A real-life experiment in brand communications
By Dave Sonderman, executive creative director of GSW Worldwide, an inVentiv Health company.
If other brands communicated with customers the way healthcare brands do, how many customers would they have? Or lose?
More than 90 million Americans fail to act on important health information each year due to issues such as lack of understanding, embarrassment or fear, and information overload.
To put the issue in human terms, we decided to see what would happen when everyday people were confronted with a clinical rendition of the most commonplace brand experiences. GSW’s Speak People Experiment involved a team of prop artists, improvisation actors and creative directors in hidden-camera takeovers of a coffee shop, a restaurant and a flower shop to show what happens when simplicity, authenticity and stories go missing in brand communications.
What we witnessed wasn’t entirely surprising. In all three situations, unwitting diners, drinkers and shoppers moved through a fairly consistent arc of reactions: from confusion to complacent laughter, and then to irritation at the lack of resolution. This is probably not the audience reaction desired by any brand manager worth his or her title.
Turns out, we’re not the only ones experimenting here.
Recent draft FDA guidelines for consumer print advertising place a heavy emphasis on communicating with simplicity to create better understanding of health benefits and risks for patients. In imagining a new “Consumer Brief Summary” for instance, the draft guidelines recommend that risk information be prioritized and thoughtfully designed using whitespace rather than the typical densely formatted text. The draft cites examples from consumer OTC packaging.
We applaud the new guidance and research behind it. However, like any regulatory guidance, the language can be difficult to navigate. So, at the risk of cherry picking only certain parts of the guidance, let’s translate the creative direction FDA is preparing to give to drug marketers:
- Take a conversational tone — “FDA strongly encourages the use of consumer-friendly language in all consumer-directed materials. The consumer brief summary should be written in language designed for understanding by a broad target audience with various levels of literacy skills.”
- Get better at prioritizing and editing — “FDA’s current thinking is that the consumer brief summary should provide clinically significant information on the most serious and the most common risks associated with the product and omit less pertinent information.”
- Establish a design and information hierarchy — “Different techniques can be used to assist consumers with comprehension of information. For example, signals, such as headlines and subheadings, help communicate important information”
- Show us more white space — “Using double spacing between paragraphs and indentations, as opposed to plain block paragraphs, helps maximize background space (also called white space) and improves readability.”
- Show us new thinking — “The examples included throughout are intended to provide guidance and illustrate possible approaches; firms may use alternative approaches if these approaches satisfy the requirements of the statute and regulations.”
While these may seem like table stakes to good communication, they are much-needed steps in the right direction – toward speaking people in healthcare – that could leave a huge footprint. And they confirm much of what we witnessed in The Speak People Experiments.
If healthcare brands want to make stronger human connections, language matters. The intangibles of good brand communication – storytelling, simplicity, authenticity – run counter to healthcare’s traditional prove-it, chart-it, tell-it approach to selling. The market and FDA are forcing changes here. But the messy imperfectness of real life has trouble finding a foothold in the clinical clean rooms and statistical safe rooms of the healthcare industry.
Meanwhile, agency creative teams can rejoice: If the FDA is asking for whitespace and conversational language, it won’t be long until medical-regulatory teams are, too.
To learn more or watch The Speak People Experiments go to www.wespeakpeople.com
GSW, based in Columbus, Ohio with offices in New York, Pennsylvania, and Canada, is one of the largest health and wellness advertising agencies in the world. The company provides a full range of client resources, including research, analytics, marketing and brand consultancy, advertising, promotion, public relations, advocacy, medical education, meetings and events, interactive communications, and more. For more information, visit www.gsw-w.com.