Blog | 11.15.16

Remove the Agenda, Find the White Space

What marketers can learn from Google’s health care strategy

There are a select few brands that have transcended the ordinary to become true leaders in their category and force the world re-think how we view an industry; or in the case of Google, re-think our view in virtually every category. This innovative company continues to be on the forefront of all things digital; and in many ways, all things human.

In the latest The Unconventionals podcast, Mike O’Toole (PJA President) sat down with Mark Rosenthal (a head of health services at Google) to discuss how Google can influence an entire industry simply by getting out of its own way and facilitating meaningful interactions. After listening to the podcast, I sat with Mike to discuss how Google redefines the spaces they touch (specifically health care), and if their influence changes the way marketers think about impactful communication within the category.

Devon Dawson: Mark Rosenthal mentions removing bias and intention from process (or at least attempting to) and how that provides a more organic outcome – which yields positives for innovation and growth. Do you think there’s an analog there for marketers in the medical field?

Mike O’Toole: Yeah, I definitely do. If you can remove a strict commercial agenda, like "I want to sell this product," and instead focus on "Hey, what problem am I trying to solve, and who else out there might be able to solve that problem with me?" I think you'll get to a better outcome for the market.

If you think about Google's mission of organizing the world's information, it's such a big mission that it doesn't talk about curing disease or selling health care products. It allows them to go to someone like Novartis and create a contact lens together –– Novartis is going to be the one that understands contact lenses, Google's the one that can understand how to aggregate the data from the wearer of the contact lens who is diabetic across the data of all the other diabetics and learn more about how to treat the disease.

Google does show the way there. If you're willing to forego a short-term commercial agenda you might find some partnerships that make you more successful in the long-term.

Devon: Similarly, Mark shares several stories about how Google Glass is being utilized in the health care world in ways that are unexpected. It seems Google didn’t define the product, and by getting out of the way, allowed the product to become something unique and iterative. That seems to be an instance of trusting the product’s potential more than marketing to expectations. Perhaps foregoing an agenda to find meaningful applications along the way?

Mike: Yeah. Well it's funny, if you think about the obvious and early applications for Google Glass –– the early adopters, people who bought those, they mostly were ridiculed, right? They were considered to be nerdy and people were skeeved out by the product.

Yet when Google and the market stepped back and said, "What can this technology enable?" Suddenly they realized there are lots of things—think of the applications of Google Glass in operating rooms allowing medical students to get a much deeper experience of the operation than they could ever get by looking over somebody's shoulders. That's just one example.

Google succeeds when they see their innovations as a platform partners will find good applications for. As opposed to trying to push it as in, "Hey this is a really cool consumer device."

Devon: Well that's interesting, it brings up the concept of the “cause of a product,” right? Like, what's the bigger purpose, and that's another instance where Google gets out of their own way and lets the market help define the cause. And you always mention the need for brands to find a common cause… even for campaigns to find a common cause. Why do you think finding a common cause opens up so many doors for marketers?

Mike: As an agency, and myself individually, we've increasingly been thinking about marketing and branding as a search for meaning. Brands are a lot more compelling and meaningful if they're solving bigger problems than just selling their product. We all want more meaning. We want a story we can connect to. The era where we would just buy one of the 7 beers that people were forcing on us through their ad campaigns is effectively over.

We get to choose products we feel more connected to. Brands that can make a common cause –– and there's two words there: "cause" is what's the bigger mission, what's the bigger set of questions or problems you're trying to solve, and "common" is who else out there wants to solve those problems –– are simply more effective. So as a brand or marketer, if you can take a step back and say, "This is bigger than selling product, and these problems we're trying to solve are not ours alone to solve," I think you then have the freedom to find other people in your space, outside of your space, in your ecosystem who share that mission; who want to address the same problems. A quick example: we were just talking to a small company that has a novel way to reduce the side effects—which are considerable—of treating prostate cancer. Their problem isn’t the effectiveness of the therapy, it’s getting doctors and patients to open their minds about treatment. There are lots of other companies who need to create that same change in the market. They’d all have a better shot if they banded together.

Devon: You mentioned the word "ecosystem," and we as an agency certainly champion this idea of "finding an ecosystem partner." Is it difficult to identify those partners for brands in a crowded space, or is that something an agency can help with? And how necessary is it to find a partner in this ecosystem?

Mike: It starts with the last question. First of all, if you've got a bigger mission ––a bigger set of questions you're trying to answer and problems you're trying to solve –– you're much more likely to get people to activate around it.

If all you're trying to do is sell product, nobody's that interested: your customers, your employees, nobody's that interested in just pushing product. But if you've got that bigger mission, then I think the trick is to be creative and expansive about who might be in your ecosystem. B2B companies tend to think, "we want to get happy customers to do testimonials for us." That's a conventional way to activate someone, but I think you can go much farther than that.

