty. We learned that a lot of them really enjoyed making their patients so happy by returning their sight. They did surgical rotations in trauma and cardio, but they really enjoyed both the microsurgical and the making people happy parts of ophthalmologic surgery. That insight has fed a lot of ideas around how we market products to these doctors. It tells us “why” they do what do instead of “how.” People care about the why more than the how.

Act Two: Simplicity.

By the time you’ve created and launched your campaign, you’ve learned a lot about the product or service you’re marketing. You probably know the brand better than your own company’s brand. So naturally, you want to tell your audience everything you’ve learned. You want to brag. You want to persuade. You’re fine with an elevator speech, but only if it goes up 500 floors.

But you can’t do that, of course.

You want to pick the one, best thing to say. I often think of the iconic Chanel suit when I want inspiration for simplicity. The legendary French designer, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, created the suit back in the 1920s. The reason it’s stood the test of time is due to its lack of detail. Its simple elegance is what makes it such a thing of beauty. Same with the long-lasting design of the iconic Porsche 911.

When you present a message that’s simple, you achieve two things—a singular theme or idea that somebody can remember, and you display a quiet confidence in your knowledge (and messaging).

I can’t tell you how many times we have come up with a simple positioning for a new product that said just one thing about the brand. There’s always a temptation to add to it—because we don’t ever want to leave out something. “It’s more effective,” “It’s safer,” “patient satisfaction,” and so on. By the time the positioning comes back to me, it can be what I affectionately call “Pencil-Fu**ed.”

If you tell people everything, they won’t remember anything. Simple is often more impactful.

Act Three: Courage.

This is the most underutilized of our three acts. Yet, it can be the most dramatic. And it’s the one that often makes all the difference between a healthcare campaign that creates a profound and memorable impact, or one leaves no strong impression and lands with a thud or whimper.

What do I mean by courage and bravery? If you think about it, by the time a campaign is about to be executed, everyone on the client and agency sides—from the creative and account directors to the brand managers and their bosses, and finally the lawyers, compliance, and the medical team—has examined and picked it apart.

Great ideas get killed at the drafting and conference room tables because they are too risky, too simple, or too competitive. Every time you “soften” the idea, you bruise it and you take away its power. Campaigns and creative need internal advocates that are willing to bravely fight for what they believe is right. Compromise, yes. But, not capitulation.

I’m not suggesting a campaign overclaim anything—you can’t do that in healthcare (and really shouldn’t in any field). I am saying that you can offer thought-provoking marketing that makes a bold statement, gets your audience’s attention, and perhaps makes them think. You may not be able to say everything in that simple, creative idea—but you will say something. Make it count.

A few years back, we’re working on a product that was being introduced to replace a procedure physicians had been using since 1962. It was a fairly barbaric surgery but there was a tremendous reluctance to change. We decided to call them out and did an ad that showed docs from the early ’60s in a black and white ad. It simply said, “The 1960s called. They want their procedure back.” Sure, we were the agency that thought it up, but it was two brave folks from our client that decided to roll the dice and run it. We risked alienating our customers by essentially mocking them for their dated approach. Not only did our audience receive it well, but they loved the humor and the chance to laugh at themselves. They also realized it was time to change. I watched in shock as they posed with the ad at the annual meeting for selfies. Risky? Yup. But worth it? No doubt.

In fact, that may be the moral of this three-act play for all marketers trying to impart a message. Keep your insights insightful and your message simple. Have the courage to run the ad that people will remember and don’t be afraid to be different. The reward is worth the risk.

  • Nancy Beesley

    Nancy Beesley is the President and a Founding Partner of HCB Health, where she has brought her love of making others shine for more than 17 years. She manages the firm’s business to ensure consistency, quality, and client delight across the company. Nancy also leads HCB’s business-development efforts with a focus on attracting dynamic, growth-driven clients who appreciate the agency’s focus on service and strategy.


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