Trust. Branding is about it. The goal of creating and maintaining a good brand is to gain your stakeholders’ implicit trust.

I just got back from a biotech conference where I spoke on the challenges of branding and marketing in the medical, pharmaceutical and biotech industry. Here’s a summary of my talk.

Few industries depend more on trust than the medical businesses. Whether it’s pharmaceutical companies and the drugs they produce, hospitals and the care they deliver, or biotech and medtech startup trying to break into a new market, they all need to create trust. Patients have to trust them, doctors have to trust them, the managers of medical facilities have to trust them. And ultimately, the public has to trust them too.

Why then is branding in this industry such a challenge? Why do we still see pharmaceutical companies whose logos haven’t changed in 30 years? Why do so many companies not even bother with proper CIS, while other change their corporate look every few years? Why are there still hospitals without marketing departments? And why do many medical start-ups fail despite having really revolutionary products?

I came up with 8 major points why branding and marketing are different when it comes to human health.

1. State of the Art

Regardless of your position in the medical industry, you need to be state of the art, and your brand needs to reflect that. That means state-of-the-art facilities, the latest technologies, the best care, the most advanced research. Otherwise, you’ll just be a has-been and an also-ran.

Staying at the cutting edge of the industry, however, takes a lot of time and effort – and valuable resources, which are then not available for marketing. Only recently I got a call from one of the nation’s most advanced hospitals with a clear cry for help. A high-flying VIP had been referred to them, but upon arrival had refused to be treated there. The image of the hospital just didn’t reflect state-of-the-art care. “It looked liked it hadn’t changed in 40 years!” Small wonder that the leading companies in the field update their CIS and logos more often than in other industries.

2. Competence

Very much related is the concept of competence. Even if you don’t have the latest MRI machine or access to top-notch research, you need to be competent in your field.

How does a medical brand project competence? How do you choose the right visuals, in a constant struggle between authenticity (which sometimes isn’t pretty) and professional imagery (which is rarely authentic?)

3. Attention to details

If you buy a home entertainment product you probably won’t be upset if the manual isn’t laid out perfectly, or the logo on the product isn’t exactly the same color as the one of the packagings.

Not so in the medical industry. We expect medical professionals to pay attention to details! How else could they run clinical tries, treat you for cancer, or analyze that x-ray? Medical brands need even more brand management than other companies because a lack of attention to detail reflects on their standard of care, of excellence, and technological prowess.

4. Vulnerable clients

Regardless of your firm’s role in the medical industry, your product will sooner or later come in contact with end-users, i.e. patients. These customers are in a very vulnerable position. They are weakened and debilitated by disease, relying on others to make difficult choices, perhaps even unconscious or incompetent, yet your brand, whether it’s the name on the hospital bed or the label on the bottle in the pharmacy, need to project all the values your brand espouses.

5. Arrogant clients

If the patient isn’t the client, the doctor surely is, and doctors can be a horribly arrogant bunch. One of my clients stormed out of a meeting with the words “hey I am saving lives here, I don’t have time to discuss whether our logo should be slightly less or slightly more green”.

The same professionality and experience that makes doctors indispensable, wonderful miracle workers in our society, often makes them bad marketers. The same goes for researchers, technicians, clinicians, and almost everyone in the medical environment. The last time I checked, even hospital management courses at good universities didn’t spend a lot of time on “marketing and branding” courses.

6. Local prisms

Because the medical industry is by and large a local endeavor, with professional networks hardly ever extending across national or even county and state boundaries, people in the medical industry often lack global experience when it comes to branding.

If you look at the logos of medical facilities in most Asian countries, for example, they certainly do not attract an international audience. Yet the same is true for Western countries and even those who should know better. When a Singaporean hospital asked for my advice on their rebranding effort of a brochure meant to attract wealthy Chinese, I had to point out that all the colors they had chosen basically signified death and negative outcomes in Chinese culture.

7. Strong externalities

Medical companies’ images rise and fall with the reputation of their home country. Some time ago Korean companies were seen as reputable. After one doctor faked his research results on stem stells, the image of the entire country was dragged own. Taiwan is associated with cheap Asian solutions, even though it has the best medical care and health insurance in Asia, if not the world, whereas Switzerland and Germany, where you have to wait months for even the most basic of treatments enjoy the best brand image imaginable, despite a stale, unimaginative marketplace that favors incumbents and discourages innovation and competition. Everybody adores American health care standards, but nobody wants to pay the price for them. All of these factors affect how your brand is perceived internationally.

8. Complex system of consumption

Finally, perhaps most importantly of all, the medical industry is a very complex system, in which the user (patient) doesn’t choose the brand and doesn’t pay, the payee (insurance) doesn’t choose and is not using the product, and the person who actually makes the choice (doctor or hospital) doesn’t pay or use. Well, that’s a simplification, but you get the point.

At whom should the branding of – e.g., a maker of implants – be directed. Certainly not at the patient, she doesn’t care what brand of him joint the doctor puts in. So at the physician? That depends, in some countries the insurance company makes the short-list of available products. And so on and so forth.

Marketing medical products is about the most difficult exercise you can think of, and therefore, the way your branding reflects your brand’s core values is even more important. Which brings us back to point 1.

So go back and read the list again. Twice daily, preferably before meals.