Who would have expected a decade ago that the average consumer could buy a personalised genetic health risk report for under US$200? Or that we’d be wearing pyjamas incorporating bioceramic technology that helps our bodies recover faster and sleep better after exercise? Or that we’d access mental health support in our droves from a robot, via an app on our mobile phones?
The rapid rate and extent of innovation in the health-and-wellness sector over the last few years has been staggering. The constant barrage of new, mind-boggling inventions, predominantly driven by technology and big data, is set to continue with research predicting that the global healthcare AI market alone will grow to over US$5.5 billion by 2022.
People want proof over promise
Consumers are so accustomed now to this level of innovation that they have come to expect it from brands. In fact, as WE Communications' Brands in Motion 2018 global study shows, being seen as cutting-edge strongly correlates with being well-loved, delivering pleasurable experiences and being out for the common good.
And that is why brand marketers reading these seductive findings look to put together a press release pushing their innovative credentials and case studies, or commission video showcasing their creative strengths. But, this common, instinctive reaction has led to a problem. WE Communications’ JJ Lee, vice president, regional health lead, APAC, says that "innovation has become a buzzword" and the market is experiencing "innovation fatigue"; consumers increasingly zone out the message because it’s lost its meaning.
Cutting through and being believed as truly innovative as a healthcare brand is a complex undertaking. It requires a far more holistic approach than a few press releases. "Yes, innovation is a powerful driver of consumer desirability with all these halo effects, but we have to be careful to show, not just tell," says Lee.
The data shows that consumers’ needs for reason are outpacing their needs to feel emotionally connected to a brand, with average scores up 16 per cent for rational drivers and only 14 per cent for emotional drivers from 2017 to 2018.
Consumers are fed up with the emotive hyperbole surrounding new products and are craving authenticity and reliability. This is particularly true in the UK, which has gone through an especially turbulent time as a result of Brexit and the subsequent socio-political turbulence and uncertainty. The Brands in Motion study, for example, shows that Brits are particularly looking for functional products balanced with brand purpose.
"This uncertainty in the environment means that consumers are looking to brands for stability," says Catherine Devaney, deputy managing director and head of health, UK, at WE Communications. "Consumers want good products and proof over promise. The data shows that consumers’ needs for reason are outpacing their needs to feel emotionally connected to a brand, with average scores up 16 percent for rational drivers and only 14 percent for emotional drivers from 2017 to 2018. Basically, brand marketers need to think about the balance of emotional and rational content they are creating."
Consumers are scared. They want ethical and sensible change.
They also need to understand that recent high-profile technology scandals like the Cambridge Analytica/ Facebook debacle have rocked consumer confidence in technology to its core. The study results make this tension between a craving for innovation, and simultaneously a fear of rapid technological change, clear. While the data shows this ‘innovation halo effect’, it also shows high levels of consumer fear, with 84 percent fearing their personal data is not secure, 71 percent fearing their medical records are compromised and 54 percent worrying artificial intelligence will take their jobs.
However, before brands even think about constructing their innovation narrative and strategizing over how to get it out into the world, there is another key, crucial finding in WE Communication’s Brands in Motion study: you can’t even begin to talk about innovation until you’ve built your brand on strong ethical foundations.
"If brands jump right into the innovation story, without considering this tension around ethics and the expectations that brands should give back, then you skip a couple of rungs and your story will be seen as hollow and received with scepticism," says Lee. "If you’re not telling a very strong story about your ability to self-regulate and be mindful, thoughtful and ethical in your behaviour, then the innovation story will fall on deaf ears. An innovation story only resonates with audiences when you already have those strong foundational pillars of ethics in place and a strong track record. Only at that point does it become interesting to consumers."
Again, the study results show this need for ethical behaviour with 94 percent saying that if brands can’t use technology ethically, then governments should step in, and 97 percent saying they now place responsibility squarely on brands to use technology ethically, while continuing to drive customer-centric innovation.
One way, says Devaney, that brands can underline their ethical approach to business is by "taking a stand on important issues" and fighting for a worthy, relevant cause. She cites Bodyform with its #Bloodnormal campaign to normalise menstruation, and taking the shame away from periods, as a good example.
