Ward Alles

Lose the Labcoat

By Ward Alles on April 11, 2017

How healthcare marketing is getting real and attracting patients in the process

When Core Creative first started twenty some years ago, a major healthcare system in our home state of Wisconsin was in heavy growth-by-acquisition mode.

We were hired to produce a lot of print creative back in the day (this was the mid-90’s … just before the digital age). Newspaper. Direct mail. Outdoor. All to promote newly acquired primary care practices, new hospitals or expanded service line offerings.

The common trait required in that advertising? You guessed it – the group photo of doctors. Proudly standing there. Arms folded. Shot at separate times due to busy schedules, mind you. But all photo-shopped together in one big, happy, family portrait.

Some images were in manageable groups of three or four. Others were in ridiculous clumps of humanity. Twenty or thirty physicians and specialists squeezed together in one ad. All in their matching labcoats, looking like the high school class reunion of 1986.

Ridiculous now to look back on it. But sadly, we still see some healthcare marketers resorting to that same dreadfully cold, boring image today: the serious doctors – stacked like cordwood – in their clean white labcoats.

Why do advertisers do this? Who possibly is attracted to read such an ad or respond to such an image? Was the ad created simply to appease some physicians (don’t answer that!) … or did someone honestly believe this was the best way to reach new patients?

We will give you four perfectly good reasons never to use such an image again:

  1. These images are everywhere, they don’t differentiate you and therefore they are highly ignorable. You may as well be promoting the competition and say “Insert name of any healthcare system here.”
  2. Such images are cold and unrelatable. In an attempt to look experienced and professional, you come off as unapproachable, inaccessible, unfriendly. (Even if one or two of your doctors is actually smiling!) We can’t imagine that is the intention of the ad, but that is the result.
  3. Think about this. Labcoats are typically not even worn by many specialists, including pediatricians. The reason? Because the labcoats appear scary to kids. Guess what? Labcoats can appear a bit intimidating and clinical to adults too.
  4. If you shoot one sterile photo, that’s all you’ll have at the end of the day: one sterile photo. No life. No other uses besides a “promotional” image.


So what’s the alternative?

How about images of doctors, specialists, surgeons and nurses that make them look like – get this – real people.

At Core, we love telling life-changing stories in healthcare. To make doctors and nurses seem more human, many times we make them lose all the trappings of medicine (labcoats, stethoscopes, etc.) and just be themselves.

By making the “featured healthcare professional” a relatable human being – they can be admired for who they are, not by the title they carry. After all, “hero status” is best when it’s bestowed; not assumed.

In a video-based campaign designed to help increase outpatient volumes for Borgess Health (Kalamazoo, MI), Core told the personal stories of three of their top physicians: a neurosurgeon, a pediatrician and an orthopedic surgeon. Each video is about two minutes long and shot in an unscripted documentary-type style.

Each of these specialists was featured – not in a clinical setting – but in a community setting. At home just being a mom. Volunteering at a local non-profit. Or even working on a hobby farm.

The campaign portrayed Borgess physicians as people. As personal stories. As characters – with character! – that you could easily admire. The approach is warm. It’s real. And it’s unique to the market.

Furthermore, the documentary approach allows for the production of multiple images and b-roll that can be used as branded content in other Borgess-owned media – not just an ad campaign. The very approach of losing the labcoat seems to free up our clients to think about new, authentic ways to engage with patients and the community – beyond “marketing to them.”

Attracting patients

Yes, we’ve come along way since our days of photo-shopped group portraits. And we don’t take this story-telling approach just to do something different or “be creative.” We do it because it works. It gets health systems noticed. It reflects well upon their brands and their reputation. And it brings them business.

Our “Docs are people too” campaign for Borgess removed the anonymity of making appointments with a faceless doctor. It helped increase outpatient volumes, leading to continued use of primary care physicians and an increase in referrals to specialists.

We’d welcome the opportunity to do the same for you. Just be sure to tell your staff ahead of time, “we’re going to tell you to lose the labcoat.”


Ward Alles is a Brand Consultant and President of Core Creative.