very year, the world’s leading marketers, PR professionals, creatives and advertisers come together for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, where they showcase their best work, network and discuss the latest industry trends. The Lions Health track has grown in prominence in recent years, focusing on healthcare communications and marketing for the pharma and health & wellness sectors.

The talks, panels and roundtables at Cannes Lions Health explored how the communications strategies of the healthcare industry have to evolve at a time of massive change in both the industry and consumer expectations. The focus is shifting from the medication to the patient – while at the same time it’s matter for debate whether we should be referring to “patients” or “people”.

Edelman was proud to host two roundtables at Lions Health that brought together healthcare professionals, tech industry experts NGOs and agency leaders to tackle two key issues facing our industry: How can data-gathering and targeting be used for good, and how can we successfully engage with consumers through “storytelling” rather than “storyselling”? Both sessions were lively exchanges of insights and ideas, and proof of what’s possible at the Lions Health.

As one participant put it: “This is both the most exciting time for healthcare and the most challenging”.

Here are key insights from our roundtable events:


“We need to build trust” was a consistent phrase during most panels, talks and roundtables at Lions Health, but this – all agreed – was not an easy task. One panelist declared the healthcare system to be “broken”, because neither patients nor the healthcare providers were investing a lot into health, only into illness.

Some argued that trusting one’s medication is not realistic, and instead of trust, companies should try to build “brand love” or “brand value.” Others questioned which drugs – with the possible exception of Viagra (a PR professional joked) – could even claim anything like brand love. As one participant put it: “The world [of healthcare communications] is changing, but is it a priority to build love? You can’t love your doctor, he won’t write you a prescription even if you have a great relationship.” Whether trust, value, or love, all agreed that healthcare companies must deliver demonstrable value to stakeholders beyond product benefits or traditional patient assistance programs.


The importance and potential applications of data in healthcare is rising rapidly: as an early warning system for diseases; as a tool to understand, predict and prevent illnesses; and as a storytelling device that helps us identify the biggest hopes and concerns of patients and consumers alike.

The healthcare industry understands the power of using data for good but faces two critical challenges: it’s one of the most regulated industries, and consumers have to understand and believe that health data can be used for good. Around the world, consumers are deeply concerned about the privacy of health data. That’s partly cultural (as one participant posited, Asian patients are more concerned about privacy than, say, Americans or Europeans), partly economic (amid concerns that data could leak and be used to stigmatize individuals, or that insurers use them to justify higher premiums or even refuse coverage).

Participants debated the power of anonymised data for extremely precise forecasting, but acknowledged that most consumers would assume the data collection by pharmaceutical firms would be for profit, not purpose. One pharma industry expert said patients were deeply conflicted about data: “they want companies to use their data, but they are also worried about it when they do”. The healthcare industry would have to convince consumers that data would be used for the good of patients – with patients’ skepticism made worse by reports about the use and abuse of data collected by Facebook.


One potential solution, the data roundtable agreed, would be “data philanthropy” and non-traditional partnerships, through which data from health or non-health industries can be used to address public health threats. As a first step, healthcare companies would have to shed their customary data secrecy, which in turn would show consumers that data are being collected for a good purpose and following high ethical standards. One participant cited the telecoms operator Orange, who had helped track the spread of Ebola by sharing anonymized data of people’s movements across West Africa.

Insurance companies, meanwhile, could flip their model and focus on the “wellness data” instead of the “sickness data”, for example by rewarding and incentivizing regular exercise, instead of punishing poor health with higher premiums.

Flipping from treating illness to promoting wellness raised a number of questions. “When a company knows that you will have diabetes in a year from now, who should contact you – your doctor or the company that gathered the data? And how will patients feel about it?” Then there was the age-old question for individuals: Do I want to know? People will trust pharma companies more once they don’t just sell them medication, but help them manage their diseases, said a pharma executive.

Data in healthcare, everyone agreed, “is just getting started”, but is set to dominate a broader debate across industries. Participants agreed that the healthcare industry has an opportunity to lead in using data for good, however, this would require breaking from tradition and institutionalised protocol.


To achieve this, the healthcare industry has to dig into how to truly understand and connect authentically with consumers. How come, we asked our second roundtable, that people love the technology in their smartphones and other gadgets, but neglect to regularly take (never mind talk about) their innovative medicines?

The key difference, a marketer noted, was that technology is about wants, while medication is about needs. In this context, it’s worth noting that both gadget makers and car manufacturers these days mainly talk about the lifestyle they enable, something the pharma industry is only beginning to emulate now, agreed the roundtable participants.

Instead of focusing on the health benefits, successful campaigns were telling the stories of their patients, and the lifestyle that these medications were enabling – and not through actors, but real stories of real people and their authentic experiences.

Storytelling had to be about “showing empathy” and proving that “we understand patients”. It was “the key to building trust”. One participant from the technology industry encouraged focusing on “friction points”. Interestingly in this context, most of the short-listed campaigns at Cannes had moved from analog to digital, and focused on building empathy through experiential storytelling.

Blaming the challenges of operating in a regulated environment doesn’t cut it anymore, participants agreed. There’s an urgent need to really speak to consumers, using the techniques of other industries – whether that’s the tech industry or fast-moving consumer goods.

Agreement was that ultimately, health brands have to learn to speak to consumers on their terms, and with integrity.


Trusted storytelling must be grounded in transparency, for example, by sharing anonymized data and in language easily understood. Most importantly, though, companies must demystify and humanize the medical language they use. Most patients, it was noted, don’t want to be “in the drivers seat” when it comes to medical decision making, but expect frank and clear information.

The solution is quality, not quantity, though. Persuading patients – especially Millennials – to engage with all this transparency is a challenge in itself. Gamification might be a solution, similar to fitness band challenges or using the Wii Sport to get army veterans to exercise. “We have to make things less threatening, more fun and help people overcome their fears”, said one marketer.


The Achilles heel of the industry, everybody agreed, was language. Just using the word “medication” was turning consumers into patients, and – as one participant put it – patients see themselves, yet don’t want to be seen as, victims.

The participants noted there was a reason people felt good about and were diligent in taking vitamins every day – they believe they are doing something empowering and for their health, while patients are often less adherent when it comes to taking their medication every day.

Could the industry transform its relationship with ‘patients’ by pivoting the conversation and turn it into one about wellness and self-care? How can we help people celebrate that which can make them better?

The discussion became particularly animated over whether healthcare companies needed an internal challenger – like a chief humanity officer who makes sure the patient experience is better by design.

Changing the language would also incentivize people to become more proactive about their health. Another approach – especially for healthcare providers – could be to remove friction points in the care process, however small. “What do people complain about after a hospital visit?” asked a doctor. “It’s mainly the hotel functions of the hospital stay, not the care they received.”

Healthcare attitudes of Millennials arguably encapsulated our industry’s challenges: thanks to technology, this generation is more empowered than any other to deal with its health – but also does very little about it.