For as long as I’ve been helping to build brands, the wisdom has always been that corporations should speak like real people. Things should be simple, which (to be clear) isn’t about being dumbed down. Rather, if you get a bill from your energy company, you should be able to understand what it means, what you’re being charged, and what you’re entitled to. It should be like communicating with a real person, not the faceless machinery of a company.
I often think back on that when the topic of “humanized branding” comes up. I think about what it really means for a brand to be “human” — showing up in a way that’s simple, right, real, and true. The goal is nuance. Especially now in a socially integrated, digital-first world, empowered audiences expect their brands to support an authentic, two-way communication.
Healthcare and pharmaceutical brands should be the masters of this —they are literally the most human of all industries — but they’re not. Too often, global healthcare and pharmaceutical companies, tasked with saving or improving the quality of life for millions of people, are somehow being “out-humanized” by technology companies like Google. These massive tech companies speak, present themselves, and behave in ways that are much more human than many of the big health and wellness brands. And so, their brands prosper and their reputations grow.
If we think about crises like the Covid-19 pandemic, tech companies were some of the first to not only look outwardly and offer support to the world at large, but also look inward and be the first to tell their employees not to worry about coming into the office, and then assuring them that they would not have to rush back in, even after governments deemed it safe to return to work. Many of the programs that they ran, like several that tried to make ventilators and face shields (with varying results), are not even a part of their core functions, but instead are about using their resources to solve real problems. To their credit, pharmaceutical companies are on the front lines of finding a Covid vaccine, but too often they focus on the business of creating drugs when they could also create and influence a broader positive impact on the world.
These brands have gotten caught up in their own heads and, in the process, have stopped thinking about how they impact people’s lives and how people engage with them. They’ve ignored their brand experience – how their brands are expressed across every touchpoint. And in doing so, they seem less human – either because they don’t have a broader purpose beyond pure science or because they simply aren’t communicating it.
I’m not suggesting that healthcare and pharmaceutical brands need to act like they’re your “friend” — in fact, quite the opposite. Superficial displays of humanity like fun photography, quirky illustrations, emojis, unusual names, and artsy logos aren’t the answer. But neither is adopting a medical-based ideology without humanized focus to go with it.
Where things went wrong
Tech brands didn’t get it right in the beginning either. For a while, when they were being hailed for their technical innovation, even Apple was a little bit tone-deaf. Part of this is that tech brands are largely product and engineering-based, not branding or marketing based. Though their products were often developed using user-centered thinking and design, they fell short when thinking through human-centered benefits of their companies and brands. It is just not something that is necessarily natural for them.
Healthcare and pharmaceutical brands have similar issues. This leads to messaging and actions that sometimes seem to serve business concerns and even people’s medical concerns, but not necessarily people themselves.
When a company is much more focused on how a drug or medical tool is differentiated, versus what it actually does and how it ties into a system of care that serves people the best, you end up seeming like you lack empathy, even when the end result is countless lives saved. That’s the lesson that the industry is learning now, and addressing it means acting in more human ways and better communicating the value and purpose of these brands that are such a vital part of our societies.
Why be more humanized?
More human brands are stronger brands. We know this because we can look at brands that favor human qualities like authenticity and purpose and see a correlation between their approach and better financial performance. People want to know that the brands they support aren’t only focused on financial return. In fact, not only do people just expect more out of the companies that they support, but they’re quicker to punish ones that don’t align with their values. So, it’s increasingly important to have some sort of purpose that you can communicate and follow.
For an industry like the pharmaceutical industry, which has some reputational challenges, a more human approach could offer a solution. At the very least, leaders need to recognise the need to try something new — as with each new brand launch, they’re seeing steadily less financial impact.
Designing a more human healthcare industry
For too long, some healthcare and pharmaceutical companies have trafficked in visuals and messages that show a dated understanding of the patients they serve — like pinks and purples for women-focused brands — as if those tired clichés will make you feel like an empowered superwoman. If this industry wants to be seen as truly “patient-first,” it must quickly engage in the work of really understanding patients and the complicated world they inhabit. By helping these companies reflect a more simple truth while communicating in a more authentic and human voice, branding and design can lead the way.
It’s not just about a brand being beautiful, but about using a combination of creative and strategic tools to show some level of human consideration. Having a higher order of design is human because, whether it’s the design of a product or packaging, it shows respect and understanding of the user and audience. When paired with actions and messaging that treats “consumers” as people, these companies do more than create drugs, they can build better brands.
Tech brands figured this out long ago and the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are still lagging behind. Now in the spotlight because of their heroic efforts to help guide the world safely out of the pandemic, these brands can finally signal that there are people behind the brands looking to help build a better future.
Photo: CYCLONEPROJECT, Getty Images