Many a times I have come across the argument about hospitals wasting money on expensive advertising, which seldom works and puts off customers. In my earlier avtars as the Head of Marketing Communications in large hospitals I have been at loggerheads with my other colleagues, who have often voted against my advertising proposals. Here is why I believe they are wrong and advertising works in healthcare just as much as it does in any other service.
The caveat of course is that the hospital’s communication must be subtle, the message must be designed to ring a bell and should be done in a manner, which is consistent with the customer’s sensitivities. An over the top message, which is loud and persistant and tries to do too many things will certainly put off customers.
Advertising at the end of the day is a promise of service to a customer. This is true of all advertising and is just as much true for healthcare services advertising. There is no reason to believe that as a consumer of healthcare services I wouldn’t want to know what the hospital next door really stands for?
The hospital advertising that would really work has to emanate from a deep understanding of the consumer behaviour, when he is required to choose a hospital. No one wants to go to a hospital to enjoy a few days away from work. One is forced to go to the hospital under the press of circumstances. The desire is usually to get out of the hospital as quickly as possible with a positive medical outcome, and with the least dent to ones pocket.
When a customer walks into the hospital he is anxious, fearful of surrendering control of his body to the hospital, uncertain of the outcome. The customer at one level is seeking medical care for whatever problem he has, at another level he is seeking a reassurance. A reassurance that he will be treated with understanding, compassion, honesty and dignity, that he will have access to the very best that medicine has to offer and above all a reassurance that in the end everything will turn out to be right.
A hospital in its communication must be able to connect with the customer at this level. The communication must be designed to inspire trust. The message must have an emotional connect, should make a consumer believe that this hospital is the best place to be in the worst of times. The emotional core must be clearly defined and set off against logical props such as great doctors, state of the art equipment, processes that help deliver a great experience and people trained to understand and quickly respond to patients needs. The real challenge for communications professionals is to put this in a neat campaigns (without making it look slick or put on), which communicates simply and eloquently with the customers.
Once the communication is designed the media choices have to be made. This is critical and somehow the least understood by marketers. The message should be powerful and yet flexible to be adapted to the needs of traditional print media, out of home media and increasingly the digital media. The media mix has to be carefully worked out. This is the tricky part because the mix will clearly depend upon the target audience, which varies from hospital to hospital.
The Common Pitfalls
Hospitals tend to try and cram too many things in a single piece of communication. This happens when the communication is shaped by too many people each with their own perspective. Typically the advertising layouts go around and opinions are sought from various quarters including the heads of various departments, senior doctors and anyone else who may have a point of view. This in itself is not such a bad exercise. The real fun begins when the Head of Marketing is asked that these views be squeezed into the communication so that it pleases one and all who matters in the hospital. This is disasterous as in all this one forgets that the advertising is meant to appeal to the customers and is not a tool to keep various stakeholders in the hospital happy.
The other reason why I suspect healthcare advertising sometimes does not work well is that the promise made in the communication does not entirely gets delivered as a seamless experience across the hospital touchpoints. Somehow the people, who are to deliver the promise remain clueless about the promise till they see the advertising out in the media !
This to say the least is like committing harakiri. Internal communication and training to align touchpoint experiences with the communication promises rarely happens.
Healthcare advertising is an investment that can pay rich dividends as long as it is handled in a sensitive manner keeping the needs of the customers in mind. It is essential that a hospital walks the talk, which can only happen when the service delivery is aligned to the communication promise.
Healthcare advertising is tricky and has many variables. However, that is hardly a reason to not to attempt it.