Why Healthcare Needs Better Storytelling, Not Better Marketing

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Manny Rodriguez, chief marketing and experience officer at UCHealth.
Manny Rodriguez, chief marketing and experience officer at UCHealth. Credit: UCHealth

Every healthcare marketer has firsthand experience with the industry he or she supports, whether it's a sick relative or a child recovering from a broken arm. But not many have the story of Manny Rodriguez. Before taking on a chief marketing title at UCHealth, Rodriguez was a leukemia survivor.

Rodriguez underwent treatment at a variety of the nation's best medical centers, including MD Anderson, Memorial Sloan Kettering and Dana Farber, in addition to UCHealth. While the care was always excellent, his experience with each center was vastly different. Once he joined UCHealth, he found himself poised to better a system that bettered him.

"We've gotten away from the fact that what we do is about the patient," Rodriguez says. "I don't want to be a healthcare marketer; I want to be a consumer marketer who is marketing to patients. When I came here, I wanted to bring that notion of consumer marketing and lifestyle marketing to a healthcare brand."

Rodriguez helped create the chief marketing and experience officer position with UCHealth executives, who in turn urged him to fill those shoes. "I was at the point in my career where I wondered what's my legacy, and where do I give back?" he says. This leadership earned him a Marketing Innovation finalist nod in the most recent awards from The CMO Club.

Below is the story of how Rodriguez and his team are transforming UCHealth into the patient-focused lifestyle brand that, if you ask the employees, it always has been.

The patient promise

After 18 months of initial research and thousands of interviews, Rodriguez and his team understood that "great care" wasn't enough to differentiate UCHealth from its competitors. "What we heard from our consumers, our patients, our providers, and our employees is that we need to be a patient-centered brand that focuses on innovation and quality outcome," he says.

They looked to build a campaign that featured only patients, uttering not a single word about UCHealth. The result was more than a dozen videos like "Peyton" and "Becky" -- told from the patient's point of view, by the patient himself or herself.

Telling the stories

While the stories look effortlessly told, Rodriguez says that his team initially believed compelling narratives would be their biggest challenge. "How are we going to get the average person to create an emotional story that people are going to want to resonate with, that people are going to want to engage with, and people will be inspired and motivated by?" he says. "We felt it was very important that the patient tell their own story, not an actor."

During the process, director Pam Thomas and photographer Martin Schoeller drew feeling from the patients in a way that was not only natural, but beautiful. "Pam is a great storyteller," says Rodriguez. "She's just got this way of disarming you. So when she was interacting with these patients, and they're nervous and they're scared, she talks to them and she's joking," capturing unscripted moments all while the camera is rolling.

In fact, hiring nonhealthcare acting talent is one of Rodriguez's keys to effective storytelling for healthcare. "I've yet to hire anybody in industry," he says, instead sourcing from Disney, ad agencies, CenturyLink and even the Seattle Seahawks. "We think differently."

Building a lifestyle brand

While great storytelling alone is cause for celebration, Rodriguez and his team have the bigger picture in mind for UCHealth. "We're trying to change the conversation from 'Let me fix you when you're broken' to 'Let me help you live a more active, healthier lifestyle.'" In his view, giant lifestyle brands like Nike have taken credit for the role that belongs to healthcare brands like UCHealth.

For instance, he cites Under Armour's campaign with Michael Phelps, touting his dozens of Olympic medals. "Think about Michael Phelps -- he's wearing the least amount of clothes possible when he's in the pool," Rodriguez says. "UnderArmour has nothing to do with his performance. But the physician, the trainers, the medical staff behind him, his coaches ... there are human beings behind him."

Rodriguez hopes that his team can help healthcare reclaim this association with not just sick-turned-healthy, but health-made-healthier. And that when an athlete wants to achieve a goal like climbing the Seven Summits, he or she will turn to UCHealth first, not a hiking or outdoor magazine.

The employee check-up

The campaign is resonating in particular with UCHealth employees -- a surefire sign that the storytelling properly encapsulates the organization's brand and mission. "We heard a lot of, 'Finally, leadership gets it.' [Our employees] are in a business where you work long hours, you don't get paid very well, you don't sleep well. And they do it for the patient," he says. "So finally, here we are, we're not talking about anybody else but the patient."

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