No one laughs during a colonoscopy: Hospital marketing execs share tips on campaign imagery

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Aesthetics are a key part of any health system marketing campaign because visual imagery stirs up emotions and memories that audiences will associate with the system.

Below, five health system marketing executives give their advice on making strategic aesthetic choices for campaigns.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and style.

Laura Young. Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Southeast Georgia Health System (Brunswick). Images/depictions of patients and consumers should be more inclusive and reflect America’s diversity of ethnicities, genders, ages, body types and lifestyles. This reflects a truer picture of our nation’s demographics and would most likely appeal to consumers who feel they have been ignored or left out in certain marketing messages.

Along those lines, I prefer to use a real patient’s image over a model, regardless of who the patient is or how they appear. Stock images that use male or female models in their 20-30s to depict doctors lack credibility. While these images are attractive, they may be insensitive to older patients who view physicians as authority figures. It is important to represent physicians in a variety of age groups, genders and ethnicities.

Though commonly used, “lifestyle” images and television ads of people laughing exuberantly when promoting health screenings (colonoscopies, etc.), medications and serious medical treatments have become cliché and do not ring true to life. No one is laughing when meeting with their physician to discuss a diagnosis. Again, this is an insensitive, inauthentic approach to screenings and treatments that many people fear. The right images would deliver a message of hope and empower people to take control of their health without coming across as patronizing, somber or fearful.

The majority of Gen Z embrace multiculturalism and evolving gender roles and body types. The Millennial market has a finely tuned sense of when they are being “sold” or when a message lacks authenticity. Tattoos and multi-colored hair have become mainstream for these generations and that’s what they want to see reflected in messaging directed towards them. Boomers are said to refuse to grow old, but most are more realistic and appreciate images that reflect their life experience.

When our team is not able to use “real” images, we always strive to use images that are authentic yet sensitive.

Suzanne Bharati Hendery. Chief Marketing and Customer Officer at Renown Health (Reno, Nev.). Visual images heighten emotions in all of us. Our brains are hardwired that way. Emotions, and how the brain processes them, make us feel and react. At Renown, our marketing features strong, positive, colorful visual images that celebrate diversity and a bold attitude – the best that is in all of us — to create a deeper emotional connection to our brand and the experience.

Kary McIlwain. Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. At Lurie Children's, we avoid any image that could compromise a patient's privacy. We do not show readings on monitors or any electronic or other medical data that could contain protected health information.  

We also avoid overly dramatic medical imagery. Life and death situations, as well as surgical or injury details, are avoided. As a children's hospital, our optimistic nature has us focused on solutions, not problems. 

We never use stock imagery in any of our external facing work. All the people we feature are actual patients, families, faculty and staff. Our guiding principles are to be authentic, inspirational and inclusive, showing real patients that represent the diversity of our market.

Kimber Severson. Chief Marketing Officer at Sanford Health (Sioux Falls, S.D.). It’s important to listen to consumers and use insights from market research to guide the direction of your healthcare marketing campaign. This will help you avoid using cookie-cutter imagery or visuals that won’t resonate with your audience. So many elements and approaches can work — emotion, humor, educational  — as long as they’re authentic.

Gabriel Bershadscky. Assistant Vice President of System Creative and Design at Mount Sinai Health System (New York City). Inauthentic imagery/aesthetics should be avoided for healthcare marketing. For example, avoid patients and doctors looking directly at the camera and static posed shots.

Pictures tell stories. Studio shots offer no context of the real-life situations of patients. Have a strong story to tell with a purpose, without the need of sound or copy, yet be visually effective across all platforms — traditional, digital, press, web, social media and so forth.

Avoid photography that offers an overly optimistic outlook, as opposed to strength through the patient’s journey. Additionally, avoid photography that depicts certain procedures that can be perceived as distressing, visually unappealing or not displaying authentic patient experiences. Defaulting to needles or generating visual distress by displaying certain procedures, such as a skin biopsy, or internal organs is not a good idea. 

Imagery should avoid a lack of diversity — but be mindful that diversity shots should not feel forced. Imagery should also display proper branding elements without forcing it. That includes signage and clothing, as well as appropriate visual expression of brand values, voice, vision and attributes.

Lastly, don’t display unprofessional attire, and adhere to the hospital or health system’s policies.

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