Instead of telling compelling stories, many healthcare companies have been known to rely on ‘scare’ messaging in an attempt to persuade customers to use their services. This can result in healthcare technology being regarded with fear, suspicion and confusion by the general public.

At Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Ben James, Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson New York, and Ramon Soto, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Northwell Health, described how US non-profit Northwell Health has combatted this negative image by telling the human stories behind healthcare innovation.

Creating the brand

The brand Northwell Health was created to unite more than 50 different healthcare sub-brands, each of which interacted with the public in a different way.

James and Soto showed what they have dubbed “the vomit slide”, featuring the dozens of disjointed sub-brands – none of which were inherently bad brands, but which needed a unified voice and mission in order to make a real impact.

Healthcare in the United States is hyper-competitive, explained James, and Northwell wanted the chance to tell their story with more engagement and creativity.

With a new master brand, and a unified philosophy – “Look North”, which symbolises the notion that “good ideas can come from anywhere” – Northwell Health set out to change the public perception of healthcare technology.

As an example, James and Soto showed a TV spot that Northwell and J Walter Thompson put together about robotic surgery. Soto explained that many members of the public are afraid of the idea of “robots doing surgery” – even though robotic surgery can accomplish incredible things.

“We needed to humanise that, and make it accessible,” said Soto.

Northwell Health created a video which showed surgeons using robotic instruments to reconstruct a flower – emphasising the delicacy and precision involved in the surgery, rather than the intimidating mechanical tools.

A fun fact about this video: while the captions note that it shows a simulated operating environment, James informed the audience that the “surgery” was real.

“When we were filming, we went back and forth on whether we were really going to do it,” he said. “And we did.”

While he didn’t mention how the patient was faring post-surgery, we hope that the flower went on to make a full recovery.

The Fin

One of Northwell Health’s stand-out successes as a brand, and one of its most impactful human stories, has been The Fin.

Six percent of veterans return from war without a limb. However, Northwell Health found that while there have been some excellent prosthetics created to help veterans with missing limbs, the realm of amphibious prosthetics – prosthetics which can be used to aid swimming – was dramatically underserved.

Often, a person with a prosthetic limb who wants to go for a swim at the beach or a swimming pool will need to remove their prosthetic before entering the water – which places it at risk of being stolen or tampered with. Waterproof prosthetics are also available, but none had yet been created which could actively help to propel a swimmer through the water.

Northwell Health reached out Todd Goldstein, a 3D printing expert at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research (a Northwell Health organisation) who had successfully hacked 3D printers in order to print artificial tracheas. They asked if he had any experience with creating prosthetic limbs. He didn’t – but was willing to give it a try.

With Goldstein overseeing the design, Northwell Health brought together experts from The Feinstein Institute, Eschen Prosthetics, The Composite Prototyping Centre, Markforged 3D Printing, and Northwell’s commercial arm, Northwell Ventures, to create the groundbreaking prosthetic limb, nicknamed ‘The Fin’.

Their test subject was Dan Lasko, a 33-year-old veteran who lost his leg in Afghanistan in 2004. Lasko has two young boys who love the water, but with a prosthetic limb, it wasn’t easy for Lasko to get in the water, play with his sons and teach them to swim like he wanted to.

Creating The Fin gave Northwell Health the opportunity to tell the whole family’s story, and show how healthcare technology had changed their lives for the better.

“We spent a lot of time getting into the human story with The Fin,” said Soto. Together with J. Walter Thompson New York, Northwell created a six-minute short documentary entitled ‘The Return’, which told the story behind the testing, design, perserverance and triumph involved in creating the prosthetic.

The campaign resulted in 320 million impressions on a global scale, was featured in the New York Times, and won J. Walter Thompson and Northwell Health two Lions awards: a silver Lion in the Pharma category for Patient Engagement Utilities, and a bronze Lion for Product Design for Medical Devices.

Even more rewardingly, Northwell Health is still receiving messages from amputees and their families about The Fin and how it could revolutionise their lives.

Fail fast, and fail forward

Despite its worthwhile results, the campaign surrounding The Fin wasn’t all smooth sailing: James revealed that the project was nearly killed off four times before it finally came to fruition.

But one of Northwell’s other marketing and cultural philosophies is “Fail fast, and fail forward” – a saying from business innovation which emphasises using failure as a catalyst for success.

Or as Northwell’s CEO Michael Dowling has said, if you hit a challenge you can’t overcome, “You just go over it, under it or around it.”

Going forward, Northwell Health is investing heavily in brand-new categories of medicine, such as food as medicine: Northwell hired a 5-star Michelin chef to create “food pharmacies” in food deserts – areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food.

Another ground-breaking piece of technology the brand is exploring is a supercomputer chip which can put autoimmune conditions, such as Crohn’s Disease, into remission by being attached directly to the nervous system.

As a non-profit, Northwell Health works with the FDA to gain approval for its new technologies, as well as insurance providers to shrink the cost of its devices and make them available to those in need.

Of the uncharted areas of medicine that Northwell Health is venturing into, Soto said, “They’ll be brand-new stories for us to tell.”

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Want more amazing brand case studies? Come to the Festival of Marketing 2018, October 10-11 in London.