Emotional Rescue

Why most healthcare advertising doesn’t move us
Bob Case, Chief Creative Officer

Most healthcare marketers can’t help themselves.

You’ve seen the ads—hospitals roll out messages that brag about their top doctors, show off new robotic surgical systems and promote conveniently located emergency rooms.

Wake me up when those commercials are over.

I don’t mean to be overly harsh about such tired advertising strategies, because some are doing it well and I’ll share a few later in this article. But most hospital CMOs often face tremendous pressure from physicians to put them front and center, market new specialty areas or drive traffic with boring billboards. Intense competition forces them to push make-an-appointment-now messages. Such tactics might earn small bumps in awareness. I’m all for that. But those messages are fleeting. They don’t build an emotional connection with an audience, and they don’t lay a foundation upon which feature-and-benefit advertising can follow.

Do you see Coca-Cola present the chemical make-up of its soda? Have you watched an Apple commercial that compares its features with a competitor’s? Can you recall a spot from Audi that discusses turn radius or seat warmers? Nope. In their national advertising, these brands demonstrate the importance of making an emotional connection with people. That’s a lesson for all healthcare businesses, from hospitals to health insurance companies.

Why do we prefer brand-name products? 

There is a strong relationship between emotional resonance and connecting with a brand.

“The influential role of emotion in consumer behavior is well documented,” says psychologist Peter Noel Murray, Ph.D., an expert in emotion-based consumer behavior.

According to Murray, people viewing ads are influenced more by their emotional response to the ad than its content “by a factor of 3-to-1 for television commercials and 2-to-1 for print ads.” Murray believes that emotions are the main reason we prefer brand-name products. I agree. Advertising professionals often think we should be explaining their customers’ features and benefits. There’s nothing wrong with that—but only AFTER a campaign that forms an emotional bond between a potential customer and the brand.

One way to gauge an ad’s emotional intelligence is to see if people are enjoying and sharing it. We don’t share ads that explain how great a company is; we share ads that move us.

Hubspot knows why we share ads: “Apparently, anything that includes a dog or soccer stars or an ad that makes you break down in tears at your desk.” More to the point: “Ads that make people share and buy can usually be summed up in one word: emotional.” It’s no surprise that the most popular topics among frequently shared ads included friendship, happiness, inspiration and warmth. We’ll share ads when we’re happy, sad, afraid, surprised, angry or disgusted. We can’t help it.

Some healthcare institutions are on board with the emotional advertising trend. Dignity Health’s “Hello Humankindness” campaign presents a winning example of how emotions can rub off on a brand. And BlueCross BlueShield of Arizona also has done some good work that focuses on the questions we all have about healthcare.

To illustrate how emotional advertising works, let’s pretend I was CMO of a health insurance plan. I would create a three-stage campaign that leads to the important months of open enrollment. In this example, let’s assume the sign-up period begins November 1st.

January-May: emotional connection 

During the first part of the year, I would create a multi-channel advertising campaign that focuses SOLELY on establishing an emotional connection with potential customers. Even though our health plan has a vast array of competitive features, I wouldn’t mention them. This is not the time to tell people that we have the most doctors, that we don’t require pre-authorization or that our premiums are the lowest in the industry.

Instead, I’d direct my agency to create a campaign that evokes strong emotional responses. A father tosses a football to his handicapped daughter. A student, speaking at her high school graduation, smiles at her wheelchair-bound grandmother in the front row. A sea of naked babies all hold hands. In these ads, the only brand connection might be the company’s logo that appears at the end.

The goal is to make people happy. Help them smile or cry. Give them reasons to share an ad. Even if it’s unconscious, we want potential customers to feel good about the brand.

For illustration purposes, the next phase abandons this pure-emotion tactic. However, it can take years for successful branding campaigns to take hold, so emotion-based ads frequently play out for extended periods of time. These high-level umbrella campaigns often run concurrently with ads that begin to explain features and benefits.

June-August: feature-themed marketing

We’re five months away from open enrollment. It’s too early to mention why we’re better than our competitors, but we can take baby steps in that direction.

If we did our job during the first few months of the year, we’ve already softened up the market with a campaign that worked exclusively on emotions. Potential customers like us. They’ve shared some ads.

Now, we can layer in a campaign that stays with an emotional appeal, but also communicates a few of our main benefits. A doctor says to her patient, “I’ve been seeing you for 20 years and you’ve never looked better,” with an ending voice-over that says, “With our insurance plan, you never have to switch doctors.”

See what we did there? We presented a warm moment that everyone can relate to, and then provided a gentle feature of our health plan. No hard sell. No facts or figures.

September-November: take action now

Our market has been hearing from us for a while, first with a campaign that made them love us, then with spots that started to mildly communicate some of our core benefits. Now, let’s go in for the kill.

This is the critical time. We need people to choose us and sign up. This third stage of the campaign won’t be shy about presenting our features and benefits. We might even have some words in our ads that set us apart from our competitors:

√ Lowest deductibles

√ Always keep your doctor

√ Never need pre-authorization

√ Voted #1 by J.D. Power 

By now, our market is emotionally ready to hear, digest and respond to our messages. Victory.

The Four Emotions of Advertising 

Jami Oetting at Hubspot has done a great job at summarizing the four emotions that drive excellent advertising. Her insightful observations are worth reading.

  • Happy: Brands want to be associated with smiling, laughing, happy customers. Positivity has been shown to increase sharing and engagement.

  • Sad: A growing number of companies are creating ads that tug at our heartstrings and turn us into blubbering, emotional wrecks. Despite the negative connotations of feeling sad, the emotion can be very powerful and effective in advertising.

  • Afraid/Surprised: Fear is a natural instinct—one that helps us react appropriately to threats and increase our chance of survival. Fear creates urgency and prompts us to take action.

  • Angry/Disgusted: In some cases, anger can wake people up and spur action. We become angry when we see another person hurt or an injustice. Disgust and frustration can cause us to reconsider our perspective and ask important questions.

    (Source: Jami Oetting, Hubspot, April 2016)

2017 Southwest Healthcare Marketing Report


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This article is a brief abstract of our exclusive and authoritative study that takes the guesswork out of healthcare advertising and marketing. Rather than speculating about what will drive consumers to action, we've asked them.

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