The women’s brand braving change: Bodyform
"What Bodyform has done well is tackle a social issue while ensuring that its intention is sound; and I use the word ‘intention’ purposefully, as there is a big difference between intent and motive; the latter being about selling more product rather than feeling passionate and being authentic about a social issue," says Devaney. "Bodyform’s campaign feels authentic and, given the product it makes, it has the permission to speak on this issue and is prepared to deal with any issues or backlash in standing up for what it believes in."
Bodyform marketing director Nicola Coronado believes that it is critical for brands in the healthcare sector to have a voice on issues that concern their consumers. "I wouldn’t say it’s more important for hygiene and health brands to take a stance on issues but, of course, hygiene and health issues tend to be more personal and emotive, and they can affect very large groups of people. So the issues tend to be more of a talking point than they might be in other sectors," she says. "For Bodyform, the issue of period taboos is huge and it negatively impacts millions of people, so we see a real need to change that."
By committing to this campaign, there’s no doubt that Bodyform has successfully managed to position itself as a brand in this sector that cares and is trustworthy and has strong ethics. But brands shouldn’t launch these types of social-issue-led campaigns with the sole objective of improving their consumer perception scores, as this strategy is bound to backfire.
Coronado says: "Be genuine and take action for the right reasons. The objective of driving sales and growing profits shouldn’t hide under the guise of tackling a social issue. If it does, you’ll get found out very quickly."
This holds true whether you’re operating in the general consumer health-and-wellness sector, or the prescription health market, like Roche, which makes prescription medicines, diagnostics and devices.
The prescription brand breaking barriers: Roche
Roche is another example of a company that’s ensured it has a voice on emotive issues, issues that matter to their consumers such as access to healthcare. As Daniel Grotzky, head of brand management and solutions at Roche, says, the company works closely with different stakeholders to reduce the barriers to access for treatments, explaining that this can include such diverse measures as supporting new healthcare infrastructure, enabling diagnostics and training staff or new models for drug reimbursement.
Sustainability, long-term thinking and doing what is right for the patient are core to "who we are", says Grotzky, explaining that these values are embedded in the roots of the family owned business: "Our company purpose is ‘Doing Now What Patients Need Next’. This is not a slogan or tagline, but a commitment. We base our corporate brand strategy around a purpose that highlights the urgency of scientific innovation for patients, but it also influences our thinking and decision-making at different levels of the organisation."
Traditionally, brands in the prescription health sector like Roche have moved cautiously and conservatively, having to jump through many legal and regulatory hoops. This long, arduous process of evidencing and proofing products has meant extended periods between launches.
But this culture is increasingly at odds with the health tech entrants who are driving a much quicker, ‘fail fast’ mentality. This tension is only likely to increase as technology continues to advance, with AI set to revolutionise the sector further. The challenge is that, as consumers push for new tech that makes lives easier, their expectations of technology keeps going up, while their tolerance of inevitable glitches keeps going down. When tech does go wrong, there is a disproportionate outcry and backlash, often denouncing the technology.
A good example of this is IBM’s Watson. The ‘Watson for Oncology’ supercomputer is designed to take huge amounts of data and come up with recommendations on how to treat patients. But in July it emerged that Watson was actually giving out unsafe recommendations for treating cancer sufferers, which led to high-profile criticism with some doctors immediately writing it off as useless.
"We’re seeing new technology dramatically raise the bar on consumer expectations and patient expectations," explains Lee. "They are expecting a tonne but they are also fearful of, and jump on, any fall from grace." Given this dichotomy, it’s understandable, why brands are paralysed into inaction and silence by questions like: are we over promising? Are we doing enough? Can we deliver?
Brands are petrified of saying the wrong thing and the most common phrases specialist communications agencies in this sector, like WE, hear is that it is "too early" to tell the story, or even that they don’t have a story to tell at all.
So what does Lee think constitutes a brave brand getting this balance right amid this complexity? "The ones that say ‘hey, we don’t have all the answers but we are working really hard, putting our noses to the grindstone, wading through this puddle of how to integrate technology… we have some great heritage to leverage, we can guarantee that we’re not going to stop thinking about this and we’re not going to stop being transparent, tracking, measuring our success and reporting back to you’. That’s how brands can be very brave yet still work within the conservative spirit of traditional healthcare."
