Health Improvement is a Really Good Marketing Strategy

It takes but a short drive around any metropolitan area to gauge the advertising battle between healthcare delivery systems. Rare is the advertisement promoting anything but consumption. The recommendation to consume is hidden in plain sight under the guises of new technology (come use it!), new locations (come visit!), and area locations (convenience!). It’s nothing short of a medical-arms race where a truce is seen as allowing the competition to win the battle.

But progressive healthcare thinkers recognize that advertising a medical-arms race is a losing proposition in the long term. The reimbursement models the industry is moving toward will not reward this type of marketing strategy. It’s time to realize an alternative approach is necessary. It just so happens there’s an opportunity waiting to be seized.

A productive provider/customer relationship is built upon trust. Trust isn’t created, it’s earned, and it starts with having trustworthy products and services. But more companies (in various industries) are realizing it doesn’t have to end there. Because of capitalism’s competition-driven business culture, organizations, large and small, have been embracing new marketing trust-building touchpoints in a variety of ways.

These organizations have recognized that traditional communication methods work differently than they used to, that customers feel emotional connections to the brands they purchase from, and the traditional buyer/seller relationship has become more complex. In short, companies have embraced cultural responses to a shifting market context.

Why have healthcare delivery organizations been so slow on the uptake of this emerging cultural theme?

Healthcare delivery organizations, pseudo-corporations as they are, long ago recognized that achieving balance between profits and sustainability is core to their raison d’etre. Healthcare has always had certain advantages that traditional corporate organizations have had to work hard to replicate.

The first is purposeful brands. Corporations have spent extensively trying to create positive correlations in the consumer’s mind between their brand and what it stands for. For example, Pepsi embraced a project it titled “Refresh” to express that its brand is more than soda, it’s about building community. Whole Food’s recent campaign “Health Starts Here” invites shoppers to embrace healthy eating by shopping at the retailer. Walmart’s embrace of environmental sustainability is meant to make consumption feel less foul.

The second advantage is using a marketing approach to express brand meaning in non-traditional ways to create correlations in customer’s minds “between branding channels and everyday life.” The NFL’s “Play 60” effort encourages youth to become more physically active using the sport’s superstars to encourage participation. Hershey’s (the chocolatier) Track and Field Games’s stated goal is to inspire youth to be their best by training for and participating in their competitions. Red Bull, arguably considered the movement’s champion, utilizes a variety of methods to promote its “gives you wings” tagline.

For most healthcare delivery organizations, their purpose is about being a foundational support to community by providing healthcare services in support of leading healthy lives. An inherent purpose that has remained remarkably unchanged since the advent of modern-day healthcare delivery. That purpose is their culture, their people, and their identity. These organizations have always held themselves to a higher standard, a higher purpose. Surely, they will continue to do so.

Knowing this, it makes the question “why don’t customers love healthcare brands?” all that more intriguing. “Look at us, we’re great” is limited in its effectiveness, and is declining daily. Especially when everyone else has the same. exact. message. Individuals don’t inherently want to interact with healthcare brands; they haven’t, generally, provided joy in the past. There’s little positive about what happens in hospitals and physician offices. Even in cure, there’s plenty of discomfort in diagnosis and treatment. But an evolving payment structure and a new resolve to help people lead healthier lives is granting permission to healthcare delivery organizations by finally giving people a reason to interact with healthcare brands.

How can healthcare delivery organizations leverage these inherent advantages to create brands that people enjoy interacting with?

Purposeful Brands

Corporate social responsibility, as a theme, has been around for decades. In most contexts, however, it existed as either a response to negative press or a surefire method to improve the bottom line. Its social good was often a by-product, a happy consequence of circumstance. CSR programs became an addendum to doing business, not a part of doing business.

In more recent years corporate social responsibility started to become integrated with the concept of branding. Out came brand purpose: a promise bigger than just selling more product. As a result, brands softened. They’ve warmed. They’ve changed. In short, brand purpose has created purposeful brands.

