What You Don’t Know Can Hurt Your Brand

By Sean Tracey

Originally published in the American Hospitals Association’s healthcare advertising publication, Spectrum in September/October 2005.

Is your advertising building or eroding trust in your brand?

A woman sits on a stainless steel table. She’s alone in an unfriendly, cold place, barraged by bright, unflattering lights. She looks vulnerable, wearing only a flimsy patient’s johnny. Suddenly, a disembodied hand enters the frame and begins to shave her head as we watch and as she weeps, petrified.

Is this a scene from a sci-fi or horror movie? No. It’s the opening of a TV commercial for a hospital. As the shaving continues, graphics appear: “Sharon has a tumor. Removing it will be tricky. One centimeter to the left…paralysis. One centimeter to the right…blindness. Not doing anything…death. Who can handle this challenge? We can.” Then the logo and name of the medical institution are revealed.

This ad was created by an award-winning advertising agency and produced by a respected commercial production company and a talented director. The hospital marketers who approved the ad probably believed that their surgeons would think it was “hard hitting.” But, in producing and approving such an edgy ad, the agency and its hospital client may have gone too far. In my opinion, this TV ad betrayed the trust of all who saw it, both consciously and subliminally, and ultimately undermined the hospital brand. 

Building Trust

Building trust with its constituency is the most important component of a healthcare organization’s communication strategy. David A. Shore, Ph.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health, with whom I collaborated on a rebranding campaign for a children’s hospital, points out that consumers feel inexpert when it comes to evaluating and choosing medical services and healthcare practitioners for themselves and their families (Shore 2005). As uncertainty increases, people rely more on trust to make healthcare decisions. Factor in that a healthcare decision may have life-or-death consequences, and you can understand how critical it is for a healthcare organization to gain the confidence of a potential patient well ahead of the patient’s formal investigation into the medical facility, physician, or specialty group practice. Advertising offers an opportunity to win or lose that trust.

Identifying Beneficial Advertising Strategies

Marketing and other healthcare management executives make the decisions about which creative strategy and advertising executions to accept and produce from the ideas presented by advertising agencies, consultants, and internal marketing departments. It’s their responsibility to protect the brand. How can these marketers evaluate whether a given concept will increase brand equity and be strategically on target? Will it differentiate the hospital in the marketplace and in the minds of the consumer/public? Is the platform in line with the needs of the consumer, or is it “hospitalspeak”? Will advertising expenditures provide an appropriate return on investment?

After a creative platform is chosen, how should the advertiser’s marketing executive work with creative people and production specialists to ensure that the final advertisement has the tone and meaning originally promised? A lot can happen along the way. The healthcare organization’s lack of focus and consistency can put the train off track. Sometimes the attention or time deficits of overworked creative people cause deviation from the plan.

To ensure that your advertising and marketing efforts are beneficial to your brand, ask yourself this question: After viewing this ad, will the public have a greater or lesser trust in our organization, doctors, and staff?This may sound like a straightforward question, but it is complicated. You must trust your own ability to know a good ad when you see one, trust your ad agency, test the ads, or bring in a creative consultant to help you evaluate the ideas before you spend a lot of money to produce them.

I’m not a fan of testing concepts or storyboards, because it’s difficult for focus-group participants to know in the treatment, concept, or even the storyboard or animatic stages what will eventually be a great ad or what will be a flop. The untrained eye doesn’t have that kind of vision. Testing has its purpose, but that purpose is not to judge raw creative. Testing may give false peace of mind, but in the process, any true greatness or innovation gets tested out.

In the Blink of an Eye

In his blockbuster book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell shows that there are some people who are just plain good at “getting it.” There are the art historians who identified a fake statue when the most sophisticated scientific tests failed. Then, there’s the psychologist who can tell with 95 percent accuracy, viewing only seconds of videotape, whether a couple will still be married 15 years later. How do they do it? It seems it’s part “knack,” coupled with a lot of experience. A database of case studies and histories, internalized over years of doing, gives these experts an advantage in analyzing situations quickly and accurately (Gladwell 2005).

My personal experience is pretty much like that. I don’t know how I come up with creative concepts and how I can recognize ones that are good for a brand. I just do it. Although I do pore over available research and strategic briefs from the organization’s advertising agency and listen closely to executive management’s thoughts about what differentiates the organization’s brand, I try to get at the heart of it. Some ideas just “pop out,” and some do not. Many times, I dare not tell a client how effortlessly a positioning statement, strategy, or idea for an ad came into my head; it might cause the client to undervalue it. But as Gladwell states in his book, and the philosopher Plato recognized (Jowett 2001), flashes of inspiration may be more “true” than ideas agonized over for days or weeks.

I believe strongly in the opinions, intuitions — even the “gut” reactions — of my clients. I value their experience and expertise as marketers more than the research anyone can assemble from interviews with John Q. Public. When we have tailored our campaigns solely to the whims of focus groups, we have ended up with the “least common denominator” kind of advertising: Something everybody understands. Safe. “Me, too.” Not memorable. Nothing that differentiates the brand. On the other hand, when my clients make up their own minds, taking into account their feelings and experience and respecting their constituents’ concerns, they always choose advertising that genuinely reflects how the organization wants its brand to be perceived.

Getting Better Results

You probably know that advertising agencies are full of egos. They have to be; it takes a healthy ego to believe you can come up with great ideas. What you might not know is that the largest of these egos are probably as fragile as they are big. To get the best ideas and the best results from your agency’s creative team, you should respect their process, not rush them needlessly, and be diplomatic in rejecting concepts you think are not appropriate or you just don’t like.

I’ve been creating advertising for 20 years, and I’ve worked with the best, the biggest, and the smallest ad agencies in the United States and Canada. I’ve been amazed at how the quality of the relationship between the advertiser and the agency directly affects the product. I’ve seen clients intimidated by agency creatives and principals, and vice versa. I’ve also seen agencies decide not to present what they knew were their best concepts—and offer the advertiser only mediocre ideas they know will be accepted—to keep the client happy and make things go more smoothly.

It’s not only the agency’s fault. Today, most advertiser/agency relationships are short-lived and fickle. Clients abandon their agencies just as the agency is starting to understand the organization’s brand and its objectives. Clients often do not appreciate great work and want to pay less each year for more work and more product. At the regional and local levels, they’ve squeezed out so much profit that there is little incentive for the agency to go the extra mile, especially given the musical-chairs game of changing agencies with every one-year or two-year contract.

To get the best work from your ad agency, creative team, producers, TV directors, and everyone who has a hand in your advertising and communication strategy, you have to trust them. Conversely, they need to know that they can trust you and your organization. Ask the hard questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Think twice before letting them shave a patient’s head in one of your ads. But when they come back with the real “goods,” recognize their contributions, praise their hard work, pay them willingly, speedily, and handsomely, and keep them around long enough to get to know your brand.

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Gladwell, M. 2005. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 49-52, 183-184.

Jowett, B. A., trans. 2001. Plato’s Republic. Millis, MA: Agora Publications, 254-261.

Shore, D. A. 2005. The Trust Prescription for Healthcare: Building Your Reputation with Consumers.Chicago: Health Administration Press.


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