5 ways healthcare brands can respond to COVID-19

As COVID-19 spreads rapidly across the globe, the healthcare sector is responding faster than ever, while other industries are struggling to keep up. Scientists are trying to better understand the virus and rushing to develop vaccines and treatments as quickly as possible, governmental bodies are preparing most effective surveillance and containment policies and healthcare workers are selflessly treating patients.

With this crisis, a torrent of articles is being released daily.

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It might be too early to provide any data on the reaction and evolving trends in consumer intent and shopping behaviour. At the same time, it is unlikely that this crisis will taper off soon and people may sustain this behaviour change for a while. This article aims to provide a perspective on the evolving situation and implications for healthcare brands to map their path.

With approximately 220,000 cases worldwide, this pandemic has induced fear and anxiety in the general public. In addition, non-stop news feeds and media coverage have added to this panic. As a result of this and experience from previous infectious outbreaks, people have started exhibiting universal precautionary behaviours. Whether it is necessitated precaution laid by governing bodies or propelled by absolute fright, people are staying in isolation at home, using surgical face masks, conscientiously following hand hygiene, investing in immune-enhancing products, observing good sleep habits as well as buying supplies in bulk in the supermarkets and pharmacies.

Brands must acknowledge the mental states and behaviours of consumers that emerge in crises, understand how the emotional effects are different in each phase of a crisis and then create communication to best reach consumers. Healthcare brands need to adopt a cautious approach and formulate a reaction strategy to spread positivity during this crisis. The key is to move away from product advertising to brand-focused communication.

Here are five ways healthcare brands can respond during this time of uncertainty:

1. Use credible messaging

Fake information and unfounded rumours can be easily perpetuated that puts public health at a constant disadvantage. Credibility of information is very critical for crisis communication. As a result, broadcasting of trustworthy information is needed most during this period of uncertainty. There may be limited strategies to prevent a COVID-19 spread, but providing genuine information is the most effective prevention against the disease of panic. As such, it is crucial for healthcare brands to focus on data integrity, consolidation, analysis, and conversion of that data into true insights through inputs from all key stakeholders. WHO is working with various social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, to make trustworthy information available to the right audience, as well as to detect spread of misinformation.

Social and behaviour change communication plays a critical role in addressing behavioural and social aspects of disease prevention and control. For example, during an outbreak, we readily follow behaviours of authoritative figures. We are more likely to take advice from a trusted leader with whom we are familiar, even if they do not have emergency-related expertise. In Singapore, political leaders and experts came out in force to call for calm and urge people to be responsible when panic buying hit the headlines.

Change does not happen without strong leadership. And leaders should not only help solve this pressing problem by tapping on learnings from previous outbreaks, but also cultivate new responses to deal with future epidemics. Healthcare technology has been playing a prominent role in response planning from information, prevention to treatment. As such, healthtech brands may consider developing thought leadership content to encourage actions and support decision-making throughout the lifecycle of an infectious disease event.

2. Leverage emerging behaviours and channels

It is crucial to tap into the consumer’s new precautious behaviour. The COVID-19 situation is unpredictable and consumers’ changing behaviours are significantly affecting the demand for medical services and pharmaceutical consumption. There has been a rise in demand for disinfectant, gloves, key immune-enhancers – vitamin supplements, nutrition products in Singapore as per google trends. However, supply chain disruptions is impacting the sales. Additionally, consumer interest in their health and their ability to track it in real-time has risen more than ever. This is prompting more purchases of wearables and at the same time stimulating demand for new capabilities in these devices.

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Consumers are avoiding hospital visits and this is going to increase the adoption of telehealth - from making doctor’s appointments to receiving direct online consultations from qualified healthcare professionals. With consumers being more home-bound and shopping outdoor less often, there is a spike in online content consumption. It is interesting to note that people may sustain such behaviour change for a while and brands must learn to act in line with it. For instance, the confinement during SARS epidemic in 2003 was the genesis of eCommerce boom in China - Alibaba.