So your ecosystem can be employees, customers who love you, but also can include prospects… people who maybe have never bought from you, maybe don't even know you, but they share your vision for how the market should work, what the category promises.

If you think about the work we've done for Red Hat with the The Enterprisers Project, most of the CIOs who are on the editorial board for the Enterprisers Project are not Red Hat customers; but they share the idea that IT infrastructure can be a driver of innovation. And if that's the topic and the cause that they're promoting, they're happy to write about that.

There are other examples that can show how creative companies can be.

One is Hiscox, the British insurance company. They have a platform called “Encouraging Courage.” Insurance companies are in the business of risk, so you can understand how risk and courage go together. One of their promotional partners is Tough Mudder. It may seem like an odd pairing initially, yet the Tough Mudder races make sense if you're a brand that's about encouraging courage.

What's really interesting is that Hiscox looked at its customer base and realized they have a big sector of small business customers who are architects. They put out a challenge to those architects to help Tough Mudder design different obstacles for every race, which has become a big part of Tough Mudder’s signature. And architects loved it! They said, "This is a great way to showcase our creativity." That's a great way of activating your ecosystem in a creative way.

A second example is TD Ameritrade. They have something called the Human Finance campaign. TD Ameritrade is a big financial services/wealth management company. They sell most of their products through brokers: people who are independent, don't work for TD Ameritrade, but are critical to TD Ameritrade's success. So they decided to shine the spotlight on their brokers. Through their Human Finance campaign, they give brokers a chance to tell their stories (in particular, how they got into financial advising). They set up a program to go to different trade shows where they install a video booth for financial advisors to come in and tell their stories.

And the stories are meaningful!

There's a lot of humanity in these stories where an advisor says, "My dad died when I was a young kid, and it was hard because we weren't prepared financially. So I got into this business because I want to make sure families are prepared for whatever happens."

It's a great way to create a common cause with someone in your ecosystem –– make them feel good about themselves and about TD Ameritrade. Then when it comes time to recommending funds, or recommending a company, you might be more inclined to think about TD Ameritrade.

Devon: Sure. I think it's a much more interesting agency-client relationship with those types of campaigns, too. It redefines what the agency provides in terms of partnering with brands to think about effective ideas; and to your point, going bigger than just making ads, but making something that feels like a movement and that’s truly compelling to an audience.

Mike: Yeah! And you have to leave your promotional agenda at the door a little bit. You can't ask those brokers to tell you a story about how great TD Ameritrade is. Right?

Devon: Absolutely not.

Mike: Nobody would sign up and you'd have regulatory problems with that. But you're asking them to tell their story because TD Ameritrade and the brokers both have the same goal: making sure that individuals who might have some assets to invest receive good advice and prepare for their families' needs. That's a shared interest, and that's what they activated around. And that's why it's really interesting.

Devon: Going back to the podcast, something you and Mark Rosenthal touch on is the shift in regard to how much autonomy consumers have over their health care. Consumers want more control – and it's great they're empowered – but does that make marketing health care more or less difficult?

Mike: Well, I think it's more difficult. It's more complicated. The time when you could broadcast a message about being the best hospital or having the best insurance is kind of gone. You controlled the message. You controlled the channels. Consumers are much more active and in control of their health care lives now.

So while it's harder, it can also be much more rewarding if you do it right. If you understand that customers now have more control of their health care decisions. They want to have good information and make good decisions for their families, and if you as a brand can help them make good decisions, then you can be very successful.

I think about the work that a Mayo Clinic does (or other big hospitals that provide a lot of information) with Google. Google doesn't try to be the expert on health care information; they try to aggregate expert health care information from institutions like the Mayo Clinic, and this obviously helps us as consumers when we're searching for information about a disease or treatment, but also reinforces Mayo Clinic's brand as a globally renowned health care institution.

Devon: Lastly, in the podcast you mentioned an insight that I think anyone who's worked with marketing health care should understand. And that is that the story's always about the caretaker and that everyone else has to play a supporting role. How do you think this influences the way marketers in this space should go about making strategies?

Mike: I think it's about not taking too much credit. Universally, marketing in this spaces should remember that compassion is the domain of the caregiver. Fair enough, right? They're the ones who are actually directly involved with the patient. The moment that brands try to step in and say, "We're a caring brand," I think you're violating the role of the caregiver. For me, it's about knowing your place and enabling the caregiver, those frontline folks, to deliver the best care. Arm them with the best information, the best instruments and the best preparation, so at that point of care they can do what they're great at.

It's all about knowing your role. I think it's really important in B2B for sure when there are so many different companies in the chain. There's the doctor who's providing the end-patient with care, but there's the hospital they work for, the funders who fund that care, the equipment-providers who supply the monitoring equipment... the pharmaceutical companies who make the therapies. There are so many different people in that chain, you just have to be careful about knowing your place and what you're enabling versus what you're delivering.