A story ran on NPR not that long ago about a mother who was dying from Stage 4 breast cancer.
It was a real punch in the gut to hear her perspective on how marketers are representing healthcare providers to patients. To quote 39-year-old Lori Wallace, “I didn’t say ‘yes’ to cancer. I have tried everything I can. I have done clinical trials. I have said ‘yes’ to every possible treatment. And the cancer doesn’t care.”
She is, of course, referring to all the overly-positive consumer-facing marketing messages that are coming from healthcare providers at every level. These healthcare marketing messages are meant to deliver hope to patients like Lori, who have expensive or long-term healthcare needs, and win their business and insurance money.
The Problem with Positive Healthcare Marketing
What they neglect, and what she points out in no uncertain terms to the NPR reporter, is they also tell patients like her who are losing their battles that they’re not doing enough. They’re not thinking positive enough thoughts, they’re not working hard enough to survive, they’re simply not enough. The truth, the horrible, terrible truth for patients like her, is that not everyone will make it. And often, too often, people don’t.
Then what? What happens when a hospital fails to deliver on a promise that massive? Well, as it turns out, nothing. Unlike pharmaceutical advertising, where the FDA very closely regulates what can and cannot be said, and what must be disclosed, healthcare ads too often promise far more than they can ever deliver, leaving long-term patients in the lurch.
Sure, it sounds great to say your hospital is number one in keyhole surgery or appendectomies, but what does that really mean? And how do you prove that? The impetus has never been on the marketer to necessarily prove the claims they make, but maybe, just this once, it should be. When a person’s very last hope hangs on your healthcare marketing, that’s a heavy weight to bear. And it echoes loudly when it falls.
Better Long-term Healthcare Marketing
Today’s trend may be focused on promising the impossible, but it won’t be long before those kinds of health ads will become untenable. What will work, however, are the same kinds of ads that have worked in so many other skilled industries. Those are, of course, advertisements based on real life, actual facts.
Here are a few ideas about how to approach that:
- Promote hospital culture. Hospitals are all different, no matter what anyone tells you. Some are more strictly religious, others are secular, some are family-friendly, others more utilitarian and somber. Just like with branding a hotel or a golf course, amenities and culture matter. Does your hospital have single rooms available for new mothers? That’s a big one!
- Share successes, but don’t promise them. It’s fine to use patients in promos, and why not? Tom came to the hospital with a terrible case of pneumonia and after three days in your new revolutionary treatment chamber, he was all better! That’s great news! Just make it clear that this is not a guaranteed result.
- Talk about your employees. The doctors, nurses and staff are each important parts of the healthcare team. They all have unique skills that make them a great fit for someone, whether that’s women aged 35 to 50 or men over age 65. Figure out what makes them do their job so well and bring it to the forefront. Market to your target audience using the benefits from your producers’ skills, just like you would with anything else.
In theory, there’s no difference between selling healthcare and selling a cup of coffee, except that there is. There should be an ethical divide somewhere between the two, whether you insert it for the wellbeing of patients or for fear of reprisal. Both are probably fairly significant concerns in the long-run. Overly-positive healthcare ads can generate so much ill will in patients that it pays to consider this next time you’re developing a marketing plan for a healthcare facility.