Healthcare brands must take past learnings and respond accordingly amidst the crisis. It is the best time to boost online presence and promote digital marketing using new channels for health and wellness-related brands including personal hygiene, disinfection products, health food, and immune-boosters. Moreover, these brands must develop new digital content to enhance consumer interactions and purchase experience.

It is also well established that peoples’ natural tendency is to follow the crowd and do what everyone around is doing, even if the decision does not reflect their own actual preference. Increasingly, this power of social influence are being used to encourage pro-social behaviours such as healthy eating, and increasing adherence to doctor appointments.

3. Contribute to the public good sooner

It is popularly known that out of 100% of the impact made on an audience, only 7% relates to content while 93% is its presentation - How it looks? Is it at right time? Is it well presented? This simply means, though consumers are longing for normalcy, upbeat advertising in this period of crisis will be jarring and can put off consumers.

Brands must serve the public interest and fulfil socially responsibility. It is crucial to understand the anxiety and uncertainty that consumers are facing and convey empathy with an ideal balance of trust while avoiding unnecessary fear. Connecting brands with disease awareness in the short-term rather than pushy communications on promotional activity will have a stronger impact on consumers. Healthcare brands can adopt positive responses in terms of providing sense of strength and empowerment to consumers, creating awareness and educating on risk management measures or support for new resources and skills for risk management. Using simple, positive communication to persuade people to avoid negative behaviours will save lives and lessen the misery people experience

Under extreme stress and information overload, consumers tend to miss the nuances of health messages by either not being quite observant as usual or by misinterpreting action messages. They rely on habits and long-held customs. On the other hand, when information is not readily available, consumers start speculating to fill in the banks. Therefore, during crisis communication, the speed of a response is also an important factor in addition to simple messages.

4. Collaborate to increase impact

This fast-moving outbreak is resulting in unique levels of collaboration among researchers worldwide. For-profit publishing giants - Elsevier, Springer and others - have temporarily made all coronavirus-related research freely available for rapid dissemination of data to support research activities. To unlock the possible unknown, healthcare giants, academia, public bodies and international organisations are collaborating unprecedently to expedite diagnostic research, vaccines and therapeutic development and evolving policies for fast track approvals.

As more people are staying home, it is paving the way for innovate mobility solutions and strategic partnerships. Some industries are developing or sharing their technological tools to support preparedness and response for this outbreak. Such collaborations and business models imply multiple opportunities for healthcare industry. Healthcare brands can extend exclusive collaboration with societies to create educational content to support general population or partner with delivery and eCommerce companies for urgent priority deliveries for higher risk community segments.

5. Build resilience and sustainable growth beyond crisis

COVID-19 may spike short-term sales, but it is elemental that brands be prepared for recovery after the disruption. The ongoing uncertainty and crisis mentality with COVID-19 outbreak highlights the need for resilience and a forward-looking culture. Healthcare brands need to assess the situation after the death of the virus– the changing behaviour of consumers and competitive market landscape.

The eventual outcomes and their effect for COVID-19 pandemic cannot be envisaged, but we can predict the likelihood of damaging scenarios and test resilience under these circumstances. For example, when the crisis is no longer on the key headline, those were not or less affected during the crisis may exhibit return of their normal behaviours.

On the other hand, other part of the community i.e. those who have been most severely affected will continue to have significant emotional needs. This may present as physical health symptoms such as sleep disturbance or fatigue and social problems such as difficulties with interpersonal relationships. This means, long after public health has been restored, there will be still need to manage dynamic, unpredictable and potentially damaging events. Preparing for the next phase of the crisis now (or future crisis) is likely to be much more effective than an impromptu, reactive response. Therefore, in order to maintain trust and credibility during the recovery phase, healthcare companies should continue with the commitments from initial phase while also developing emergency strategies against assessed scenarios.

We should anticipate that the COVID-19 pandemic will impact people’ behaviour and healthcare industry in important ways. It is likely to power different channels, promote unique collaborations, and change supply chain structure, among others. After the vital phase of the crisis has been traversed, healthcare brands should build resilience and prepare for future crisis.

The writer is Strayo De Agarwal, healthcare lead at creative agency Iris Worldwide. She leads its strategic practice for healthcare clients such as Philips, Abbott, and Alcon.