Think Coca-Cola (happiness). ExxonMobil (sustainable energy). Ben & Jerry’s (social justice).

Walmart, a retailer long criticized by detractors for its promotion of consumption and the negative environmental consequences that result, reversed course in 2005 when it announced three ambitious goals:

  • To be supplied by 100% renewable energy
  • To create zero waste
  • To sell products that sustain people and the environment

Eight years later, the world’s largest retailer is a recognized leader in environmental sustainability. Walmart’s sustainability agenda has required adopting renewable energy sources, making a wide variety of improvements to shipping methods to improve efficiency, and improving the amount of produce that is sourced locally.

Walmart now not only sees sustainability as good for business, but as a responsibility of conducting business. It’s effects are multiplying as sustainable improvements spill over to other retailers and industries. It has partnered with Daimler Trucks North America to build a hybrid electric semi-truck, worked with manufacturers to reduce packaging size, and it’s convinced 100 partners, including some competitors, to be active in the Sustainability Consortium, a collaborative industry group focused on improving consumer product sustainability. With larger initiatives reaching natural limits in helping Walmart achieve its sustainability agenda, the company introduced a Sustainability Index tool in 2011 to take the sustainability movement to the product level.

While Walmart’s brand represents various creations in the minds of individuals, it’s purpose has moved far beyond outfitting American homes with low-cost goods. It now aims to outfit American homes with low-cost goods in a sustainable, good for the environment, fashion. Walmart now is socially conscientious.

For as long as the modern-day memory extends, profit maximization has been the go-to, status-quo business strategy for stockholders. Somewhere along the way this mentality began to crowd out the source of those profits, the customer. And customers (in growing number) began to notice. It explains a renewing interest in local, in relationships, and in brands with a humanizing morality.

While the attitudes of corporations are slow to change, no one can deny that profits are important — equally so in regard to sustainability to for-profits and non-profits. However, the signs of a shift away from a “profitability at society’s cost” mentality are present. Brands with a social conscience are everywhere and they include corporate giants as well as alternative-minded start-ups. Socially conscientious brands recognize and put into action: What we do is/can be: a) good for you (personally, environment, community, etc.) and b) good for business/us. Skepticism remains (and should) at the motivations of McDonalds, Coke, Walmart, ExxonMobil, but one must acknowledge that they are doing something. And that something is improving their brand promise.


Igniting worldwide intrigue, the project was designed to “transcend human limits.” It promised new research into the world’s fascination with exploring space. Millions of people tuned in to watch history being made.

But the decade wasn’t the 1960s. The project wasn’t funded by the United States government. It wasn’t the first time man entered space.

Instead, Felix Baumgartener became the first human to safely free fall from 128,000 feet above Earth and break the sound barrier from the edge of space.

The project was funded by Red Bull, the energy drink company. It was the latest marketing effort by a company known for its non-traditional advertising, a strategy that has propelled the company into the world’s number one seller of energy drinks.

Red Bull’s marketing strategy is a literal example of Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message.” Its brand promise, “Red Bull gives you wings,” has driven the company to creatively market its product through events, projects, and ownership that, if not entirely literal, gives participants wings. Its Flugtag event invites participants to pilot homemade flying machines off a pier and judged on distance, creativity, and showmanship. Crashed Ice is a downhill ice course skating competition where skaters navigate steep turns and vertical drops. Red Bull doesn’t just sponsor professional athletic teams, it’s own them, including soccer and racing franchises worldwide.

The thousands and thousands that gather to view these events are constantly exposed to Red Bull messaging. Stratos, as the free fall jump program was titled, set a YouTube record for most live streaming views. Though Red Bull, a privately held company, doesn’t release sales figures, experts predicted the event would lead to increased sales, a category the company already leads as the world’s number one seller of energy drink beverages.

