Brands have a vital role to play in shaping the conversation around women’s health

Women’s health is a $1trn per year opportunity yet brands are still failing to represent and communicate to women in a meaningful way.

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It was World Health Day earlier this month, an observance designed to foster a more health-equitable world for everyone.

Having written about the gender health gap 18 months ago – the UK at the time had been found to have the most significant female health gap out of all G20 countries – I figured it was a good time to check on progress and look at how marketing is stepping up to the plate, to help improve women’s health outcomes.

After all, findings from a study by Health On Her Terms published shortly after that original column confirmed some of my worries, that while there has been general progress in the way women are represented in media and advertising, health communications continue to fall behind.

But first, a reminder of why this all matters. It’s a brutal reality, but the UK’s healthcare system, like others around the world, was designed around the needs of just half the population. With men historically treated as the default patient in clinical practice and medical research, women’s often unique health and healthcare needs have been marginalised. To the extent that while women make 33% more visits to doctors than men, just 4% of medical research is specific to women, and half of that research is in oncology. In other words, just 2% of non-cancer medical research is focused on women’s health.

One promising sign that things are starting to change for the better comes from a Deloitte report highlighting that while the Femtech market – an umbrella term covering initiatives focused on driving innovation, attracting investment, and normalising conversations about female health – accounted for $40.2bn (£32.3) in 2020, that figure is projected to almost double to $75bn (£60.2bn) by next year. In short, society is finally waking up to the fact that alongside the moral imperative, there is also wealth to be unlocked in women’s health. In fact, according to a report from the World Economic Forum in January, it’s a whopping $1trn per year opportunity.

However, to me at least, it’s less promising that despite 7 April being a global day marking a more equitable health world for everyone, there appeared to be very little discussion about the specific and shocking disparities in health outcomes and access to healthcare between men and women.

I see so much opportunity for brands to step in and pick up where governments, health bodies, and healthcare providers are falling behind.

While economic status is clearly a huge driver of health inequality, we can’t ignore the specific inequalities women experience as a sex, let alone the added dramatic impact of intersectionality on certain groups of women. Point of note: I think I found just one article, in the Times of India, that used the inflection point World Health Day offered to raise awareness and discuss the gender health gap.

Media commentary aside, where were the female-focused brand voices around World Health Day? Couldn’t this have been a powerful moment for those brands to take a brave stand, to commit to raising awareness, reducing stigma, and promoting access to care, to help improve women’s health outcomes?

It felt like such a missed opportunity, not least because there is so little awareness of the UK’s gender health gap. Research from Benenden Health and the Fawcett Society last month revealed that three-quarters of women don’t believe the gap exists in the UK, despite all the evidence proving that women have demonstrably poorer health outcomes than men, and that Britain’s gap is the 12th worst in the world. That’s quite a pointy, campaignable statistic for a bold brand to get behind – women should know what they’re up against.

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Driving change

But it’s not just a question of highlighting a problem; marketing is uniquely positioned to understand consumers’ needs and drive behavioural or cultural change. And when many causes of the ongoing gender health gap are rooted in gender bias, you have to wonder if players in the healthcare ecosystem are leveraging marketing’s capabilities enough to improve women’s healthcare outcomes in the UK.

I see so much opportunity for brands to step in and pick up where governments, health bodies, and healthcare providers are falling behind. For example, social listening tells us women are trying to educate other women about female-specific health issues or those that have a particular female face, such as pregnancy loss, miscarriage, menopause, chronic pain and mental health. Due to a lack of official information, those women are sharing thoughts, ideas and experiences online. More brands could and should be in these spaces, supporting these communities. Thumbs up here to Nurofen and the excellent and timely ‘See My Pain’ campaign.

As that example reminds us, marketing has incredible power but must be used responsibly. Brands have to ensure they act with authenticity and avoid anything that smacks of exploitation. The discipline’s already fine line between meeting versus creating needs becomes infinitely finer when an audience is vulnerable – in this case, when women feel unseen and unheard (the Fawcett Society report reveals that nearly two-thirds of British women believe their health issues are not taken seriously) and their anxieties are regularly dismissed as ‘all in the head’ by healthcare practitioners.

For example, new findings from NielsenIQ’s neuroscience-based research reveal that women positively receive brand messaging that ‘recognises the (health) research they often conduct and affirms their findings or initial decision’. While I obviously embrace the positive sentiment behind this finding – brands’ influential role in validating consumers’ experiences – it also hints at the opportunities for less discerning brands to hone in on women’s health worries, magnify them and reflect them back. Whipping things up, as it were, perhaps with the intention of carving out a niche, and securing valuable brand influence.

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It’s this dynamic that in part shaped headlines a couple of months ago about companies ‘marketing useless health products to women using feminist wellbeing messages’, with the authors of the report in question criticising appealing but misplaced ‘fempowerment’ marketing messages.

In a similar vein, another report last autumn from Australian menopause and women’s health specialists argued that powerful commercial incentives exist to “catastrophise” menopause in the minds of women, often driving them to purchase products that falsely claim to be able to help with symptoms.

Those important watchouts aside though, it’s clear there are incredibly exciting opportunities to grab. Brands have a vital role in shaping the conversation about women’s health – breaking down barriers, confronting conventional perceptions, destigmatising taboo-laden issues and communicating around symptom advice – all of which, if done with legitimacy and authenticity, can help them build brand equity and deepen customer relationships, as well as helping to slowly, but surely, close the gap on women’s health outcomes.