How the healthcare sector can learn from the ad industry  to better engage target audiences and improve education

An imbalance is taking place in the world, and has been for many years – the misplaced priorities of millions towards consumerism, even at the expense of issues as serious as health. This imbalance needs addressing – people need to take a more proactive approach to their health. It could be re-addressed if healthcare providers, governments and businesses leant further into some of the strategic principles from the ad world proven to capture imagination and guide motivation. At Rehab, we’ve pooled together some techniques used by the ad industry that we think the world of healthcare could really utilise to deliver better education about their products.

Play on insight

Taking human insight and using it to sell products has been at the core of advertising ever since its earliest phases. In the 1920s, Edward Bernays nearly tripled the amount of women smoking in the UK by hiring women to smoke cigarettes during a big parade and positioning them as ‘torches of freedom’ – equating smoking in public to being a symbol of female emancipation, and playing on the insight that women were committed to fight gender social barriers, and could be encouraged to smoke if they believed it would further demonstrate their cause.

Such influential power can be used for good, and many are beginning to catch on. For example, smart health Headspace used to run meditative events but soon realised that a meditative app available on phones would be much more effective and easily adopted. They’ve recently raised over $93 million. The same tactics worked for hugely successful companies like Peloton and FiiT, who offer smart, connected home workouts and have crushed the competition during lockdown.

Playing on the right insight, at the right time, can make or break a campaign – and there’s no reason such tactics couldn’t be repositioned to do the reverse of Bernays’ work and deter people from smoking, instead of encouraging it.

Use fundamental human drivers

On a similar note, playing on innate human drivers was another big element of Bernays’ work, influenced by his uncle Sigmund Freud, in that natural feelings like fear and sexual desire (among many others) are the core of human behaviour and could be used by marketeers to guide people to an intended outcome.

Healthcare and dental hygiene products have typically relied on striking images of bloody sinks alongside copy like ‘Do you see blood when you clean your teeth?’, which very much plays on fear in order to drive sales. Whilst not being particularly pleasant, there’s evidence that it works – data from the ITC Four Country Survey showed that picture warnings were significantly associated with an increased motivation to quit smoking.

Could other important health messages, such as the need to check for prostate cancer and take smear tests learn from this?

Shock tactics are one thing, but the real lesson here is how emotion can be used to drive behaviour, and I believe this can (and should) be done in a largely positive way, with businesses providing the digital tools to help. The rise of Apple Health, Nike Run Club and people’s obsession for stats on their fitness shows us that consumers are interested in helping themselves, and proven behavioural change techniques like nudge theory and gamification can help them achieve their own goals.

Could businesses like Fiit or Peloton start to partner with mental health or wellness organisations like Mindspace or Heights? Could they also partner with businesses like HelloFresh or Huel and start to offer comprehensive healthcare changes that utilise the best of proven business models to deliver an amazing 360 healthcare experience? We think so.

Know your audience

Knowing your audience and playing to it in specific ways may sound like an obvious move, but there are some nuances to this that can be a deciding factor in the effectiveness of messaging. In short – smart businesses put their messages where their audience’s eyeballs are.

Taking an example out of left-field, KAG Financial (mortgage and protection specialists) recently wanted to target young people, an audience far out of their usual remit. They were able to get their brand onto LadBIBLE through a clever, tactical move: they posted a short video on TikTok about how past humorous banking references are seen when applying for a mortgage in the future, tapping in nicely into how young people (ok, some older people too) often use funny references when paying friends. LADBible wrote up the story and shared the video, helping them to reach their desired audience.

TikTok is obviously a huge platform, but we’re seeing more and more businesses consider it as a learning platform. Healthcare campaigners should consider how they can break into this space as a touchpoint to help educate end customers or consumers about how to use their products or their services.

Novartis recently launched the first ever dance challenge from a prescription pharmaceutical brand through TikTok, and other healthcare and medical brands, such as GSK and Roche, should be taking note. Many doctors use the platform already, looking to prevent the risk of incorrect information from untrained users taking over, including fertility specialist Lora Shahine, who uses the app to ‘educate without fear’. It seems like a no-brainer for healthcare businesses too. There is real opportunity to become a real leading authority in a world of disinformation and questionable influence, and the ability to build one-to-one (or one-to-many) relationships is very compelling.

It gets more interesting when you think outside of the box, and around specific service design. Could healthcare businesses start to partner with leading fitness brands to provide preventative training courses, hosted by social influencers? I think so. They are starting already. And based on our own internal research, we know that, for example, one in three people would be interested in paying for a version of WhatsApp that protects their privacy, so there is opportunity for new revenue streams here too.

You might consider TV ads a good avenue to promote a health awareness campaign aimed at young people, but the truth is it’s money down the drain – recent OfCom figures show people aged 16-24 in the UK watch just two minutes a day on average, and our own internal research revealed that the majority of people claim to buy products based on ads they’ve seen either just once a year or less. Instead, you need to consider more tactical moves towards social media.

Utilise the right ambassadors and technology – at the right time

From pivoting internal spokespeople to becoming regular brand ambassadors to working with full-on influencers, the effectiveness of ambassadors shouldn’t be understated – and presents a vastly underutilised area in healthcare.

One company doing this really well is BURST Oral Care, who has mobilised a network of thousands of dental professionals to become ambassadors for the product, featured across social media, news media and at events wearing BURST’s signature purple colours and recommending its products to clients. They’ve played a significant role in BURST becoming one of the fastest D2C brands in the whole of the US.

Meanwhile, on the total opposite end of the spectrum, the UK government has made former Love Island star Dr Alex George as the UK Youth Mental Health Ambassador within the Department for Education, showcasing its desire to capitalise on the power of youth culture in spreading messages to young people across the breadth of the country.

Outside of social media, other advances in technology have opened the door to other exciting opportunities. Kinder Bueno has recently implemented AR engagement to bring its egg surprises to life, and LEGO has enabled some of its product boxes to come alive using in-store augmented reality, showing the model and characters fully built and moving – which are proving to be a hit with customers. Why can’t similar tech be used to improve engagement with medical devices? Such as providing instructions for medication, or instructions to use items like COVID lateral flow tests?

These are just four textbook examples that could easily be capitalised on by healthcare providers, governments, and businesses alike in order to, frankly, build a better world. By borrowing from the same playbook that stole the attention of the masses, they might just win it back. It could save lives.

James Penfold is head of Strategy & Experience Design at creative technology agency Rehab