Can you judge a stent by its cover? Diane Fox-Hill of PDD Group discusses how medical device marketing can inform the ‘look’ of the product.
Semiotics can be described as a science of signs. It investigates how people’s attitudes, perceptions and beliefs are formed by the culture around us.
For marketing and sales professionals, semiotics provides a way to interpret the ‘codes’ or implicit messages embedded within a brand or product, its competitors, its product sector and the wider culture.
By providing a detailed picture of the symbolic nature of a product and its environment, semiotics can widen the scope of marketing and offer new ideas to make a brand more successful.
In safe hands
Medical packaging codes are among the most stable in our culture. They are professional, conservative and purposeful. They communicate authority, trust and scientific status through visual cues such as:
• Extensive white space, connoting clarity and honesty.
• Conservative blocks of colour, presented in binary opposition (e.g. blue/white, black/white) – typically not more than two dominant colours.
• Professionalism and conservatism conveyed through limited colour palettes – nothing busy or fun.
• Quantification – using numbers in a specific manner.
• Iconography – specific symbols that depict product use, often taking a graphical form such as a heartbeat.
• Straight lines, either rectilinear or diagonal.
The crisis of trust
However, public trust in the healthcare industry isn’t what it used to be. Lawsuits, financial improprieties, well-publicised abuses and the proliferation of choice have damaged what were strong bonds.
The opportunity to research medical issues on the Web, private healthcare options and awareness of the fallibility of the NHS have also fuelled mistrust, creating a more critical landscape in which better-informed consumers, whether patients or prescribers, ‘choose’ services in a way more similar to the retail environment.
Faced with modern cynicism, it is increasingly important for the medical technologies industry to consider alternative ways of framing trust that resonate with the end user. Part of this trust-building begins in the mind of the consumer, with the packaging of the product.
Blending the codes
Medical codes are inherently stable and representative. NHS professionals are so aware of these codes that they are almost edited out of the purchasing equation. In the pricesensitive NHS, cost and routine purchases dominate (often the ordering and re-ordering of devices is mainly historical in nature). However, if the perception of the device (via its own codes or the packaging) can be changed to imply ‘ease of use’ and to point out increased efficacy of infection control through visual cues that professionals understand, there is a clear marketing benefit.
Borrowing codes from outside the healthcare sector is an option. Fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs) exist in the same cultural world as NHS professionals, and their codes are thus already recognised. The effect of this is enhanced as NHS centralises purchasing across Trusts and the benefits of products can be measured more effectively in holistic ways (e.g. less ward time due to fewer infections). As differentiation becomes more important in a cluttered marketplace, medical brands with brand equity have begun to ‘borrow’ semiotic codes from other areas. Healthcare companies have begun to add friendly ‘knowability’ into
the code mix, taking the edge off the impersonal codes of science.
Medical device packaging is blending the two approaches by incorporating shots of the product inside, as demonstrated by the new packaging for the Aventis OptiClik® (see photo). Complete product shots are common features in FMCGs, but are rare in medical packaging. While the overall cues are still strongly ‘doing science’, the realism of the photo helps to bolster trust.
Kind of blue
The packaging of the Blue Sensor® electrode from Ambu (see Figure 2) clearly borrows from FMCG codes, while keeping the connotations of trust and science. The shiny blue and gold packaging connotes luxury and premium status, and even has the confidence to shift the technical information that would normally appear on the front of the packaging to the back.
The visual codes suggest ‘science’, ‘premium’ and ‘natural’. The space on the packaging, the detailed information on the back and the word ‘sensor’ all imply scientific status. The gentle ruffle/curve design gives the impression of soft material and a naturalistic feel (important for a premium electrode). The blue and gold of the packaging suggests premium quality in a very FMCG fashion. It dominates the product connotation, leaving science as the recessive code (on the back of the package). Gone are the classic white space, straight lines, conservative colouring and specific iconography. With this design, the Blue Sensor has created what semioticians call an ‘emergent discourse’ in its sector. However, it has done so as the brand leader in its category. Brands occupying space at the lower end of their medical categories lack the credibility to do this until the successful emergent discourse has become a normative code (after a sustained period of time).
It is also important to note that while Ambu has borrowed semiotic codes from FMCGs, it has not pushed these codes too far. It represents luxury in a more traditional way than many FMCG goods, which use brushed tones of platinum, silver or natural materials rather than gold to connote luxury. The shiny pack also adds to the friendliness of the brand, using friendship to supplement authority as a way of gaining trust. So while semiotic borrowing is apparent in the medical devices field, it is not used widely or in extreme ways.
Feedback from the field
Sales and marketing professionals need to feed ‘readings’ of consumer trust and confidence back into the marketing mix to ensure that they not only hit the right target with the end consumer, but also build mobility and visibility into the brand.
As differentiation becomes more important, medical brands have begun to ‘borrow’ semiotic codes from other areas. Healthcare companies have begun to add friendly ‘knowability’ into the code mix.
A basic understanding of semiotics can help you to identify ways to translate consumer insight into design cues. As semiotics deals with ‘how things achieve their meaning’, it is important for sales and marketing professionals to interpret the meanings that consumers take from the product or packaging and then assimilate this information into the marketing mix.
As a holistic process, semiotics can ensure that all the messages conveyed by a medical device, its package, its marketing and its advertising maximise the effect on your target group. After all, it is crucial to know what the consumers’ perceptions are and how these can be harnessed to work for the brand. Semiotics can explain what the consumers themselves cannot, building on and explaining their perceptions in a way that enables you to leverage the information. At PDD, we are interested in giving our clients the tools for more enhanced brand understanding. Once acquired, these tools can be implemented at various stages of the marketing process, providing invaluable directions and checkpoints.
Diane Fox-Hill is Semiotician and Senior Behavioural Researcher at PDD Group Ltd. For more details, visit www.pdd.co.uk