McLuhan’s “medium is the message” lives on. Many companies have begun embracing the sentiment with strategy called murketing, a portmanteau coined by Rob Walker combining marketing and murky to describe a paradigm shift that has marketers blurring the lines “between branding channels and everyday life” and “the consumer embrace of branded, commercial culture.” Putting its potentially negative connotation aside, it’s an advertising strategy that moves beyond direct messaging to customers and instead relies upon experiences, brand association, brand building, marketing buzz, brand identify, publicity, and the like.

And more and more brands are using it.

“Public Works” Tactics in Healthcare Delivery Organizations

FastCompany put it this way: “This is the new world of marketing — where the advertising efforts of brands become public works — think Nike funding childhood obesity studies and creating campaigns to get kids moving and American Express creating an initiative to get the public shopping at small businesses.”

These efforts are nothing if not the seizing of a cultural zeitgeist where some customers expect more than a consumption-only relationship from the companies they do business with. Simon Sinek captured this shift with his proclamation that “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Not every customer cares, of course, but corporations have decided that pursuing “public works” marketing strategies are important enough to create and continue.

It’s relatively straightforward for a company to pursue one of these strategies. Success of a “public works” marketing strategy depends on the relevance of the idea to the company’s services or products. Pepsi’s Refresh Project received attention because it was atypical; argument remains as to whether or not it increased profitability. On the other hand, Red Bull’s approach has propelled it to the leading energy drink company worldwide, in terms of market share. Walmart’s embracement of sustainability saved the company $230 million through its waste diversion and recycling efforts in 2012; whether it has created new customers is arguable. Rare, however, is the organization that can take full advantage of both.

From a strictly mission-based perspective, there are not many better corporations than healthcare delivery organizations to pursue both a purposeful brand and murketing strategy. Along with this shift in marketing, we’re entering a world where people care about their health like never before, partly out of necessity, partly because of intrinsic motivation, and partly because of shifting culture.

Health Improvement as a Marketing Strategy

This crossroads of marketing, brand purpose, and consumer interest is where health improvement can become a strategic advantage for the forward-thinking healthcare delivery organization. Instead of continuing to spend marketing dollars on a deteriorating consumption-based advertising strategy, these organizations should embrace purposeful brand and murketing tactics. The future of marketing healthcare delivery is about helping people address needs; for instance: finding a doctor, easy prescription refills, and health improvement.

What underlies any purposeful brand strategy is the utilitarian value the strategy provides to the customer. Health improvement helps customers address a need while also creating goodwill, both of which create customer loyalty. Loyalty is the reason to pursue such a strategy. Health improvement communicates a healthcare delivery organization’s commitment to the betterment of the individual.

Healthcare delivery organizations should repurpose significant portions of their advertising budget to health improvement programming. Organizations should create robust (an emphasis on robust, traditional programming efforts don’t meet the need), innovative, and wide-spread health improvement programs that have visibility everywhere in the community: in schools, households, businesses and at athletic events, community fairs, neighborhood gatherings, etc.

As a result, the organization will create more loyal customer relationships, support customers in their pursuit of addressing a need, expose the organization to potential customers, raise the organization’s profile in the community, and improve health. Given the advent of new reimbursement models that reward value over volume in a managed health environment, there is a possibility health improvement programming will create future profitability by lowering the incidence of unnecessary healthcare consumption.

As Duncan Watts has eloquently noted, “If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one. If it isn’t, then almost no one can.” Given the attention that healthy eating and active living is receiving from society in general, there is no better time to pursue a purposeful brand strategy in the name of health improvement. There’s power in embracing culture; most importantly customers respond to it. The opportunity to transform healthcare organizations’ brands from the sick care focus they have had to the health care they will become is immense and immediate.

Health is always and everywhere

1. Health is Always

Find a window and look out at the scene.

That’s where health happens.

It’s not just when an individual works out at the gym. Or sits down for lunch. And especially not just under the care of a physician.

It happens in those places. And every moment between.

