How to Create Powerful Narratives in Health
Healthline Insider Q&A: A series of conversations with experts from the digital, health and marketing industries. Why? Because different perspectives enrich us and make us smarter, stronger, and more aware.
Healthline Insider sat down for a conversation with our SVP of Media Strategy & Revenue, Dante Gaudio, on the topic of narrative and the power of narrative in health. In his role, Dante spends a lot of time thinking about ways he can help health brands build powerful stories to change people’s lives.
1. What do you mean by narrative? How is narrative different from “brand”?
While “brand” refers to how a product is represented in a person’s brain, “narrative” is the series of connected events, experiences, and stories that get it there. If brand is the destination, narrative is the pathway to it. Narratives are usually about the people who use brands and are communicated in spoken or written words or visuals.
An example of a brand with strong narrative is Whole Foods. What’s your experience with Whole Foods? I’m pretty sure you all have consistent responses: “helps me live more naturally,” “brings the local community together,” “happy and helpful employees.” Even your negative responses are likely consistent: “expensive” and probably “crowded parking lot.” It is these experiences that form the Whole Foods narrative, which feeds the Whole Foods brand.
2. Why is narrative important in healthcare?
Healthcare is at its core science, which can be dense, complicated, and full of unfamiliar language. Narrative helps make healthcare more understandable, approachable, and human.
Whenever I speak to someone who is anti-vaccine, instead of talking about the public health benefits of vaccines, I tell them about my grandfather who had polio: how he struggled every day and lived in an almost constant state of pain and discomfort. I may not convince the anti-vaxxer to change their convictions, but through my personal narrative, I’ve probably opened their eyes to the benefits of vaccines and how they can far outweigh the risks.
And I’ve learned a lot from the editorial team at Healthline about using narrative in healthcare. In a world where health is full of misinformation, isolation, and stigma, we stand against needless complexity, approach the whole person using human stories, and empower transparency. So, instead of genericizing parenting advice for new parents, they show a day in the life of a new parent in all its chaos and confusion. And readers “get it” and connect to it.
3. How does narrative drive consumer behavior?
There’s a ton of research that shows that the human brain interacts with the world via narrative. Think about how you dream: Do you envision bullet points? Or statistics? Probably not. When you dream, your subconscious brain creates a narrative… sometimes really weird narratives, but a series of connected events nonetheless! So, I don’t think narrative drives human behavior… I think it IS human behavior. It’s literally our operating system for interacting with the world around us.
4. What’s an example of narrative driving a product or category?
The best examples are brands that build their narrative around a shared purpose with their customers. So, for example, if you’re a pharmaceutical drug, you don’t just talk about the efficacy, safety, duration, speed of onset, etc. of the drug. You also show how the condition doesn’t allow patients to be there for life’s important moments. You compile real-world coping mechanisms and share them with compassion. You facilitate social support, maybe even humor if appropriate. You show people that you are living the same reality as them, a shift from what a product can do FOR someone to what a brand can do WITH someone. That’s the power of narrative.
5. How does one build a narrative around a health topic or a health brand?
First, you have to be grounded in facts: who is affected, what obstacles they face, and how you can be an ally. You need to bring empathy and understanding to this knowledge. And if you can, personalize it. Think about how to adjust or update your narrative based on the experiences and expectations of the different audiences you’re engaging with.
With these insights, be deliberate about developing the narrative with key stakeholders. Commit to what you stand for, how you want people to feel, and what change you want to make (be) in this world. Then train your advocates, partners, employees, and agencies to stay consistent.
Once you’ve created your narrative, you need a plan to disseminate your stories internally and externally. Tell them in many ways — on your website, in your ads, through your brand advocates and partners. Put them out there, and let them build their own momentum.
Pharma marketers probably get nervous when they hear things like “put them out there” and “build their own momentum.” Sure, pharma brands can’t go organic with their brands, but they can around conditions or patient situations. And if they can’t do it themselves, they can rely on partners to build the narrative on their behalf.
6. How do you distinguish good content from not-so-good content?
My criteria are simple. Did it engage or inspire me? Did it surprise me? What did I learn? And what am I going to do after engaging with it? Hint: Content grounded in a really good narrative is likely to hit on all of the above!
I’ll close by stating an old PR and communications adage, “If you don’t tell your story… then someone else will.”
Are you tasked with sparking real conversation through strong narratives and brand stories? If you have a question for Dante, or would like to talk further about leveraging narratives to build brands, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Ingrid Eberly, VP Corporate Marketing, Healthline
As the #1 health media property in the US, Healthline Media reaches 85MM unique visitors each month (Comscore, July 2019). We provide real health information with a real human approach.