Madison Avenue Methods Can Drive Health-Behavior Change

By Frank Hone March 9, 2009

If you asked the typical HR leader how the flashy glitz of Madison Avenue and the world of consumer advertising fit into their job function, you’d probably get more than a few raised eyebrows. But there is much that HR can learn from advertising, especially as it relates to addressing health-behavior change in the workforce.

With the costs of health insurance continuing to rise far faster than the cost of living, the ability of HR departments to communicate effectively about health improvements has become more challenging. And it’s not just communicating information about services; it’s about driving participation and measuring results.

Unfortunately, most Americans are doing a fairly poor job at caring for their health and well-being, as evidenced by the rising rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular risk, stress, anxiety and other lifestyle-related conditions. Their inability to do what is “right” about their health — whether by improving nutrition, engaging in exercise, taking preventive measures or dealing with acute or chronic health issues — impacts negatively not just on themselves, but also on the efficiency and profitability of their organizations.

But while this is a national issue, addressing it effectively must happen at the “local” level — that is, in your own company.

Changing health behavior can be daunting. It is a process that requires a fundamental understanding of the employees' mindset and how they make decisions about health choices. Not all employees are the same; each has an array of rational and emotional barriers that stand in the way of appropriate actions and beneficial behaviors.


Rational and emotional barriers stand in the way

of appropriate actions and beneficial behaviors.


'Direct-to-Consumer' Messaging

To improve communications targeting health issues, a bit of perspective from Madison Avenue can help. Consider, for example, lessons learned from the experience of direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs.

The era of DTC began in the 1980s, and intensified in the late 1990s when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relaxed regulations on broadcast advertising. About a decade ago, there was an upsurge in TV commercials for brands you didn’t know, with side effects that seemed horrible, treating conditions you never knew you had.

Many of these commercials are good examples of bad communications. Despite the millions of dollars that were invested, most ads fell on deaf ears, and some even hurt brand sales. But the lessons learned from this early experience of televised drug advertising can provide a helpful guide to improving behavior with relevant messages in the right media. Here is a four-step process to good communications strategy from the advertising world:

1. Input

Before you can plan an ambitious move forward, you need to know where you are starting from. The first step for advertisers is a Situation Analysis. This involves a complete understanding of the current market dynamics, target-audience demographics and "psychographics" (i.e., mindset), an analysis of the competitive situation and an assessment of market forces that can impact the brand being advertised. Objectives for the advertising should be set at this early stage.

Employers must develop a baseline understanding of their workforce and its health status. This is best done with an array of data—aggregate insurance claims, health-risk assessments, biometrics, surveys and other elements that can help profile the workforce and identify current and future health risks.

An audit of employee perceptions, issues and ideas can help, as can a thorough analysis on future market trends in the area. Employers need to create a realistic set of goals for the coming year or other relevant periods.

2. Intent

The ad agency planners and strategists then write a Creative Brief, which serves as a work plan for the creative team. The art directors and copywriters who think up unique and stimulating hooks and storylines prepare advertising ideas for review by the client team. This is generally followed by market research with target consumers, revisions and then full production, ready to be shipped to media outlets.

In crafting the messages for the workforce, there should be a similar amount of creative collaboration, not just between art and copy, but among the various departments and groups that will be providing the key health messages over the course of the year. Communications designed to stimulate employee action need to be planned, integrated and coordinated to generate maximum effect.

The actual content should be a combination of broad-based messages applicable to all, plus targeted information for specific demographic populations or disease-diagnosed individuals. Some of this can be made available “on-demand” as an online resource from your intranet. But whenever possible, create a series of sequenced communications to allow learning and actions to effectively build toward full behavior change.

3. Implementation

Once an ad campaign is produced, there is usually a “pre-launch” period, to prepare key stakeholders for the coming campaign launc​h and rollout followed by the Campaign Launch. This is often an event in itself with public relations plans to get news coverage and synchronized media rollouts in the selected print, broadcast and online vehicles. Usually the advertising is intended to reach not only the consumer target but also retailers, wholesalers and others associated with the brand’s distribution.

Employers need to consider media options and timing similarly. Most employees are focused on their jobs and might not react to a health-oriented message. Messages about health improvement or disease-management initiatives should be given the same consideration as an ad campaign. Assess the various media options that can be leveraged online and offline and incorporate them all into the thinking about where, when and how to deliver the campaign—and the follow-up communications.

A launch that involves the CEO or top managers is the best way to show that the company is fully invested in the initiative. A town hall meeting or video announcement, or even a Health Day, are all good ways to start getting everyone’s attention and to create interest and commitment to forward action.

4. Impact

While there are still myths about whether advertising works, the actual measurement of Campaign Effectiveness has become sophisticated. Most advertisers conduct consumer surveys about awareness, interest and intent; they monitor brand shipments and sales closely to gauge effectiveness. Mid-course corrections are not uncommon, and at the end of the campaign there is typically a measurable return on investment for the effort—if the advertising and brand meet consumer expectations effectively.

Similar principles apply to employer-behavior-change initiatives. Be very clear at the beginning about goals and about what can be measured and how often. If there’s an expense to capture data or survey employees, be sure that it is in the budget. Be realistic about what can be achieved, and be sure to have metrics at least once a quarter. Employee feedback is part of the mix. The outcomes need to include improved health and continuous improvement in the communications and intervention process.

Beyond the management reports, let all your people know how its going and where improvements need to be made. That way, they'll feel they're a part of the effort and that it's not just for a select few. This takes some additional work, but the results can be rewarding for employees and profitable for the company.

So the next time you think about Madison Avenue, remember that its tactics can be part of your world as a health benefits manager, too.

Frank Hone is the author of Why Healthcare Matters: How Business Leaders Can Drive Transformational Change, and the founder and CEO of Healthcentric Partners Inc., a health care consumerism strategy and consulting company.

Related Resources:

Could You Benefit from an Employee Benefits Committee?, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, February 2009

Benefits Communication: Is It Working?, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, January 2009

Webcast: Communicating CDHPs to Your Workforce, SHRM Multimedia, June 2008

Financial Incentives for Wellness: Tips for an Effective Program, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, May 2007

Upswing in Incentives for Health, Disease Management, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, June 2007

The ROI of Wellness Programs: From Perk to Priority Investment, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, January 2007

Designing an Effective Wellness Program, Step by Step, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, January 2007

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