It happens at happy hour with friends. It happens smoking a cigarette. It happens in a place of worship. It happens in the day-to-day mundane or the exceptionally engaging 9–5 of a workday.

Health is always. It’s the outcome of existence.

University of Nebraska Lincoln Wellness Model
University of Nebraska Lincoln Wellness Model

The University of Nebraska’s Wellness Model represents the scope and scale of Health is Always recognition: it’s elements of emotional, physical, social, environmental, occupational, spiritual, and intellectual wellness represent the totality of life.

2. Health is Personal

It’s almost too logical to state. But in a population health world, it’s too important to forget.

No situation better illustrates this reality than that of a 2009 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation for mammograms, a recommendation made on the basis of population health science. Mammograms for patients under 50 with average breast cancer risk, the USPSTF essentially said, were causing more harm than the potential good that can come from earlier screening.

Whether the science underlying the USPSTF’s 2009 recommendations supported the position mattered little when the news was met by public perception. And this is where the dichotomy of population health meets that of an individual: individuals framed breast cancer screening as a personal issue, not one of a population. Individuals care very little, if at all, about population health.

“What about me?”

That’s the pivot question, asked in a variety of ways and in differing circumstances. It’s the expression of health viewed through the perspective of an individual: Health is Personal.

Determinants of Health: Dahlgren and Whitehead
Determinants of Health: Dahlgren and Whitehead

Health status is determined by contextual factors such as genetics, lifestyle choices, and living conditions as in Dahlgren and Whitehead’s “Determinants of Health” model.

3. Health is Local

Health is Always and Health is Personal lie at the intersection and in the interaction of a long accepted truth: Health is Local. Health is not created by a single healthcare provider, nor the local recreation department, or a community garden in the middle of the city. It’s all of these and everything else.

For those elements of health within the realm of reasonable control (namely everything except age, sex, hereditary factors), the context of local is immensely important to the opportunities (good and bad) available. Those opportunities like where to work, where to attend school, and where to worship. Such as where to meet, where to shop, and where to spend free time. Or the air we breathe, water we drink, and food we eat. Our friends, family, and connections.

Choosing to engage in health-creating behaviors is contingent upon availability; often the most available lies within the communities where we work, live, and play.

In their book Healthy Cities: Promoting Health in the Urban Context Trevor Hancock and Leonard Duhl describe elements of a healthy community:

  • A clean, safe, high-quality environment
  • An ecosystem that is stable now and sustainable in the long term
  • A strong, mutually supportive, and nonexploitative community
  • A high degree of public participation in and control over the decisions affecting one’s life, health, and well-being
  • The meeting of basic needs (food, water, shelter, income, safety, work) for all the city’s people
  • Access to a wide variety of experiences and resources, with the possibility of multiple contacts, interaction, and communication
  • A diverse, vital, and innovative city economy
  • Encouragement of connection with the past, cultural and biological heritage, and other groups and individuals
  • A city form that is compatible with and enhances the preceding parameters and behaviors
  • An optimum level of appropriate public health and sick care services available to all
  • High health status (both high positive health status and low disease status)

Unhealthiness has become part of everyday life.

Unhealthiness, as a relative public, has become part of everyday life. It often is the path of least resistance. This is not because of laziness or lack of willpower but because the pursuit of unhealthy behaviors has become so easy. Unhealthiness isn’t a choice any longer. It just exists.

Health is a choice.

It didn’t used to be this way.

We sit while we work. We watch hours of television. We drive from one side of town to the other, and back. We eat foodstuffs our ancestors wouldn’t recognize as sustenance.

And the reason we do these things isn’t because we set out each day to do them. It’s because it has become part of culture, part of our day, part of living. Prior to the present, we sat less at work, we watched fewer hours of television, we drove less, and we ate healthier food.

Choosing to be healthy has become the failure point. Our willpower tanks empty too quickly. Our habits and routines are difficult to alter. Until healthy living becomes a part of everyday living as it once was, health outcomes evident of a healthy society will continue to be elusive.