Brand managers need to have the courage to actually be brand managers and embrace engaging storytelling, says Devaney, rather than behaving more like "risk managers" where overly risk-averse compliance holds back creativity beyond what regulations actually require.
"Of course companies have to follow compliance regulations in both word and spirit, but many companies create additional SOPs and rules that make delivering communications programmes too difficult, which is at odds with the drive to be more innovative," she says.
84% fearing their personal data is not secure, 71% fearing their medical records are compromised and 54% worrying artificial intelligence will take their jobs.
The health education brand telling truths: Elsevier
It’s not just pharmaceutical companies, either, that are grappling with these challenges of how best to tell their story—it’s a problem for all companies in healthcare. But Elsevier negotiates this well; it is a publisher of healthcare literature, which has transformed its business in recent years to bring resources online. It has a strong heritage in the sector and understands its medical audience deeply, and knows how thoughtful and ethical they are, so is careful not to over promise even if this means potentially losing out on high-profile media coverage.
Alison Powell, senior vice president of marketing for clinical solutions at Elsevier says: "It is imperative what we do and say is accurate and not to bring false hope or misguidance in our messaging as far as we can manage. This may make us seem ‘cautious’ perhaps against the fast-moving tech entrants, but we have built a strong level of trust and experience over the years that our customers depend on."
But this doesn’t stop Elsevier from crafting and being in control of its own narrative—its innovation is often in the way the story is told. As Powell explains, while it’s crucial to be careful with brand messaging, that doesn’t mean a brand has to be "cautious" or "conservative" in the delivery of that message. She advises:
"Try new ways to connect with customers, including a mix of digital channels and above-the-line media. The look and feel of the brand can still be engaging and exciting. We attend a lot of conferences and this gives us the opportunity to ask our customers what they think and try new ways to engage. The key is how and where you deliver the message and the product—be surprising in the way you tell the story. Try new technology to reach out to customers, experiment with the delivery mechanic and solicit feedback where possible."
The baby brand growing up: Johnson&Johnson
Another good example of innovative storytelling in the healthcare sector is Johnson & Johnson’s recent ‘Choose Gentle’ campaign, which set out to draw on the heritage of the brand but also make it more relevant to modern parents. It did this by purposely keeping the parent-child relationship central to its advertising but it also took risks: firstly by expanding the traditional definition of "family" and secondly by getting these diverse families to take part in week-long, unscripted shoots in several locations.
"We challenged cultural dynamics by showcasing modern family scenarios, like same sex couples, stay-at-home dads and more realistic home situations," says Deeptha Khanna, president, global baby care franchise at Johnson & Johnson. "In fact, often our scripts were written post production to retain full authenticity and, in doing so, they re-defined how Johnson & Johnson creates advertising. This showcases how it’s possible to innovate while simultaneously building on more than 100 years of trust."
This risk-embracing, test-and-learn attitude is crucial for success and those that hang back, keeping schtum and waiting to see what happens by watching others are destined for failure. As Lee says, "if you stop having the conversation because you’re afraid you’re going to tell the story wrong, or that you’re going to over promise, then you’ve already given up and failed, and then the industry or category will tell it for you".
When that happens, the brand is no longer seen as innovative because it’s following, rather than leading, the conversation and so seen as lagging behind the entire market.
And, as the Brands in Motion study shows, being seen as innovative is paramount to be perceived in a positive light today in this industry.
"Brands can’t wait another couple of years to tell their stories because transformation is happening today," says Lee. "We need to roll up our sleeves and sharpen our pencils. The time to tell our stories is now."
1. Before they start telling an innovation story, brands must ensure their foundations on ethics, authenticity and functionality are solid
2. In a turbulent world, consumers are looking for stability which means brands must balance the emotional and rational aspects of their messaging
3. All consumers, particularly the Brits, are looking for functional products that also have a clear brand purpose
4. Brands can show their ethical standing and purpose-led approach by getting behind a social issue but their involvement must be genuine or it will be counter productive