What is wrong with health care branding?

A Q&A with Vince Parry, author of Identity Crisis: Health Care Branding’s Hidden Problems and Proven Strategies to Solve Them

Health care branding is its own beast, with rules and regulations that most brands don’t have to contend with. And these brands also have a seriousness of purpose that sets them apart from the typical consumer brand. Nonetheless, great health care brands, just like all great brands, are built around a solid understanding of the emotional needs of their audience.

Vince Parry of Parry Branding Group has spent the last 30 years in health and wellness communications, including stints as Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi, Chief Creative Officer at Sudler & Henessey, and Chief Branding Officer at InVentiv Health. His book, Identity Crisis: Health Care Branding’s Hidden Problems and Proven Strategies to Solve Them, is an insightful look inside what makes for great — and not-so-great — communication in pharma and health care.

My interview with Vince includes examples of pharma brands that are doing it right and others that are coming up short. We take informative detours into the world of vaccine deniers and into what a leading hospital shares in common with the lifestyle brand, Shinola.

We also discuss how Vince’s father, who thought of himself as a highly rational and data-driven physician, felt about his son’s work in emotional branding. Here are some of the highlights of our discussion:

You make a point in your book that pharma branding is really different than, for example, CPG branding. How is it similar and how is it different?

It is similar in the process of how you do it. Step 1 is discovery, in which you talk to your audience and investigate what they are doing and how they are living. Step 2 is you create a branding strategy that identifies that single value that customers are seeing in their minds. And the third process is to design and build a visual identity that picks up on that branding strategy so that when they associate with that identity in print, online, on the shelf, or wherever, they see a reflection of their own values.

The difference with health care branding is it’s an entirely different animal. People don’t want to buy our products; they have to. So there is a built-in resentment that you have to overcome. Consumer goods branding is a celebration of self. Hey, I bought a new Armani suit! Hey, I bought a new iPhone! It’s a way for people to reinforce and celebrate their identity. When people get sick, especially with chronic illnesses, aspects of their identity are lost to the illness. It creates an identity crisis, so when they seek out a health care brand they are trying to buy back aspects of themselves that have been lost.

And for this reason you say that if you are a health care client you would be well-advised to hire an agency that specializes in health care branding. What are some of the things you have seen go wrong when clients don’t follow that advice?

Especially in the United States you see a lot of television advertising, so they figure, we’re going direct to consumers, let’s hire a consumer ad agency. And the consumer ad agency approaches this health care brand like a consumer brand, as if people celebrate the buying process, and that creates an identity crisis for the health care brand because these brands don’t come off as being respectful, earnest brands. They come off as somewhat of a joke. You see people [in ads] saying, “I love my laxative” or you see an 80-year-old couple dancing on the beach because they are so happy they have their pain reliever. [People with medical conditions] are looking for a restoration of identity not a celebration of identity. That’s why pharmaceutical ads, especially television ads, get made fun of so much.

So who is doing it well right now?

There is an ad for a brand called Linzess for irritable bowel disease. The ad has an uplifting presentation of information but they make it very clear that this drug is to be used only after you have tried everything else and they put it into context. It at least honors the idea they aren’t a panacea for all ills.

One of the best jobs I have ever seen is Gardasil, five years ago or so. Gardasil is a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), which has a connection with cervical cancer. The idea was to have this vaccine taken by teenage children before they have sex. It’s a very complicated topic. So instead of just selling the vaccine they (Merck) sold the conversation. They had a campaign called “Tell Someone” — when you’re having that conversation with your children about sex, talk about STDs, especially this one, and mention to your child, or your friend that has a child, the connection between HPV and cervical cancer. So the vaccine was promoting conversations rather than brand. And it’s been an extremely successful brand because it knew its place in the whole equation.

You make the point that doctors clearly are not rational actors. That’s not what doctors would tell you, of course. So what do you mean by that?

Doctors like to perceive themselves as men and women of science and impervious to promotion and the kinds of campaigns you see in advertising. If you ask them why they choose a brand, they will give you pat answers like “I go by the data.” [Similarly,] if you ask a doctor if they watch a lot of television they’ll go, “No, I don’t” because they don’t want to be associated with someone who is persuadable and vulnerable to the joys of TV. But if you ask them what they thought of the finale of House of Cards they’ll start talking to you about it. It’s a matter of asking the right questions.

I have worked on brands where the data is identical yet the brand preference was much stronger for one brand over another. Doctors are people, too, and they select brands for reasons other than data. They certainly look at the data but they also look at themselves and say, what are my values? So they buy very emotionally. There is an unspoken rule that doctors don’t want to be treated like human beings, they want to be treated like automatons. So you see a lot of very bad, emotionless ads that are not engaging at all.

One of the interesting cases in the book is Dermabond, which is a kind of surgical glue. The container in which the product was packaged made a big difference in how surgeons used the product, right?

When they came to us they were doing advertising campaigns to different kinds of surgeons, so they had six or seven different campaigns going on, but they were talking about the brand and not really talking about the customer — the surgeon. There was tremendous awareness and esteem for the brand but it only had 2 percent of the closure market.

We did an exercise where we asked surgeons, if Dermabond were a mode of transportation what would it be? And they said, a Vespa. I just can’t see myself riding on this thing. It doesn’t have a lot of power — which means they don’t see themselves as powerful when they use it. They said it looks and feels like a crayon. The way it was packaged looked like Krazy Glue and when it sat on the tray with the other surgical implements it wasn’t a reflection of their values. It didn’t look serious. It didn’t look powerful. It didn’t look professional.

One of the first things we suggested was to repackage it and make it look more serious. And we positioned Dermabond as the go-to choice for incisions of a few centimeters or less. And the usage of it skyrocketed in those surgeries.

But it all began with changing the identity of the brand — changing the logo to make it look stronger and changing the packaging to make it look more like a serious surgical instrument.

How do you build a brand for a hospital?

The big mistake hospitals make is they basically don’t have a position. They have a series of data points about themselves. We have the best doctors, we have the best nurses, we have a fantastic cardiology department. Because they all say the same thing, it fosters the attitude in people that every hospital is the same as every other hospital. When you look at the hospitals that have done it well, they do the opposite. They try to own the idea of one kind of advantage.

I worked with a hospital in Brooklyn called Maimonides Medical Center. It’s one of the top ten hospitals in the country but they always kept trying to compete for patients with the hospitals in New York City.

Someone who lives in Brooklyn and was born in Brooklyn doesn’t identify as a New Yorker. They identify as a Brooklynite. There is a Brooklyn pride, a toughness of spirit, a diversity of population that is unlike anywhere else in the world.

So we basically branded it as Brooklyn’s brand of hospital. The advertising said, “BKLYN Proud,” and “BKLYN Cares,” and “BKLYN Thrives.” We advised them to get a sponsorship as the official hospital of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team to reinforce that idea. When you walk in the door of Maimonides there is a big wall that says, “Welcome” in 13 different languages to reflect the diversity of the population that walks through their doors.

So forget the customers in New York City. Try to own the customers in Brooklyn. People identify with you because you are a reflection of their values of being a Brooklynite. So they completely changed their branding to be about Brooklyn’s brand of hospital. It is a fantastic hospital. It competes with NYU and Columbia-Presbyterian, but it’s the idea of focusing on a particular area of expertise or a particular quality that resonates with the population you are treating.


Vince Parry’s Identity Crisis: Health Care Branding’s Hidden Problems and Proven Strategies to Solve Them is available at major online retailers including Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and is available in both paperback and e-book formats.


James Forr is Head of Insights at Olson Zaltman