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Culturally savvy health brands

Abigail Stuart
Global CEO of Health & OpenMind
Hall & Partners

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Abigail set up the Health division in 1999, under her leadership they have secured global preferred agency status for eight of the top ten biopharmaceutical companies.

How Hall & Partners helps brands hone in on cultural insights

Culture frames everything. How people behave, why they take certain decisions and what influences they’re most inspired by.

Yet it’s not enough to simply understand that such a framework exists. Healthcare is rich in cultural assumptions and drivers, and brands need to proactively understand how culture shapes their category, and determine what the landscape will look like in future. That’s how they’ll strengthen relationships with customers and shift from an internal to external mind-set, from product to customer-centricity.

Opportunities lie in revealing the hidden ways in which culture impacts on choices made and emotions felt. Which is why the research industry must transform nebulous concepts of cultural narratives into clearly-defined sets of insights. If the customer really is at the heart of everything, how can brands leverage deep cultural understanding to show that they understand them and are on their side?


Brands need to proactively understand how culture shapes their category


At Hall & Partners we have a four-pillared approach to uncover the contextual insights that help brands shape culture.

Conduct a cultural read

The starting point for any culturally relevant brand: instead of trying to fit the brand story into the prevailing culture, switch perspectives and analyse the communications narrative from the customer’s point of view. What imagery and language are most prevalent in the brand category? How does mass media frame the issues? Who are the key advocates that customers most relate to? It’s vital to conduct a wide-ranging audit of print, digital and visual stimuli to shape the brand story within its cultural setting.


A cultural read in cancer revealed an over-use of the ‘battle’ metaphor to describe the patient experience. Culturally savvy brands understood that patients were rejecting this sentiment and calling for a new narrative that focuses on more inspiring, less clichéd messages.


Be forensic

If brands are to support, reflect and nourish the interests and lifestyles of their consumers, their communications need to become entwined with customer culture. This entails analysing what branding expert Martin Lindstrom terms ‘small data’, the little personalised clues that inspire bigger revelations. We’ve become obsessed with the directions Big Data urges us to follow; but real truths are contained not just in vast, impersonal data sets but in subtle, more accurate signposts that reveal innately human insights.


One approach we use is ‘lifelogging’ which involves recording and diarising lifestyles and cultures through wearable and mobile technology. With such data-rich gadgetry, we can capture moments and insights that might get lost through conventional methods. It’s these snapshots, moments and self-generated clues that help to join the dots and bring fresh thinking to brands.


Identify category norms and habits

Culture is a big driver of consumer beliefs – particularly in health, where it influences our understanding of what causes illness, how it can be cured or treated, and by whom. Within each category there are myriad patient dimensions – geographical, socio-economic and age-related – that are accepted to influence health beliefs. Yet we must remember that culture works both ways, with doctors also being influenced by their own cultural assumptions. So it’s incumbent upon our industry to ask how doctors bring their own cultural context to patient relationships and how it influences their prescribing decisions, even unconsciously.


A great example is from Roche/Genentech which used the Implicit Association Test to highlight the hidden biases that influence judgment and action related to lung cancer. A survey of 3000 people showed that healthcare professionals are as biased as everyone else in directing blame at the sufferer. Increasing selfawareness is a crucial first step in ensuring patients get the treatment they deserve.


Listen to cultural influencers 

Harness the perspective of the ‘outsiders’ who wield extraordinary power in a post-patrician, disruptive age. The grip that brands and marketers once had has been loosened by the growing influence of, for instance, consumers’ online peers with whom they communicate through blogs, apps, social networks and websites. In many cases, this is where the culture is being defined and directed, so shrewd marketers need to be part of these conversations. After all, consumers don’t only buy brands, they join them. They become them.

So we need to pivot from a mass marketing approach to one that is more bespoke and targeted, where key cultural influencers help to disseminate a brand’s story. These influencers can be, as journalist Malcolm Gladwell observed, ‘connectors’ – the artists, writers and film-makers who create culture. Or consumers themselves, who are digitally empowered to engage with brands more directly and create their own distinctive cultural frameworks. These are the stories that brands and marketers need to connect with if they’re to inject empathy and authenticity into their cultural insights.


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