Mad Men at HERO Forum 13: Communications for Health Behavior Change

“So what does consumer advertising have to do with health behavior change?”

This was the main theme of a recent talk given at HERO Forum 13, and the answer is actually quite a bit, if you’re willing to step outside the traditional views of how we approach health promotion in the workplace.

The premise of the talk is that we can learn a great deal about how to be persuasive with our communications if we understand how advertisers do what they do in developing strategy, identifying target markets, creating the brand story, delivering the campaign, and measuring the results.

Behavior Change Challenges

Human behavior change is one of life’s great mysteries, and made more difficult when put in the context of employee wellness programs. The work of changing habits toward improved health involves a whole host of rational and emotional barriers that hold people back; regardless of how hard we push. And in the corporate environment, we have the added burden of privacy concerns that can get in the way of effective outreach.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen an array of ways to address this including the increased use of incentives, behavioral economics and “small steps” interventions to help nudge people on the path toward better well-being. Each of these can help address one or more of the barriers – but all of them need good strong communications to help package and frame them properly.

One of the inherent obstacles for corporations is that much of their internal communications outreach is “compliance” oriented, whereas in attempting to change behavior, the key is to be persuasive.

Insights from Consumer Advertising

Don Draper This is where advertising comes in to play. For many decades, advertisers have worked on various ways to get into the heads of their buying audience to identify the triggers that will help get them to buy the advertised brand.

At one point in time, ad agencies employed legions of psychologists and human behavior experts to explore the underlying drivers of purchase decisions. This led one author to write about “The Hidden Persuaders,” a 1958 expose on the supposed devious efforts of advertising as a subliminal influence.

Whether or not the Mad Men of the 50’s used subversive techniques is immaterial to the fact that advertising has truly shaped our culture. It has guided us in our entertainment interests, dining and drinking preferences, automobile choices, and so much more. Some would even argue that it has helped to support some of the many bad habits and negative lifestyle choices we are now trying to reverse.

So it’s only fitting to draw some insights and lessons learned from this experience to help turn around our sedentary ways and nutritional shortcomings.

There are many good parallels between consumer advertising and employee health engagement. They each are intended to move us toward the sponsor’s goal; they each need focused strategic emphasis; they each must deliver messaging intended to deliver on business objectives; and they each have to address the process of change that individuals experience when shifting their habits.

Lessons from DTC Advertising

And while these parallels to consumer advertising are quite valid, the connection with direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs is actually stronger.

With DTC, consumer health behavior change is the object, and the messaging must help drive prospective patients through their individual decision pathway and also through the sometimes complex maze of the healthcare system.

DTC has had a long and interesting history – from the early days of experimentation and physician backlash, to consumer confusion of advertised brands with no indication in the mid-90s, to the full-scale branded commercials filled with previously unstated (at least in audio format) contraindications, warnings and side effects.

This 30 year experience of marketing pharmaceutical brands to the consumer is filled with cautionary experiences of failure balanced with a handful of outstanding successes.

There’s a lot to be learned about how to – and how not to – craft and deliver consumer messages promoting health behavior change from the DTC experience

Here are a few highlights to close with:
• It’s not about a single impactful message, but about how to stimulate behavior change through a process of smart communications that help lead to action
• Ensure that messages are strategically-driven, tailored to the audience, and designed to achieve desired objective
• Work to develop engaging creative that is delivered with enough reach and frequency though the right channels
• Establish a long-term plan, which should have multiple stages and be flexible enough for modifications, as needed
• Accommodate the consumer decision pathway, provide relevant information, and identify ways to persuade, reward, influence, and stimulate the intended audience throughout the campaign

Behavior change involves a process of continuous improvement. It is not enough to drive an initial action; it is about creating accountability for on-going individual actions and recognition of the innate value of positive behaviors.

So, look to the Mad Men and some of their creativity and smartly persuasive methods for inspiration…!

About Frank Hone

Frank Hone is Chief Engagement Officer at Healthcentric Partners, Inc. the first and only engagement strategy and marketing consultancy for employee health and well-being improvement.
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