– By Swadeep Srivastava, Senior Health Industry Entrepreneur, Founder – HEAL Health Connect Solutions and Managing Partner, India Virtual Hospital

Unlike other consumer brands, products and services falling under the healthcare sector are fettered due to restrictions imposed by the government and regulatory authorities. These products and services cannot directly woo or influence decision making through traditional routes. Hence, there is a need to pry open channels for innovative integrated market communication.

Integrated communication involves coordinating a spectrum of strands across multiple marketing channels. Unlike the past, the spectrum is today wide, growing and can also act as a market disrupter. This is because, one of the most important and emerging channel is the social media platform which has great potential. The challenge is to harness the forces of social media platform to puff the sails through an ocean of opportunities to reach the target audience.
Companies have again used the tradition routes for communication when it comes to healthcare brands taking the advantage of Twitter, Facebook, email, direct mail, mobile, print, web, and other communication roads to gain maximum impact with target audiences.

There is no gainsaying that leading companies have harnessed the potential of social media in effectively implementing an integrated marketing strategy to improve brand recall and drive more revenue.
But is this the end? No, there is no endgame when it comes to integrated communication to promote brands. More so in healthcare segment in India. The key to communication when it comes to healthcare is an integration of social media platforms, offline activities and the common thread is innovation.

It is well known that potential consumers and customers consume content differently. This will depend on factors like demographic profile, literacy levels, geographic location and personal interest. In a country like India, the challenge is more as all these factors can vary widely. Hence, there may not be a one-size-fits-all formula. What works in one area may not in another geographical location.

Hence, the challenge is to develop cross-channel marketing campaigns. When potential consumers and customers are reached in the ways they prefer, they are much more likely to engage.

That makes the point: Integrated marketing communication increases engagement. Most successful companies in the world excel at engaging their audience. And authentic engagement leads to repeat business and customer loyalty. Content published on 2 or 3 channels can increase engagement to a limited extent. But when companies market their brands through multiple channels, the potential customers are much more likely to engage with those brands.
Innovative and well-executed integrated marketing strategy has the potential to improve a company’s ability to boost revenue. By executing such marketing strategies across channels, there is hard evidence that companies have increased their top line. And there is evidence to show that increase in revenue is a direct result of integrated campaigns that aimed at boosting engagement and reaching a wider rainbow of audience. Building and executing effective integrated marketing campaigns is essential to continued marketing success. Most marketing professionals agree that successfully integrating multiple channels under a single integrated marketing strategy is crucial to their long-term success.

Various statistics and the logic of integrated marketing campaigns have proved that integrated marketing communication, when well executed, will boost revenue, reach a broader audience and increase engagement multiple fold.

When it comes to India, the basic template is the same. But due to the diversity in demographic makeup, widely different literacy levels, geographic location and personal interest, the challenge is multi-fold.
In India, there are a need to integrate more tools of communication depending on the market, need and affordability.

Some of the successful plans include:

Public Relations/Media Advocacy: Unlike in developed nations, the media in India plays a vital and bigger role communicating messages, especially in rural areas. Here the challenge is two-fold: While FMCG brands can go in for direct marketing, hospitals and prescription brands have limitations due to regulations in place.
To overcome these restrictions, public relations and media advocacy have been successful strategies. To an extent, it could be termed as surrogate marketing. A hospital does a rare surgery; it is a story for the media. For the hospital, there is scope to subtly integrate marketing messages into the story.

But there is a danger. In an effort to integrate marketing messages, the hospitals sometimes overdo the strategy resulting in failure. The media is quick to detect this. This is where content curation is a must. Hence, one has to be careful in weaving in marketing messages in a story.

The same holds good with prescription brands. Here, companies cannot directly promote the brand. But again, when a brand is successful in treating a disease or an ailment, the story is on the disease and the subtle message is on the chemical composition of the cure available. While the common consumer may catch the message to a limited extent, physicians do get the message. This should then be integrated with public relation efforts.
In India, the government plays a vital role in healthcare segment. Of late, the government has become more open-minded in collaborating with the private sector hospitals and pharmaceutical companies in combating diseases – common or otherwise. A case in point is when an outbreak of disease happens.
In such instances, advocacy has a vital role to play.

All this may cater to a population that it literate or semiliterate. But in India, the challenge is how to deploy communication tools in the rural areas where the literacy graph is barely above the ground level graph.
In such scenarios, integrated marketing strategies have successfully used ground activation tools like organising events and outreach through street plays, weaving in messages through folklore skits, dance dramas and flash mobs. To some extent, religious institutions too have been used to effectively spread healthcare messages. Can brands sneak in to god’s domain is worth exploring.

Brand visibility in these areas can be further boosted through banners, posters, placards, hoardings, etc. in a language and visual depiction that can immediately click among rural audiences.
But when it comes to urban areas, the game changes. Here the population mix could be both literate and illiterate. Of late, the demographic profile in urban pockets have changed due to large-scale migration from rural areas. Here the strategy must be an effective mix of both ground activation and digital.
Coming back to digital marketing proliferation, the rules of the game have not yet been drawn. The challenges are plenty and the field is wide open. Strategies like using the potential of digital marketing, promotion using social media, SMO/ SEO for their portals/ online platforms to increase the visibility and hits have been tried out successfully.

But here again, the strategy used for print or TV cannot be used for the digital segment where messages can spread faster that a virus! The key here is developing tailor-made content, writing specifically for the web, curating content and promoting the same in relevant segments.
The bottomline is that developing communications and marketing strategies around a Healthcare Brand could vary according to the category which could broadly be:
1. Consumer Healthcare Brands/ FMCG/ FMHG Brands
2. Prescription Brands owned by Pharma cos.
3. OTC Brands owned by both FMHG & Pharma cos.
4. Healthcare Delivery Brands (like Hospitals, Clinics, etc.)
5. Allied Healthcare Brands from Medical Devices, Diagnostics companies

The challenges, as mentioned earlier, are more for prescription brands, hospitals and doctors where communication modules are restricted and the only way out is through indirect promotion methodologies.
Another challenge is that many a times a user (decision maker) is not a payer and a payer is not the decision maker. This increases the role of influencers, mainly doctors, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals.
Then there is the challenge of getting hold of one content format across target audiences (customers) comprising layman to a professional to highly qualified doctors and other healthcare professionals. This one content will have to be packaged differently and innovatively.

One of the biggest challenges is in selecting channels to reach the target customers. This could be highly complicated and the only way out is to try multi-channel approach. This, ofcourse, would balloon budget spends.
All the above challenges lead to two main factors — increased cost of customer acquisition/customer influencing/sensitization and retention. The solution lies in using “Integrated Marketing Campaign” innovatively and effectively.