Why Engagement is the New Health Care Branding

The ever-quotable Seth Godin says that marketing used to mean advertising. Now marketing means everything. After all, the ways in which consumers learn about and engage with brands transcends traditional advertising. In health care, branding used to mean brand advertising: the big, high ticket campaigns that are designed to elicit positive feelings about health care brands.  But after COVID-19, branding no longer means “running ads.” Today, health care branding means consumer engagement.  That’s because COVID-19 changed our patient-consumers’ attitudes, beliefs and desires about health and health brands. It used to be that patient-consumers didn’t want to hear from hospitals and health systems unless there was a crisis, mounting pain, or nudges for annual exams. After all, there are more pleasant things to think about than scheduling the annual colonoscopy. Health system marketers accepted the premise that their Facebook and Instagram posts might only receive modest engagement—certainly nothing to the extent of a hot new consumer device like a new iPhone or whatever brand a Kardashian is selling. Health care content promoting life-saving cardiology procedures isn’t nearly as enticing to consumers as fun videos of cute dogs actually silly.   But all that changed with COVID-19. Now, your patient-consumers care about their health like never before. And they want to hear from health care brands.  Like, a lot. YOUR PATIENTS WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU. A LOT.  Hailey Sault has been tracking patient-consumer sentiment since May 2020. At the high point of the pandemic, 52% of consumers said they wanted to hear from their physician or health system daily.  Daily! As the pandemic recedes, patient-consumers don’t want the daily briefings. But they do want steady, ongoing engagement. Are you engaging with your patient-consumers and helping them to nurture their health and wellness? Or is your competition? Health care brand loyalty used to be measured primarily with brand tracking public perception surveys. For example, do consumers regard our hospital more favorably than other brands in the marketplace? We also used to track brand loyalty based on a patient-consumer’s perception on where they would turn or trust the most for specific medical services like cancer care, cardiac services, and OB-GYN services.  Brand tracking still has a useful home in the Chief Marketing Officer’s portfolio. But COVID-19 taught us that consumer preferences, beliefs and desires are fluid and can change in a heartbeat. Health care chief marketing officers can’t afford to wait on quarterly or yearly brand tracking studies to know how the brand is performing and what consumers value at any given moment.  YOUR ENGAGEMENT STRATEGY IS CHANGING BECAUSE YOUR AUDIENCE IS CHANGING.  We’ve reached the tipping point in health care communications in which we can’t assume or take for granted that we “know” what consumers want from our health care brands. That’s because our audiences’ inner lives and health needs keep changing.  Prior to COVID-19, Hailey Sault developed yearly audience persona models that represent the four generations of health care consumers: Gen Z, Millennials, Generation X, and Boomers. These persona models allow us to identify the universal qualities and concerns of our health care clients, which we then customize to our client’s specific audience cohorts.  But since March of 2020, Hailey Sault has updated our health care audience personas four times to reflect changes in consumers like:
  1. Attitudes on personal health
  2. New health challenges
  3. Prioritizing their family’s health 
  4. Media consumption habits
  5. Barriers to accessing care
  6. Ability to pay for medical care 
  7. Attitudes on diversity, equality and inclusion
REAL-TIME CONSUMER ENGAGEMENT FEEDBACK LOOPS Health care marketing personas are powerful tools for developing messaging and media strategies. For us at Hailey Sault, human-centered personas are the starting point for marketing and brand strategy.  But we optimize our campaign strategies based on real-time marketplace feedback. 
  • What are consumers clicking on? 
  • What are they commenting on and sharing? 
  • Which messages are resonating? 
But perhaps the most essential question we’re asking ourselves these days on behalf of our clients is: when do our audiences convert from prospective to active patient status?  After all, health care marketing and branding is designed to inspire thought, feeling, and action. Traditional brand perception surveys illuminate thoughts and feelings among consumer audiences. But it’s action that health brands seek to elicit with their campaigns.  This is why engagement is the new health care branding. Consumers buy from brands they trust, whether that’s a new vehicle or a knee replacement. The way to build trust among your patient-consumers is to engage with them: helping them to make sense of their health, how to improve it, and make it easy to take action.  ENGAGEMENT HAS NEVER BEEN MORE VITAL The race to win back patient-consumers in our exam rooms has never been more competitive. Or more vital for your patients’ health.  MedPage Today ran an article titled “2020 Was a Lost Year for Women’s Medical Care.” The article referenced a KFF study that suggests women in the U.S. missed out on a range of essential health care services during the pandemic—from routine health screenings to contraceptive care—because of public health restrictions and increased financial barriers. Compared with men, more women skipped a recommended medical test or treatment (15% vs 23%, respectively) or missed preventive health services (26% vs 38%, respectively) during the COVID-19 crisis.  Traditional branding campaigns are designed to elicit feelings like trust among audiences. But what most health care brands need right now is for their patient-consumers to take action. That action might look like scheduling an appointment with a physician or getting an annual mammogram.  But in our patient-consumer engagement strategies, we’re seeing that those audiences also need helpful tools to actively manage their health. After all, the average American put on two pounds for every month of lockdown. (We know obesity is linked to many disease conditions, and most Americans were already overweight pre-pandemic.)  ABC News reported that U.S. deaths from heart disease climbed amid COVID-19.  According to the news report, “Experts believe a big reason may be that many people with dangerous symptoms made the lethal mistake of staying away from the hospital for fear of catching the coronavirus.”  As physician and medical satirist Zubin Damania, MD has shared on his podcast and social media network, “COVID-19 is on the decline. But the fear associated with it will take longer to unwind.” In the early days of COVID-19, health brands encouraged people to “stay home and save lives.” Now we have to nurture our patient-consumers to address their complete health needs: whether that means getting more exercise or getting that fluttering heartbeat checked out by a cardiologist.  How your health care brand engages your patient-consumers is how your audiences will, in turn, perceive your brand. 
  • Are you meeting your patient-consumers where they are?
  • Are you “taking the pulse” of your audience to see what their top health concerns are? 
  • Are you helping to unwind the fear associated with the pandemic so your patient-consumers feel more comfortable and confident getting back to life and back in the exam room?
The battle for brand loyalty is determined by how well you engage your patient-consumers. 
  • Does your messaging account for the nuances and needs of your diverse community?
  • Are you leveraging real-time metrics to optimize your engagement strategies?
Health care—which had once been a passive topic of conversation among most consumers—is now top-of-mind. Are you leveraging this opportunity? We hope so. Because if not, your competition surely will.

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