A remedy for health care
New brands put the consumer in control
By Adrianne Pasquarelli Illustration by Doug Chayka. Published on July 31, 2019
On a recent earnings call with analysts, Michael Roth, chief executive of Interpublic Group of Cos., called out health care as a major revenue driver for the holding company. “That’s where the action is right now,” Roth said, citing the performance of both specialized IPG agencies like FCB Health, as well as Huge, which recently won creative duties for Sinai Health Foundation. Health care is responsible for more than a quarter of IPG’s $8 billion business, Roth said. Once labeled an “also and,” health care is quickly becoming a cure-all for an ad industry recovering from spending cutbacks in prime categories like consumer packaged goods. What’s driving renewed interest is long-overdue disruption in the health care category that’s creating opportunities for fresh advertising campaigns and improved experiences. The category, including over-the-counter and prescription drugs, remedies, health care providers, hospitals and optical goods, spent a robust $12.7 billion on measured media in the U.S., up nearly 1 percent from the year earlier, according to Ad Age Datacenter analysis of data from Kantar Media.

Consumers in Control

For years, consumers have complained of expensive, confusing and inconvenient doctor experiences. Now, those customers are taking greater control of their heath care needs and a host of new brands are stepping in, incorporating some of the technologies that have been successful for direct-to-consumer retail brands. There are startups like Hims and Roman, which offer specialized service and care for specific ailments. In addition, brands like CityMD are encouraging walk-in doctor visits. Chains like Aspen Dental and membership-based providers such as One Medical are also boosting advertising as they strive to grow and build brand awareness. Such companies are engaging in campaigns that promise more transparency and better services for customers eager to establish ownership of their health needs. Even established players are reinventing themselves. Traditional drugstores, for example, have been ramping up their services for patients with chronic conditions as a way of encouraging more walk-in traffic. “There’s definitely a trend in the American health care marketplace toward more consumer-driven medicine where patients are engaged in their care, they’re active consumers of their care, and they’re well-informed and making decisions based on quality and cost,” says Adrienne Faerber, administrative director of the Academy for Surgical Coaching at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health’s Dept. of Surgery.
CVS is converting some stores into HealthHUBs that will offer services like diabetes testing and yoga classes.

The deductible factor

The shift has been underway for years. Consumers are taking control of their health care futures as a result of the prevalence of higher deductible insurance plans, experts say. When patients have to spend more of their own dollars for coverage, they’re more likely to research how that money is spent and find the best, most affordable options available. Recognizing that consumers now have a choice, new marketers are doing their best to convince them that their brands are up to the task. “It’s the culmination of this increased consumer focus, the idea that you’re empowering consumers by helping them have more control over their health care and giving them access,” says Dr. Steven Woloshin, co-director of the Center for Medicine and Media at the Dartmouth Institute. “It’s a reaction to how difficult it is to get care conveniently on a timely basis and concerns about cost.” With this shift, consumers now expect more transparency from brands, in both cost and messaging. Such clarity was exemplified in May, when the Trump administration announced a new rule in which drugmakers are required to include the price of their products in TV ads. The government expects such disclosures will lead to lower medicine prices by pharmaceutical giants, but the listings could also help guide consumers in their own choices. Of course, experts say that drug listings aren’t nearly as cut and dry: insurance coverage also plays a role in the price a consumer pays. “Unlike a retail clinic where they have a lot of control over the price of their services, the variability in the price of prescription drugs is much greater,” says Faerber. In June, pharmaceutical companies fought back with a lawsuit arguing as much. Earlier this month, a judge blocked the rule, arguing that the rule exceeded the Department of Health and Human Services’ authority. It’s unclear if the Trump administration will pursue other options.

Clinics in growth mode

Since its 2010 founding, New York-based retail clinic CityMD, which offers walk-in appointments with medical professionals seven days a week, has been steadily increasing its numbers, and now has some 120 locations. The brand is also expanding into areas like telemedicine as it strives to make its services as easy and convenient as possible for patients. Until now, most of CityMD’s marketing had been created in-house and centered around improving the user experience, according to K. Calvin Hwang, chief brand officer. But late last year, during flu season, the chain worked with new creative agency-of-record Terri & Sandy on a marketing campaign encouraging consumers who feel sick to visit a CityMD location. “When you say the patient has a choice, how do you win the love and loyalty of the patient? That’s how we think about our approach,” says Hwang. “In our marketing, we’re putting the patient at the center.” Called “You need some CityMD,” the campaign adopted a funny, but not too funny, tone by showcasing the potential germs sick people can spread to their neighbors and loved ones when they put off visiting a doctor. “It’s unusual in the health care world to be witty and entertaining,” says Sandy Greenberg, co-founder and CEO of Terri & Sandy. She notes that the traditional health care system hasn’t been geared toward millennials, who are often not visiting doctors when sick for a variety of reasons—treatment is impersonal, hours are inconvenient, waiting rooms take forever. Brands like CityMD are filling the void, and attracting younger consumers because of it. Similarly, One Medical, a San Francisco-based startup that charges annual fees for personalized health care service in a subscription-type model, is also boosting its marketing. The 12-year-old company hired former Google Nest marketer Doug Sweeney as chief marketing officer last year, and recently debuted an ad campaign, “Sick Cities,” with Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Sweeney notes that while other industries, like retail, have evolved, health care has lagged. “You have a category that’s really unloved--it’s not been as progressive in keeping up with consumer expectations and demands as other categories,” he says. To that end, One Medical offers an app with technology that it says streamlines the doctor-patient appointment and follow-up process into a seamless and convenient experience that includes prescription delivery. The brand, which also accepts insurance, charges around $200 each year. That fee goes toward visits, video visits, and help with booking and billings.
CityMD uses humorous ads to draw patients to its retail clinics.
“It’s about a service that bends to the ways people live their lives today—not the other way around,” says Sweeney of One Medical, which has 72 locations and plans to double its footprint over the next two years as it moves into other specialized areas like pediatrics. “One Medical has created an experience that we thought through end-to-end to make sure it’s as enjoyable as it possibly can be, and that’s one reason why the company is growing as fast as it is.” For Sam Peters, who works in the hotel industry in Washington D.C., One Medical is worth the $199 membership price because of the convenience. After switching insurance earlier this year, Peters tried contacting several doctors but found that all of their new patient appointments were months away. Swayed by a recommendation from a friend and the promise of same-day appointments, Peters joined. “I loved that I could do everything online or via the app,” he says. “Having to call [traditional doctor practices and clinics] was super annoying, especially given the hold times.”

