By contrast, the healthcare industry tends to get more earnest in its delivery. We’re mostly talking about hospital systems and drug companies.
Hospitals’ marketing often focuses on critical care, state-of-the-art specialists and the annual measuring contest of hospital rankings. Hospital brands are typically positioned around authority and expertise.
Now let’s have that talk ... about drugs. When it comes to health marketing, the behemoth on the beach is undeniably the pharmaceutical industry. It is impossible to watch 30 minutes of television without seeing at least two or three ads from Big Pharma, promising that a cure for whatever-it-is-you-think-you-have is finally here.
The astronomical spending by the pharmaceutical industry has forestalled industry headwinds buffeting the traditional media business out of existence. There is no doubt holding companies would have laid off twice as many people if not for healthcare brands buying enough traditional media to compensate for all the money that moved to social platforms. It has already changed the talent mix and skewed client portfolios and margins across the bigger agencies.
And what if short-term benefits to the ad industry have unexpected side effects down the road?
Speaking of side effects, I will refrain from mentioning any particular pharmaceutical giant by name, since they have more lawyers than Congress and more billions than Bezos, but one of the top-spending drugs currently on-air lists an increased chance of contracting tuberculosis as a possible side effect. How about that: A potential side effect of a drug is a disease that has been the scourge of civilization for centuries—consumption, scrofula, the King’s Touch, the White Plague and Captain of All These Men of Death. The drug being advertised offers a cure for something that is plaguing many Americans, but be forewarned that it might cause an actual plague.
It makes you wonder. Every country except for New Zealand and the United States makes it illegal for drug companies to advertise on television. In the case of the Kiwis, there are more sheep than people in their island nation, so maybe they figure viewership is so low that it’s no big deal. But in the U.S., it’s big business. And the billions spent on advertising are only the tip of a marketing iceberg that extends down, down, down ... into doctor’s offices, onto drugstore counters and inside lobbyists’ briefcases.
The problem with most healthcare marketing is that it follows an old problem-solution paradigm, which assumes that you feel sick and want to feel better. Holding aside the limitations this puts on creativity, it’s out of sync with our cultural obsession with wellness that starts with food and extends to exercise and even mental health. It’s why Amazon bought Whole Foods and why Peloton and Headspace are now power brands.
People don’t just want to feel better, they want to stay well.
More significant is the shift we’ve made toward a balanced approach to health. (I’ve been trying to avoid using the word “holistic,” so bear with me.) Maybe you need a prescription, but the answer to your ailment isn’t only a pill, it’s also better food, more exercise, getting more sleep. It’s yoga or your Calm app or one less coffee each morning.
Which begs the question: If pharma brands really care about my condition, why aren’t the ads more transparent and informative? Sell the drug, but give me some tips on what to try before I take another prescription drug. (More than half the country takes at least two prescription drugs every month.) So if you’re pushing an anti-anxiety medication, why not partner with a meditation app, recommend changes to my diet or tell me what breathing exercises I should try?
This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, and there’s a great marketing precedent. Remember when Patagonia said, “Don’t Buy This Jacket” and sales went up? Every major outdoor brand now features some kind of lifetime guarantee or promise of free repairs. By not selling, they make you want to buy more. Consumers gain value and brands gain credibility—isn’t that the function of marketing?
(I’m thinking of calling this “gain-of-function marketing” so I can apply for a government grant.)
Marketing that makes you feel good might sound like a radical idea, but if wellness brands are any indication, there’s more growth potential in positivity than paranoia. That might be the placebo effect of wishful thinking, but for the health of our industry, it’s a pill I’m willing to swallow.
There. I feel better already.