Publicis’s von Plato Writes New Rx For Health-Care Marketing

“The consumer movement is coming to health care, it’s coming fast, and it’s going to change everything,” said Alexandra von Plato, group president, North America, of Publicis Healthcare Communications Group. She explained the implications for marketers in this exclusive interview with

Publicis’s von Plato Writes New Rx For Health-Care Marketing

While virtually every vertical is well on its way to adopting and integrating digital technologies to transform traditional business models, the majority of health-care industry players are still struggling to embrace innovation and contemporary marketing practices.

However, healthier consumer-centric marketing and digital-tech-enabled change is rapidly approaching for some early adopters. One of those organizations is Publicis Health Care Communications Group, which is the largest health-care communications group in the world and a division of Publicis Groupe. spoke with Alexandra von Plato, group president of North America and a true agent of change. Read on for our discussion about the “consumer movement” in health care, the huge potential for mobile apps, and marketing as the “connective tissue between tech and health care.” Overall, what are the top issues and opportunities the health-care industry is facing? How can digital tech enable or enhance these issues and opportunities?

Von Plato: One of the most important changes facing the health-care system is the rise of the consumer. Traditionally, health care has been a very paternalistic, nontransparent system that bred complexity and mystery. With the advent of digital media and the rise of the consumer–patient–now being more informed as a result of available information on the Internet, and with the alignment of incentives for people to get healthier as they pay for more of their health-care costs than ever before, we are now seeing patients adopt consumer-like behavior when it comes to demanding their right to be informed, to have transparency, to comparison-shop services and products, and sharing of recommendations.

The consumer movement is coming to health care, it’s coming fast, and it’s going to change everything. This is a very exciting time to be in health-care marketing because we can bring the customer’s sensibilities to industries that have been less focused on the customer and more focused on R&D, sales, and administration. They have not been focused on the patient–the end consumer. The opportunity for the health-care industry is to embrace this consumer movement and prioritize marketing overall. Is it fair to say that the health-care industry is transitioning rapidly from the historical B2B push approach to a B2C business model, where people are getting more educated and involved in their health-care choices and want to have a dialogue?

Von Plato: You nailed it. It’s what some have called “bottom-up medicine,” where we see the end of paternalism because people are empowered via digital media with unprecedented access to information, including their own medical data from apps, wearables, and patient e-records. People now have a front-row seat to understand what is happening with their tests, as well as for those they care for. We are going to see people take charge of their personal information and records and get more involved in health-care decisions because they have to.

In short order, we will have a generation of people who expect to be more involved in their health care. This is going to drive a lot of change. As Baby Boomers and Millennials make healthier choices, how do you see these audiences behaving differently or similarly with their relationships to health-care brands?

Von Plato: There are surprisingly more similarities between Boomers and Millennials when it comes to health and health care. Certainly Boomers are more engaged because as you age you have more health issues. They are voracious users of digital media to get educated. But Millennials have a behavior where they are digitally native. They are using digital health-care media as a matter of course to seek healthier lifestyles and balance and are interested in community conversations that are health-related. They expect to be able to access the latest information. They know how to get at it and share it and have a high comfort level at getting to the truth quickly to take action.

My expectation is that because they are so fluent and comfortable in using digital media for health care, as Millennials age, they will be healthier because they will be more informed at an earlier age. I suspect that we will see lower rates of preventable chronic diseases in the Millennial cohort. You’ve mentioned that overall app usage now eclipses mobile Web usage 6:1 in the U.S. Yet when it comes to the 165,000 health-care apps that are available today, only 36 of them make up 50% of the downloads. So why don’t consumers use more of these health-care apps, and what should health-care companies be doing differently to engage and empower patients?

Von Plato: We should be amazed at how many people are experimenting with health-care apps with very little incentive from the health-care system. We believe there is a big appetite for these types of tools. However, finding and choosing the right app can be tough because there is a glut of choices, and health care is confusing. This may may be why fewer people are using health-care apps.

Everyone’s worried about people abandoning apps. That’s because we are not thinking about apps tied to a time-bound aspect of a patient journey. For example, a typical diabetes patient may use eight or 10 apps at different times of their disease management. In other words, we need to design apps for planned obsolescence. Both of these issues can be addressed with serious recommendations from serious health-care professionals and institutions. This is supported by the 2014 Digitas Health Mobile & Connected Health Index study, where we saw that over 90% of patients reported that they would try an app if their physician prescribed it for them.

When you start to see the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and physicians start to develop apps, and rate and recommend certain types of technologies for specific populations, we are going to see a weeding out. The apps and tech that win will be the ones that figure out how to become part of the treatment paradigm as part of a prescription. It’s not hard to make the leap that we could soon be looking at treatments that don’t require, or only start with, a pill. Behavior change is an important marker for risk reduction in some of the worst chronic conditions that we face in our lifetime. Mobile tech and monitors allow us to view health deterioration through inactivity in the same way we do smoking–as correctable behavior. More importantly, we can immediately and transparently see how correcting that behavior can increase activity and movement and actually change our health. I’ve read about your most recent mDOT conference, held at Google’s headquarters. Many of the participants found it unfortunate that health care is the last industry for digital transformation to be adopted and urged faster progress. What is your vision for how digital transformation can improve health care?

Von Plato: Publicis Healthcare’s Digitas Health LifeBrands holds the mDOT conference every year to make connections between the world of startups, where all of these incredible ideas and technologies are such fertile territory, and the health-care industry to help some of these new technologies find their way into the health-care system and to be connected to a prescription and a treatment paradigm. It is just not enough to get people to take their medication. Doctors often need people to also change their lifestyle and behavior in significant ways, and you need a platform that enables that to happen. That platform–their smartphone–is in their pocket most of the time, and the health-care community needs to figure out how we connect that as part of the standard treatment. At one of your Digital Health Summit panels, I heard you say that you “often see tech entrepreneurs in the health-tech space think that branding is something you can put off and add it on later. Not true. Branding needs to be done as you are designing the product.” Please share more on this.

Von Plato: I think a lot of the health-care tech products and services are being developed in a vacuum, without marketing people on board in these companies. It’s a shame because there are some incredible things that I’ve seen over the years that never broke through because the product was designed without the benefit of the emotional and attitudinal insights, predispositions, cues, triggers, and objections of the end user that marketing brings to the table.

Marketing is the connective tissue between tech and health care that can align the agenda to transform health care. An experienced marketer understands a product through a different lens than an engineer because we’ve grown up in the business listening and looking so carefully to identify insights for messaging. Marketers should be brought to the development table sooner to mine much more and use that to develop value propositions, as well as how the product or service is designed and served up to consumers. By and large, we have a health-care system that is not marketing-savvy or marketing-oriented, and health-care technology is being developed by engineers in a vacuum without marketing experience. What role should health-care CMOs, with their teams and agency partners, lead in addressing these issues and opportunities?

Von Plato: It’s time for marketing to move into the health-care C-suite. We have health-care clients who are doing CMO-level work for top brands, but many don’t have a CMO title, and their work isn’t recognized by the C-suite as having the level of importance as other strategic pillars, such as sales, operations, and R&D. This is particularly the case in pharma.

Health-care companies have a tradition of rewarding people who play it safe, but I believe we have turned a corner and are starting to see the rise of a more entrepreneurial marketer–leaders who understand how to use contemporary, customer-centric marketing strategies and respect regulatory guidelines. The consumer movement will drive the rise of the CMO in health care, a move that promises to benefit both consumers and shareholders.

See what the Twitterverse is saying about CMO Interviews: