Branding is not just design and pretty colors. It is aligning, designing, and consistently executing the visual, verbal, and experiential components to create a desired feeling and perception. In other words, branding is how you build a brand.

Sure, it applies to consumer-focused industries like apparel, beer, and packaged goods, where decisions to purchase are typically made on a whim, and the consequence of making a wrong decision is small.

But what about healthcare? An industry where there are ample facts and figures, where it’s heavily regulated by government institutions, where clinical evidence is needed for approval, where decisions can have life and death consequences? Surely, branding has no place in healthcare.

Let’s look at healthcare facilities and clinicians. Do they need a brand? Shouldn’t consumers just go to a physician recommended by another physician? Or pick one closest to their home and in their provider network?

It is not just about facts and figures when it comes to consumers choosing where to receive care

In a Press Ganey Research Report on consumer experience trends in healthcare, where they surveyed 1,000+ consumers in September of 2021, they found that most consumers (84% of those surveyed) would be unlikely to see a provider with less than four stars even if another provider had referred them. Reviews are important, but they also found that incomplete listings, outdated websites, and lack of online scheduling options were also reasons consumers cited as discouraging when looking to book appointments.

In a separate consumer survey by McKinsey & Company, respondents were asked about where they learned about the quality of a clinician or facility and 37% said they searched online and 31% visited the hospital or physician’s website. They also found that proximity appears to be more of a “nice-to-have” option. Most respondents would choose lower-cost or high-quality options over options that were higher-cost and more convenient.

Healthcare systems and practices need to show up consistently and put their best self forward for consumers to find them, understand them and schedule with them. And when consumers have many options to choose from, branding becomes even more important. How do you stand out?

Maybe healthcare facilities and clinicians need to pay attention to their brand and branding strategy because consumers are involved, but when it comes to deciding on a treatment option, isn’t it up to clinicians and doctors?

Consumers are more empowered to make treatment decisions for themselves

It is not entirely up to the doctor when deciding on a treatment. In a Deloitte 2020 survey of US Health Care Consumers, they found that most consumers (80%) are comfortable telling their doctors when they disagree with them. It also reported a general trend that consumers are becoming increasingly active and engaged in their health care. So, even if you may question the Pharma industry for spending billions of dollars on direct-to-consumer marketing and branding, the fact is you cannot forget about the consumer audience. They are only going to be more empowered to make decisions as the onslaught of sensors, at-home diagnostics, and other digital health solutions continue. Branding is only going to help them understand why your product is different and how your product can help them with their health.

What about clinicians and doctors? Surely the decisions they are making are purely evidence-based and squishy feelings have nothing to do with it?

Sentiment and feelings do play a role when doctors are making clinical decisions

Sorry to burst your bubble, but it turns out that emotion and sentiment do come into play when doctors make clinical decisions. In a study by MIT computer scientists, feelings and sentiment scores were correlated with the number of diagnostic imaging tests across a collection of medical records from 60,000 intensive care unit patients over a 10-year period. The researchers found that the doctors’ “gut feelings” had a significant role in how many tests they ordered for the patient.

“Clearly the physicians are using something that is not in the data to drive part of their decision making,” Alhanai (a lead author of the paper) says. “What’s important is that some of those unseen effects are reflected by their sentiment.”

There are probably a thousand other scenarios we can explore about different types of decisions and actions in the world of healthcare, but we should understand the common denominator here.

It’s us. We are humans.

Humans do not experience the world objectively and that is why brands and branding exist

It comes down to the fact that humans rely on mental models and pattern recognition to make decisions and navigate the world. In a Forbes article about the neuroscience of branding, our mental model is explained through a simple example of the blind spot. All of us are partially blind, yes, we all have a blind spot where the optic nerve meets the retina, but none of us notices it. The brain fills it in with visual information using a mental model. Our experience of sight is not an objective fact.

It’s this mental model that explains how branding affects beliefs and how beliefs can translate to real outcomes and how we operate as humans. Some researchers from Penn State were studying how brand perceptions can make a difference in performance in 2016 and had some interesting results. In an experiment, participants wore earplugs to minimize distractions and improve concentration while completing a math test. Half of the participants wore unbranded earplugs and half believed they were wearing 3M earplugs. The branded group answered more questions correctly.

The key takeaway here is that as long as we are humans making decisions, behaving, and performing based on mental models and perceptions, branding and brands have a role to play, regardless of industry vertical.

So, yes, branding is necessary in the world of healthcare, over and beyond the clinical evidence, the facts and figures required to demonstrate safety, efficacy, and proof.

Use branding to create the desired feeling, perception, and mental model in the minds of your audiences

Whether it’s a hospital facility trying to attract clinicians of the future, a life science company battling for top talent, a next-generation treatment trying to gain adoption in the physician community, or a digital health app vying for downloads and engagement, branding is essential.

It’s essential to deliver a consistent promise at every touch point, so the doctor, the nurse, the patient, and the consumer have a mental model of your company, product, or service and decide to become a user, a prescriber, an employee and a fan over everyone else they can choose from.

Cover image source: Volodymyr Hryshchenko