Peter Heywood is a volunteer advisor with the MaRS life sciences and healthcare practice. He will be moderating the pitch showcase at the upcoming MaRS Future of Medicine conference on November 15, 2012. 

Some years ago, in a past life consulting to retail companies, I had the dubious pleasure of taking some of my clients through industry trade shows. Among all of the store merchandising and processing equipment, a substantial part of the shows would always be devoted to vendors of enterprise and process-level automation technologies.

Wading through the claims of end-to-end solutions, automated customer outreach programs, radio frequency identification–enabled inventory management and supplier customer relationship management systems, my clients were both dazed and irritated by conflicting claims, too much detail and patent overpromising. They were smart people who could separate the wheat from the chaff and who ultimately chose systems and vendors that would meet their needs. But the vendor marketing did neither the customers nor the vendors any favours.

Much the same can be said of marketing in any technology sector, not least healthcare. Maybe even particularly in healthcare. Unsubstantiated or weakly supported claims of efficacy, confusion about who the customer really is, multiple solutions to the same problem, feature proliferation, competition to be an industry standard—all addressing a highly fragmented customer base—has led to a marketing Tower of Babel.

This is not to denigrate the scope and scale of innovation in healthcare technology. The passion and creativity being unleashed to solve diagnostic, administrative, care management and communication challenges in healthcare are frankly breathtaking. And because the ranges of innovations and customer types are so vast, it’s impossible to identify a monolithic approach to marketing that covers innovations ranging from, say, portable imaging technologies and robotic surgery to gene-based therapies and telehealth.

But there are some basic lines of inquiry, grounded in marketing experience in other sectors, that all health technology vendors—and especially startup vendors—should follow to maximize impact with limited marketing budgets. They may seem obvious listed like this, but in my experience, they’re clearly not so obvious to people who are in the thick of launching, funding and commercializing a healthcare technology company.

What problem does our product or company solve?

It’s remarkable how hard it is for some companies to tightly define what problem they’re solving from the external perspective of the customer. Too often, the response becomes lists of features or processes that tell customers how a product or service functions, rather than why they should care. Your positioning and marketing have to start with need and pain points to engage customers, which means investing in the time to research and meet typical customers before the launch.

Who is our customer?

Of course, you also need to be clear who your customer actually is, a surprising challenge for many health technology vendors. Who makes the purchase decision—an end user, an intermediary or even a payer? Will an end user have influence over the technology’s adoption if she is not the customer? Is it necessary to bypass a provider-patient relationship in order to build a consumer-customer base? What kind of performance metrics does your customer require? What other challenges are your customers facing?

Often a seemingly worthwhile innovation fails because its marketing tries to build demand with an end user while ignoring the needs of an intermediary (also known as the customer) who approves or makes the actual purchase. As your business evolves, you may engage other customer segments, but claiming that your product has five different target customers is no answer at all and will lead to dilution of marketing spend, misaligned messaging and confusion in the marketplace. Pick one.

What makes us different?

I have seen many presentations of new health technology products and services where my response is: “That’s just like ‘x.’” Sometimes that’s because the innovation is indeed virtually identical to an existing product (do we need another electronic health record?) but it’s often because vendors haven’t taken the time to research the marketplace and identify the two or three attributes that will truly distinguish their offers and their unique value proposition in the eyes of their target customers. These could be anything from price to accessibility to business process reinvention, but the key is being clear about the sustainable points of difference and building a simple story around them.

What does our innovation replace?

Sometimes I ask a client: “Are you providing a vitamin or a prescription?” In other words, is your innovation perceived as a nice to have or a necessity? Is it an incremental improvement over a tech investment many of your prospects have already made? Is it competing against doing nothing? Does it redefine the rules in the segment, and if so, how?

It’s surprising how often vendors aren’t able to define how an innovative product or service will fit into or disrupt the workflow or investments of the healthcare customer or the life of the consumer-patient. Healthcare providers are very conservative, while consumers find it hard to sustain behavioural change. You need to clearly understand their “hassle maps” and then show a positive, simpler alternative both in product development and marketing programs to help make your offer a necessity, a prescription. Ever more complex descriptions of features and functionality don’t accomplish that goal.

How is success measured?

Everyone in healthcare technology has targeted the triple aim of improved experience, better outcomes and lower costs, but after you’ve determined who your customer is you have to build and communicate a return on investment case that targets them directly.

For example, helping payers save money when it’s the provider who has to invest is not a strong position. Neither is promising future “soft” reductions in expenditures to providers and payers who are looking for a clear and substantiated story of an immediate and beneficial impact on costs. The earlier you determine the business case for your target customer, the better you can develop the trials and other proof points that give your marketing claims their substance.

You might think these are questions for the business plan, not the marketing approach. However, it’s vital to recognize that “marketing” is not something undertaken after all the hard work of developing a company, product or service is done. It’s an integral part of the planning process, and asking these questions early enough will not only determine the components of the marketing plan—positioning, messages and channel strategy—but also positively impact the development of the innovation or company itself.

This marketing foundation will help innovators stand outside of the “closed loop” of their own company and better understand why someone would want to engage, and ultimately connect directly and emotionally, with their product, service or company. It’s more than discovery. It’s marketing “uncovery”: a process to uncover and make plain what the real qualities of the innovation and intent of the company are, maybe hiding in plain sight. And that’s always a simple story, even in healthcare.

Peter Heywood

Peter has been involved in strategic marketing and brand development work since 1995, focusing primarily on healthcare IT and health provider companies. He also has considerable knowledge of the financial, telco and retail sectors. His view on how to best communicate was strongly influenced by unique training and practice as an architect. See more…