Feature: License to Thrill? Desire is Healthcare’s Missing Sauce – but Branding Has a Fix

NewsMar 31, 2023
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This article was written by Paul Collins, Executive Director of Strategy and Innovation at Elmwood New York.

This article originally appeared on Advertising Week. 

Name a brand you admire.

Name a brand you love.

Name a brand that’s changed the world.

Any healthcare brands? Probably not.

It’s odd, isn’t it? Coming out of a global pandemic, and with wellness becoming such a key topic in our society, wouldn’t you expect healthcare brands – or at least a few emerging icons – to have captured people’s admiration, engagement, and trust?

The issue: there’s a systematic problem at play. As Harvard economist Michael Porter points out, “The problem with healthcare is not science, technology, funding, or expertise.” For years now, we’ve focused on driving efficiencies and standardization of healthcare, prioritizing the mechanics over the emotions. Progress has been made, no doubt. But it’s left us with a dangerous deficit in perhaps the single most powerful precursor to wide-spread engagement, participation, and action: desire.

Desire: the missing link

The scientific infrastructure of American healthcare is generally stable, but desire – the emotional layer that sits on top, the glue that grips and galvanizes patients and providers – is missing. Just try to remember the last intriguing, inspiring, or entertaining healthcare experience you had (one that stood up to the likes of Nike or Google), and you’ll likely see the emptiness in action.

By using brand and design to embed desire into healthcare, we can radically change how players across the spectrum – from patients to providers – interact with the end-to-end healthcare experience.

Why? Because desire is a powerful change agent. Described by neuroscientists as the “common currency” of the hormone dopamine, desire creates a chemical response in your brain that motivates action, which in turn equals positive impact – whether that’s a patient sticking to a routine on a mental health app, or a campaign triggering clicks and conversion with new users.

Designing for desire will be especially critical in a digital, app-centric age where care moves into the home, the commute, and the office. In this world, healthcare brands will need to pull people into proactively participating in their experiences in the same way they do Spotify, YouTube, or Airbnb. Otherwise, they risk fading into the background.

This means that healthcare entities – whether they’re a contraceptive manufacturer, an anxiety management service, or a community clinic – cannot continue to reside in a bubble of bland, boring brand experiences. Instead, they need to compel people to care (like they do about brands in gaming, retail, tech, and even financial services) by designing experiences that feel good. 

For it to happen, healthcare brands need to stop looking at their direct competitors for inspiration, and instead flip the script, examining the symbols in life that spark desire and learning from the latest research in brain and behavioural science.

A three-pillar approach – designing for desire

The beauty of desire is that it brings together all the things that are great about healthcare’s infrastructure – the science, the technology, the expertise – and layers it with the extra coating of magic and motivation needed to drive positive change. It’s a mechanism that can make the difference between a brand that is dull and static, and one that feels vivid and alive.

So, how can brands channel desire? Design Possibility, Chemistry, and Agency into your communications, services, offers, and interactions.

Step 1: Possibility (think Tesla or Airbnb)

This is the intrigue, inspiration, and excitement from brands that offer a glimpse into a more desirable future. A powerful force for engaging patients and providers alike, possibility is the magnet that pulls people into the story. And its impact is backed by science. Multiple studies have shown that a sense of direction and hope helps people feel happier and more confident. For people who can vividly describe or picture their goals, their chances of achieving them more than double. And in relationships, a shared sense of the future is a major predictor of initial attraction and long-term success.

Brands can tap into possibility by designing a desirable future and expressing it in a way that is vivid, tangible, and inspiring – a world away from traditional brand visions that are dry and text-based, and brand communications that are present-tense, not future-forward.

When designing Possibility into your brand, ask yourself:

  • Are you vividly visualizing where your brand can help people go, or are you relying on traditional text-based tactics?
  • Are you conveying possibility in a way that is tangible, specific, and personal (using first-party data where relevant), or are you relying on traditional brand communications that are present-tense, generic, and inflexible?
  • Are you using tension, narrative arc, and emotion to make the story of the desired future interesting and engaging, or are you relying on functional promotional messages, proof of points, and performance marketing tactics?

Step 2: Chemistry (think Nike or Klarna)

This is the visceral, indescribable magic of communications that capture your attention and call your name in noisy, hectic environments. It’s the bold symbolism and brave point of view that makes you lean in, listen, respect, and admire a brand. The payoff of getting it right is profound: Consumers with an emotional brand relationship generate three times higher lifetime value on average and are significantly more likely to become a brand advocate. For marketers, this often comes down to expressing clear beliefs and a strong, distinctive point of view in a way that is brave, honest, and all your own.

When designing Chemistry into your brand, ask yourself:

  • How brave are your brand communications? Are you falling into the trap of category cliches, or are you purposefully subverting category norms to express an authentic point of view?
  • Have you translated your brand’s beliefs and attitudes into distinctive brand assets, whether visual, verbal, or experiential? Where can you pull back the marketing veneer to infuse real meaning and honesty into your brand expression?
  • What cultural symbols and stories inspire you and your team? How can you infuse elements of culture into your communications to keep your experience energized and interesting?

Step 3: Agency (think Apple or Lego)

For desire to work, people must feel like a brand gives them freedom of choice, empowering them to act the way they want, build skills, and become better. It provides tools, yes, but it doesn’t force users into a box. A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found autonomy is a key factor influencing day-to-day happiness. “Autonomy is the sense of wanting to take action instead of being coerced to do so,” according to psychologist Atsushi Kukita from Claremont Graduate University, and co-author of the study. For marketeers and brand leaders, agency can be delivered with responsive experiences and interactions that enable a sense of personal power, control, and progress.

When designing Agency into your brand, ask yourself:

  • Are you building confidence early on with effortless interactions that remove barriers and complexities? Can you break up longer tasks into short, discrete actions that lower the cognitive load around engagement?
  • Are you allowing people to build or tailor their own interactions and environments, or are you forcing a singular, one-size-fits-all experience? Can people self-serve, or do they have to wait for assistance to move ahead?
  • Are you rewarding progress with perks, acknowledgement, or status to enable a sense of achievement and satisfaction? Are you connecting individuals with others to form helpful, empowering, self-sustaining communities?

Care in a digitized age

This branding triad works on the balance and interplay between each part, yet it’s rare for brands to nail all three. Examples that do include Tesla, with its vivid depiction of the future of transportation and pliable, personality-filled vehicles; Lego, with its joyful, multigenerational appeal and fun, pop cultural releases; and digital payment tool Klarna, with it’s luxe, lifestyle visuals, and ground-breaking ability to translate finance into entertaining experiences.

Consumer expectations are changing fast. Patients are now collecting their own data, and they’ll expect us to use this to inform clinical decisions – intuitively and on-demand – just as they swipe right for a date, hail an Uber, or get Siri to lock the front door.

Desire is a superpower in a new era of care, with the ability to break healthcare brands out of their operational impasse. And in a decentralized, digitzed landscape, desire will draw attention from patients, providers and insurers alike, with branding that pulls away from the traditional responses to healthcare (fear, boredom, aversion) and focuses on what energizes us. Above all, it’s the prescription for personality and people-literacy the sector so urgently needs.