Kaiser Permanente

Case Study

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From a commodity
to a cause

Campaigning on what Kaiser Permanente stands for, and changing the language of health care


Ten years ago, health care was in critical condition. Chat with anyone about managed care, and you’d hear words like “stress,” “bureaucracy,” and “greed.” Kaiser Permanente was one of the largest managed care organizations, so folks considered it the poster child for all of those words and then some. Enrollment was declining, and their brand image was overwhelmingly negative. Focus groups let us know exactly what they thought of typical health-care language. Not good.

Was there any cure for Kaiser Permanente? We started with some research.

We uncovered one powerful insight: While people didn’t care much for health care, they cared a whole lot about health.

Wait a second. Isn’t health, after all, the reason Kaiser Permanente is in business? What if we stopped talking about what they do, and instead, start talking about what they stand for?

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A NEW LANGUAGE IS INVENTED

The language surrounding health care was pretty interesting. While talking about health care systems yielded the negative words we mentioned above, when we asked people to describe health it was a whole different story. All of a sudden, we were hearing positive words. “Empowerment.” “Wellness.” “Balance.” 

Clearly, there was something about health care that people really wanted, but they viewed health care systems as an impediment, not a facilitator. If we could find a way to change that, we could connect people to empowerment, wellness, and balance, and then anchor those positive perceptions to the Kaiser Permanente brand. 

So we set about reinventing the language. We focused on keeping people out of the hospital, not treating people in the hospital. We even redefined the audience, calling them “health seekers”—those who wanted to live a healthier, happier life. This did not exclude people with chronic or terminal conditions. After all, they, too, want to be as healthy as they can. We conducted focus groups among these important health-care groups to be sure. And, yep, it all rang true.

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TURNING HEALTH CARE INTO A GOOD THING

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Our creative idea would need to position health care not as treating illness, but rather about well-being, optimism, and balance. This was the exact opposite of category messaging at the time. 

Health care is about people. So we democratized the category, putting the focus on health seekers and the control they have over their health. 

Instead of showing doctors in white coats, we showed people taking control of their own health, living the lives they want to live. 

We had our idea. We then began to build the campaign, basing it upon three tenets:

• Reinvent the language
• Redefine the system
• Champion a cause

And we summed it all up with one word: Thrive

We concluded every communication with “Thrive.” It turns out, this simple rallying cry inspired everyone, from health seekers to Kaiser Permanente’s doctors, nurses, and staff.

We reframed the language of health care. And it worked:

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Since the Thrive campaign launched, many other health care organizations have followed our lead … but we make sure health seekers know where the movement began.