Convenient and transparent

The convenience factor—coupled with the ease with which consumers now order goods online for delivery at their door—played into the founding two years ago of Hims, a wellness brand that helps men with issues including balding and erectile dysfunction. Men are encouraged to submit photos of receding hairlines, for example, on the Hims site in order to find treatment options from licensed medical professionals--the brand works with around 140 doctors. Since its launch, Hims has expanded into its own line of skin care and shampoo products and a Hers brand for women. The company, which works with agency Gin Lane, recently ran a “Fly your flag” subway campaign and has been able to rely on user- generated content to widen its reach, according to Hillary Coles, co-founder. “What we’ve been focusing on a lot is this idea of, ‘If you feel good, then you’re going to take care of yourself,’” says Coles. “We want to make sure you feel good, because unfortunately, the health care system to date is something where a lot of people have been left out and fallen through the cracks.” Coles notes that Hims tries to be as upfront as possible with its pricing and subscription services—something consumers have come to expect from brands they trust, but a trait that has been missing in much of health care. There’s still room for improvement though, as brands grapple with insurance costs and prices post-deductible. “Pricing transparency is one of our key strategies, but we face a lot of key challenges when we try to do that because insurance plans are so complex,” says CityMD’s Hwang.

Drugstores get service-savvy

At the same time new brands are entering the health care market, existing companies are expanding their reach. Both CVS and Walgreens have been ramping up their service offerings, moving beyond over-the-counter wellness and prescription drugs into services for consumers with chronic conditions such as diabetes and high-blood pressure. The moves are a way to encourage repeat store traffic and help the retailers become a solution for all consumer wellness needs. Walgreens has embraced the idea of “neighborhood care” with more services in the hopes of becoming a neighborhood “destination,” for all health care needs, according to a spokeswoman. The chain uses digital marketing to direct customers to schedule appointments at its clinics and also promotes its services with in-store signage.


CVS, which last year acquired insurer Aetna, has been experimenting with dedicating one-fifth of its square footage in certain locations to services. Last month, the chain announced it will convert 1,500 of its locations to HealthHUBs by the end of 2021. Such hubs could include things like diabetes testing, yoga classes or even sleep apnea diagnoses. By incorporating services, integrated with the products to treat health issues, in its stores, CVS could become a one-stop shop for customers, says Norman de Greve, chief marketing officer. “If we can get people to come in every day as a place to find stuff to take care of themselves, it helps them think of us as a health care company [versus just a drugstore],” he says. Like other industries, health care purveyors both new and old are focused on improving the experience for customers. UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health’s Faerber points to the rise of concierge medicine, a relationship in which primary care doctors receive membership dues from patients, to the tune of around $100 a month in some cases, in return for full access and most routine services like consultations and lab work. While consumers often still have insurance for larger medical expenses, their everyday care is included. “It’s a way of trying to mix together these retail elements—transparent, upfront pricing, and is generally a pretty affordable relationship,” she says, noting that the offering simplifies the burden for doctors of billing insurance and handling administrative paperwork. Of course, some experts worry that the rise in consumer-driven health care, including startups that give more control to patients, could lead to an increase in medicating and a movement toward self-diagnosis. Dartmouth’s Woloshin says he is concerned about quality control and medical history when consumers are able to take more charge of their wellness fates. He noted that in theory doctors evaluate a patient, but it’s unclear how familiar they are with the person’s background. “I’m afraid in a way this will encourage increased use of medicines and prescriptions that may not be in people’s interests,” he says. While the new mandate for pricing in drug ads adds a level of cost transparency formerly missing in medicine, Woloshin says the real way to encourage informed decisions by consumers is to include drug fact boxes that summarize side effects, FDA evidence, and benefits, for example in a method similar to nutrition boxes that accompany food brands. “Medical advertising, it’s just burgeoning with all these new fields opening up,” he says. “We’re at the beginning of a huge expansion.” Adage End Bug
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