Jason Wincuinas
Jun 5, 2014

Winning strategies in healthcare marketing

HONG KONG - Ahead of the Lions Health festival, a jury member offers exclusive insight into effective and award-winning healthcare communications.

Winning strategies in healthcare marketing

“Instinctively you know what’s not working” said Laura Schoen, president of the global healthcare practice at Weber Shandwick. Schoen is a jury member for healthcare at the inaugural Lions Health festival, taking place just before Cannes Lions this year. She recently gave Campaign Asia-Pacific an exclusive glimpse into her thinking for picking the winners.

Too many communications efforts go down the road of tugging on heartstrings, she explained after already viewing much of the material to be judged. (The jury meets for nine days in Cannes to debate the merits of each entry, but the apprising work has already begun some three weeks earlier.) It’s a task Schoen takes seriously, and she is looking forward to debating with her peers about what works and what doesn’t. The global leader’s perspective comes from about 15 years in the industry with Weber Shandwick and close to a decade before that as the founder and president of healthcare at Euro RSCG in the USA.

“I see a lot of emotion [in ads] but I feel like it’s overplayed”, she said. “In general I try to find a fresh idea that’s strategic.”

She highlighted that healthcare messaging, whether it’s a TVC or a PR effort, shouldn’t be too formulaic. More than anything, it has to have firm roots in the lab. There has to be an understanding of “what is the need of the patient” and a clear grip on how the solutions actually work. But at the same time she says, “this is not a biology class.” Campaigns that make you feel like you are sitting though a classroom lecture will fail to connect and certainly don’t deserve the title of “creative”.

To engage a target audience, Schoen suggests that the industry’s communications have to follow a fine line between the complexity of medical details and the end goal of simply alleviating somebody’s suffering. “I’m a strong believer that everything starts with science; once you understand that, then you can be as creative as you want to be.”

Schoen sees many universals as immediate challenges in healthcare. Aging populations, obesity, mental illness and any of the associated health problems those bring are all drivers across the industry and across the globe. Despite differences between countries, human beings suffer from largely the same things. But that doesn’t mean similar problems should all be solved with the same approach. Culture still plays a role. In Asia, she points out, drug-makers have a particular need to work on changing the relationship dynamics between doctors and patients. “Its important to help people be proactive about sharing information.”

Laura Schoen

A doctor’s expertise carries considerable weight in patent minds and people in the East may defer to that with less questioning than in the West. But no one understands a health condition better than the person suffering from it. So Schoen proposes that there is room for healthcare companies and drug makers to help patients learn about mental health, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or other uncomfortable topics, so they are better prepared to help themselves.

The internet is a double-edged sword in this aspect of healthcare communication. People regularly go to the web to look for information, which gives them an opportunity to find relevant details and bring questions to a medical consultation. But at the same time, if companies don’t proactively tell their side of a health or drug story, outdated or biased information may be all that’s available. That’s why Schoen claimed “the internet has turned everything on its head.” Even your health is not immune from digital disruption.

And that’s where creativity plays an important role. In cases of clinical depression, for example, where there is a large social stigma, “it makes sense to give a patient the courage to talk with a doctor,” Schoen said. And while that purpose will require some cleverness and unusual approaches, she maintained, it’s still different from “the kind of cleaver that might sell a car”. But that’s what she looks for when judging a campaign—it can’t be too clinical and it can’t be too unscientific either.

An example of the creativity Schoen wants to see at Cannes comes from the history of Viagra. She said it was a PR campaign that invented the ‘erectile dysfunction’ terminology. Renaming the problem took away much of the negative connotation and social judgement of the old word “impotence.” So instead of going to the doctor to say, “I might be impotent,” (ie powerless, inadequate, weak, feeble, worthless) male patients could use new terminology that was less demoralizing. It was a simple shift but it put the power in patient’s hands to ask questions while staying true to medical reality. And it also helped sell millions of pills.

Extend that same tactic to mental illness, STDs or controversial vaccinations and there is great opportunity to heal many of societies ills with just a turn of phrase. Schoen is looking for that brand of creativity at Cannes this year and plans to reward creative teams that can think beyond tugging on heartstrings, stay with the science and still engaging the right audience. 


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