How Coca-Cola can change healthcare marketing for the better

By Anne Thistleton, partnering with creative and strategic healthcare agency, Create Health

Discovering the mind

Not far from Edison’s first light bulb and the Wright Brothers’ first airplane in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC rests the Indomitable, the first Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner ever built. It is a crude but shiny, 1½ ton corset-like contraption with an antenna coil surrounding a movable platform. It was built by Raymond Damadian, a mathematician, a medical doctor and a Julliard-trained violinist.

Its earliest successful scan in July of 1977 revealed a two-dimensional view of a chest — including heart and lungs. These early machines were later refined and commercialized, going on to provide the first views into the brain without surgery, harmful dyes or radiation. The MRI is widely recognised as one of the greatest breakthroughs of the 20th century.

The Decade of the Brain followed in the 90s, heralded byPresident George W Bush. Japan’s government invested $125 million into neuroscience research; India’s founded the National Brain Research Centre and the Chinese Institute of Neuroscience was born. And ultimately, the European Union launched their own “Decade of the Brain”.

MRI variations were developed, including the functional MRI (fMRI), which monitored blood flow to and from the brain, enabling a view into the actual functioning of and movement within the brain—not just static pictures.  Now that one could examine what was happening in the brain as it reacted to outside stimuli, it was astonishing.  Mankind finally had a window into our minds and our behaviour.  

In the years that followed, there was an bounty of new-found knowledge that affected every corner of our learning.  Entire new facets of medicine were gaining prominence.  Courts of law were reassessing the value of eyewitness testimony. Architects were redefining what makes effective design. More and more money was being allocated to study every aspect of the brain.

My journey to Mind Science

On the whole, the marketing industry has been very slow to adopt this new knowledge. However, a few FMCG companies caught wind of it and looked for commercial application. The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) discovered Mind Science via a seemingly small challenge in South Africa: sales of brand Coca-Cola were declining in the townships, and I was asked to lead a team to figure out why.  

This was a real challenge. I was out of my depth, so I started looking for experts, intuitively knowing that it had to start with more insightful marketing research methods. Fortunately, we found a sociologist, Dr Gerald Zaltman, who at that point was considered a pioneer in Mind Science. Today, he has earned the title of a Marketing Legend. From him, we learned that the mind doesn’t work the way we – and the majority of the marketing community – thought it did. Yet we had invested millions of dollars in our old understanding of how consumers behaved and the marketing that stemmed from that.

So it is no wonder that so many messages, products, programs were misfiring and marketing effectiveness rates were dreadful; we were working with an outdated model of the mind. 

I was then determined to find out how the mind did work—or at least enough to get our marketing models rebuilt. So I started reading as much as I possibly could and meeting as many experts (psychologists, neuroscientists, behavioural economists, etc.) as I could. I was thirsty for more knowledge and how that knowledge would help us get Coca-Cola back on track in the South African townships – and in central Europe where the company had similar problems.

Through this journey, I learned that:

  • The mind is associative not hierarchical, as our beloved brand ladders implied
  • Well over 95% of all brain activity is beneath our level of awareness, meaning that we cannot access why we do what we do—or even explain why we believe what we believe
  • Decision making is not the output of slow and deliberate conscious processing, but instead primarily an output of our non-conscious processor, generating conclusions, driving actions based on our past learning, experiences and memories deep within our minds.

Because of all of this new knowledge, we at TCCC now had a new and powerful lens to guide new ideas and opportunities. And, fortunately, because of the large marketing budgets of TCCC, we could apply the new theories, generated by the new knowledge. We could develop ideas that ultimately reversed the decline of Coca-Cola. We could develop ideas that were the foundation for the Open Happiness global campaign. And we could start to re-build marketing capabilities based on the science of how the mind actually works versus the rational decision making theory that we all grew up with.

Spreading the word

But just solving the specific business challenges of the world’s largest soft drink company wasn’t sufficient for me. Once I understood the basics of how the mind works, I couldn’t go backwards. I couldn’t forget it and return to the old “hit and miss” approach to marketing; I had to go forward.  So I continued my exploration into our mental operating system, looking to find the most relevant knowledge for marketers and the implications of that knowledge:  the simple principles that could be applied without decades of study.

We now have a collection of simple principles for marketers that can be applied across industries, across target audiences.  And the starting point is to always ask:  “What are we lighting up?”  This simple query should be a constant reminder that it isn’t just the conscious processor that sees the communication, but it is primarily the non-conscious processor that senses all aspects of a communication. Of course, one must then ask if that is what was intended.  

Beyond that simple assessment, healthcare communications, as with all communications, must be:

  • Easy
    The mind takes in over 11mm bits of data per second.  Anything that is not initially engaging and then easy to process will be bypassed for the next chunk of information coming their way.
  • Sticky
    If ideas aren’t memorable, then they have very little chance of impacting behaviour.  Messages that make the audience “feel” something mean they have an emotional component to them and, therefore, mean that they will make it into long-term memory.
  • Repeated
    Reinforcing your messages strengthens the idea in long-term memory, enhancing the likelihood that it will be recalled later to drive action.

All of our minds generate thought and meaning and make decisions using the same mental processes. Whether you are a healthcare professional, a screenwriter, an accountant or an artist, we are all emotional beings. So the above principles hold for anyone who is truly trying to connect with their audience. 

Damadian invented the first brain scanner that spawned an explosion of knowledge into how the brain works. It is now our responsibility as marketers to apply that knowledge to assure that our messages are being heard.

By Anne Thistleton, partnering with creative and strategic healthcare agency, Create Health

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