The science of storytelling: Brand voice and the COVID-19 vaccine
by Lizzie Harris & Alex Marcus
Can trust in the healthcare system be rebuilt?
Overcoming skepticism is a major obstacle across health care. According to Gallup’s “Confidence in Institutions Study,” 80% percent of Americans trusted the medical system in the 1970s. Fast forward to 2015, and that figure dropped to 37 percent. Today, even amid a global pandemic, only 60 percent of Americans feel comfortable receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. If nothing else, this moment shows the full extent of mistrust many feel towards the healthcare industry.
Emotional intelligence is the key
Often, the world of healthcare leans on numbers to tell a story, but framing data with empathy can make or break reception. According to Alan D. Duncan, VP Analyst at Gartner, “Data and analytics teams working on responses to the COVID-19 pandemic must communicate complex and often challenging analytical ideas to key stakeholders and to the public, who tend to respond emotionally rather than rationally.”
It’s a perspective we at Lippincott have found to be a universal truth across all sectors, especially healthcare. And in our work, we’ve seen that people tend to tune out soon after you put technical information in front of them. While working for a major health plan, we rewrote a suite of letters with a genial tone and concise, conversational phrasing. Members reported that the communications felt 50% clearer, and 71% more human.
At their best, brands and institutions don’t just deliver information—they build relationships. But doing so requires more than staying on message. It requires connecting emotionally. And that happens through a brand’s voice and visuals; in every moment, they have the opportunity to activate the brand and forge deeper emotional bonds with customers that can trigger action. Like, say, taking a vaccine.
Brand voice is an invaluable tool for crafting clear and empathetic communications. And when communicating from a place of emotional intelligence, there’s an opportunity to pivot the most clinical moments to ones that drive connection and trust, create more conversations and even shift an experience to feel personalized.
So, if the path to engagement is emotional, what does that mean for brand communicators in the world of healthcare and vaccines?
At their best, brands don’t just deliver information—they build relationships.
Sharing details clearly— and tailored to each audience
From regulators to providers to the public, different people need to hear different things. According to The New York Times, millions of white evangelical adults do not intend on getting vaccinated due to religious faith and a mistrust of science. Republicans distrust this particular vaccine – but have a strong desire to reopen the economy. And Harvard’s School of Public Health says vaccine hesitancy is high among pregnant mothers. Just as we might change our tone when speaking with different audiences, brand voice is built to flex for different communication objectives. Making the right information clear, unintimidating, and “sticky” enough with people who need to hear it can go a long way in impacting feelings and even actions.
Outlining the “why” and “how” is critical for healthcare communications. With the vaccine, people want to understand what is going into their bodies and why they should trust it. This means diving deeper than efficacy percentages and taking the time to answer questions such as: What’s MRNA? How did we get here so fast? What goes into the approval process? But doing so in an eminently clear and efficient way.
Going beyond the vaccine
These lessons from brand voice extend well beyond just the current COVID-19 vaccine campaign. Effectively sharing complex information is something every organization strives for. At Lippincott, we’ve helped many of the world’s best brands find their voice, delivering tangible business results including improved favorability, increased comprehension, and millions of dollars in savings and increased revenue. No matter your industry or role, there are some brand voice lessons that you can put to use immediately. Start by asking these questions:
- Who are your audiences—and who are your audiences’ audiences?
- What conversations are you trying to have with them? What are the outcomes you’re hoping to drive?
- What do they need from you in these moments?
- Are you connected to audiences as people first?
- Are you conveying you care about positive outcomes for the patient, not just the public?
We face terribly high stakes as we fight to contain a deadly and often unpredictable pandemic. In this moment, it’s important to remember what brand voice is grounded in: being real. In using the emotional intelligence we have as human beings. When we bring it to our communications, we strive for a human-to-human connection rather than a human-to-institution one. The more we do that – activating our empathy, considering others, and trying to truly, sincerely connect with one another – the better off we will all be.
At Lippincott, we believe a successful brand voice doesn’t just sound human; it sounds like a distinct human. For more on our latest thinking on Brand Voice, check out our Sense Perspective, Finding Your Brand Voice.