Earlier this year, a poignant news narrative unfolded across screens large and small, as legislators holding town halls saw their agendas hijacked by groups of angry constituents. Against the backdrop of a national debate about healthcare, some told painful stories about their struggles with injury or illness, as well as lifesaving medications or interventions.

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Regardless of political views, most people tuning in to the healthcare debate probably remember those stories better than statistics about health insurance costs and coverage rates. And as advertising becomes more data-driven and our media environment grows more fragmented, marketers, especially those in healthcare, should take note. The way to break through a crowded content landscape is usually through a good story, and a good story is one that triggers emotion.

Healthcare and pharma advertising brings inherent creative challenges. There are regulatory and disclosure requirements for prescription drugs, patient privacy issues, and an atypical market structure for products and services across the board. Yet there are few industries better suited to emotional storytelling. We are marketing one of the most precious and essential “products” in the lives of most people — good health. What could be more critical?

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But even the most powerful campaign can be stymied in today’s crowded digital environment.

Here are some ways for healthcare marketers to break through.  

Use data to validate, not explain. Many multiple sclerosis sufferers are misdiagnosed; the estimates range from one-third of patients to 68% of patients. This is a startling data point, but it only comes to life when we follow an individual patient through his or her own journey to proper diagnosis and treatment.   Research shows that we make decisions by what we feel and what moves us, and then we look to data to rationalize and support our choices. Don’t feel compelled to include stats and findings in stories. Intrigue readers with stories and they’ll come looking for data.

Make the customer the hero. Every story needs a protagonist. The hero’s journey is a classic storytelling archetype, but too often marketers get caught up in their own company, brand, or workforce as the hero of their own story. Occasionally this works well — think about GE’s Imagination At Work campaign, which celebrates its R&D innovation. But more often, the natural hero of the story is the customer, patient, or ordinary citizen.  At Remedy Health, our Live Bold, Live Now multi-media initiative highlights the struggles and successes of real people who live with chronic conditions. The stories are real, they are affecting, and the patients tell them better than we ever could.

Aim to enlighten, not to sell. This is where pharmaceutical and other healthcare brands may have an advantage over other marketers. Many pharma ads are crafted to educate patients and/or urge them to find out more about specific drugs or treatment options through health professional channels. It’s a more authentic way to engage people, of course. The goal of any campaign is to inform, inspire, and motivate people who are dealing with a chronic illness. We see it as a first step in a customer’s journey to finding the right treatment for their condition. This works well in a category like DTC, but it’s also powerful for other types of products and brands if marketers have the leeway (and the guts) to take a long-term approach to customer engagement.  

Universalize the story. Stories aren’t about what happens as much as they are about how they makes us feel. The experience of a five-year post-cancer checkup is not a universal one, but the mix of emotions — fear, anxiety, joy, triumph — can speak to everyone. A good story should express and evoke the feelings that come with the narrative. Look at the intensely personal tack that’s been taken by hospitals. Many are marketing their brands to discerning health consumers not with outcomes data but by highlighting their own patient success stories. The New York-Presbyterian health system and its stellar collection of emotionally uplifting patient experiences is just one example. That sort of content just jumps off the screen and connects. We also see it in pharma advertising. How about “Frank,” the contractor treating his bad opioid-related constipation? It’s certainly memorable!

Use the flexibility of digital media. In today’s digital media landscape, there are so many ways for marketers to engage consumers. The fragmentation of media is a challenge, but the digital environment affords endless experimentation. There are expanding opportunities to tell evocative stories in video, social media, and native advertising. With the right analytics, marketers know what’s working and what’s not, and they can tweak the creative format at minimal cost. Marketers should take advantage of digital media’s flexibility to test different video formats, for example, and to adapt their narrative in different ways to different channels, from smartphone to desktop.

In the end, marketing success is all about using the tools at our disposal and adapting to the changing behavior and needs of our customers. But one thing that will never change is the power and resonance of a good story.

Jim Curtis is president of Remedy Health Media.