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The Role of Emotion & Reason in Hospital Marketing

January 20, 2015
Brand Messaging, Healthcare Marketing, Marketing Strategy

In the world of advertising, whether communications should be more emotional or more rational has been a debate that has gone on for decades. Luckily, a lot has been written on this subject in the last few years, especially in the area of cognitive science.

But to get right to the point, the simple answer is: Both matter, but for distinctly different yet complementary reasons.

Why Emotion Matters

A Reasoned argument as to why Emotion is so critical.

When it comes to hospitals there are endless rational reasons you could market out to your audiences.  You could tout your outcomes, your location, your ER waiting times, your famous surgeons, technology, etc. The list of “proof points” is seemingly endless.

But let’s have a reality check.  Many of the hospitals you compete against also have many proof points to tout, as well – some of which might be equal to or even better than yours.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a society in which there are countless competitors to many goods and services.  In large markets, hospitals are no different.  On the one hand, it’s great for consumers because choice is a good thing, right? What’s more American than choice? But, too many choices – and, frankly, competing reasons to choose one hospital over another – could lead to Choice Paradox,  in which too many choices paralyze consumers into making no choice or a habitual choice.  And, for those marketers trying to get people to switch from their habitual choice by trying to prove to them you have a better product/service, you may, in fact, be just layering onto the choice paradox.

This is why our brains creates heuristics – shortcuts – a means by which the brain bypasses massive amounts of stimuli and focuses on the things they already know works for them. Some of us do it consciously, but most of us do it subconsciously.

What to do?  Most hospital marketers try to make their unique product/service attributes somehow better than another hospital’s unique product/service. And, that’s the game that’s played day in, day out.

Mind you, if your hospital has what is often referred to in marketing as a killer app  — then, by all means, market it until the cows come home (assuming, of course, that it actually drives volumes). But let’s have another reality check – from the prospective patient’s perspective, do you really have a killer app? The likelihood is you don’t – and, well, you’re left competing in the same way you’ve always done.

Or let’s say you do have a killer app. The question you have to ask yourself is whether it will continue to be so for the long-term. Because, here in America, the one thing we’re great at is copying the leader – and often making a better mousetrap. 

Creating a Meaningfully Different Brand

Alas, not to fret.  There is a killer app that you can create that not only will differentiate your brand, but sustain that difference for the long-term:  

Create a meaningfully different brand tied strongly to a relevant emotional connection.

Meaningfully different brands begin with a strong emotional raison d’être – a reason for being. This foundational reason must tap into an emotion that is highly relevant to its customer. If not, there would truly be no reason for the company to exist, because other companies could functionally serve the customer just as well. 

Sounds easy enough, right?  You’re a hospital – could there possibly be another organization on the planet whose purpose is more emotional than keeping people alive and healthy for as long as possible?  

I suspect you already see the problem. Isn’t that every other hospital’s raison d’être, too?  

In order to truly stand apart from your competitors, your hospital also has to be different. While all hospitals exist for nearly identical reasons, what you need to do is identify your hospital’s unique perspective on achieving your raison d’être.

At first you might think this is a real challenge.  For comparison’s sake, however, let’s consider another category: airlines.  At the foundation, all airlines are the same – to get people from Point A to Point B.  While there are attributes of each airline that make it different from one another, there’s clearly something different at play here, isn’t there? Because we all have an airline we prefer – and the likelihood is that it’s not just because one has a TV and one doesn’t.

Let’s look at Southwest Airlines. Despite the fact that it’s beloved by many, they actually have fewer attributes than most of its competitors.  So, how did an airline that offered less become one of the most profitable airlines in history?  

The airline defined itself differently in the market by democratizing travel – becoming the hero of those who hated the way airlines worked: making you fly through their hubs, fees for everything, unhappy employees, etc.  These and other measures allowed the airline to lower costs and therefore lower fares – allowing everyone to be free to move about the country. 

Or what about Virgin America? They decided to take a different tack altogether and made the entire flying experience unique and delightful at every touch point. What made Virgin America meaningfully different? Delivering great service in an industry where there was none in the US.  You might argue that great service is just an attribute, but in reality – if you’ve flown enough – you realize just how strongly emotional providing great service can be.

Back to hospitals . . .

Neuroscience Proves Emotions Drive Decision-Making

In his book, Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason and The Human Brain, renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio revealed that the absence of emotion actually impedes decision-making.

His patient, Eliot, had a tumor removed from his brain. By removing the tumor it also had a deleterious effect: Eliot could no longer feel emotion.  His IQ didn’t change, nor did his memory. For example, an image that may horrify anyone wouldn’t have any impact on him, whatsoever.

On the one hand you might think “Hmmm . . . imagine all of those tough decisions I had to make in my life, the ones in which emotion colored everything and made decision-making so difficult? Wouldn’t it have been great to switch off my emotions so I can make a calculated decision?” 

Interestingly enough, with Eliot, the opposite happened. Whether it was as simple a task as choosing a pair of socks in the morning, or something else, Eliot became paralyzed in his decision-making.  Why? Because what Damasio learned was that emotions actually help weigh decisions. And without emotion, we lose the ability to make decisions.

Well, I’ve certainly made a case for bonding emotionally, so what role does Reason play?

The Case for Reason

“When our emotional desires begin to shift toward a prospective brand, we align our reasons to be consistent with that intention. Our critical mind is always looking for evidence to support our beliefs. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the belief, and the greater the tendency is to seek out supporting evidence. We are not rational. We are rationalizers.”

– Praet, The End of Rational Vs. Emotional, Fast Company, May 2013

What this tells us is that emotion is primary in decision-making. However, a brand that solely relies on emotion is missing the point.

In order to switch brands, consumers need to give themselves permission to do so. That means, beyond feeling all warm and fuzzy about a brand, they’ll need proof points to justify their decision. In reality, for brands that have created strong emotional attachments, it may not take much to sell the consumer. All they need is enough information and they’ll sell themselves.

And, if you’ve done your consumer research, you’ll know which rational levers to pull.  

Summing Up

Without doubt, understanding what makes your products and services important to your prospective patients is critical – because they need to know that your hospital can, in fact, heal their medical ailment.  But, never forget that the hospital down the road can likely do the same.

More importantly, however, spend some time thinking about what emotional needs your community wants from your hospital and determine how you can make your brand meaningfully different. Do that and your marketing efforts will become more impactful and drive the ROI your physicians and hospital executives expect from your marketing department.

Richard Bell

At the time of this post, Richard was the Executive Vice President of Brown, Parker & DeMarinis overseeing Brand Planning & Account Management.

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