Think of some of the greatest healthcare branding campaigns and how they use color to accentuate their attributes: the American Red Cross and its trademark vivid red cross; Blue Cross/Blue Sheild's traditional stately blue shield and the American Medical Association's cheerful kelly green logo. Many of you think of color as a secondary part of a healthcare marketing or PR campaign. But to make your messages truly stand out you may want to bump color to the top of your priority list. Most experts agree the use of color in and of itself isn't a guarantee for success, and cannot save an ill-conceived marketing or advertising plan. But used correctly and strategically, it can make your messages perform - and leave other marketers' monotonous, uninspired attempts in the colorless dust, said Lyn Dally Geboy, an account executive with BVK/McDonald, a Milwaukee-based healthcare marketing/communications agency. Geboy has authored a white paper called "Color Makes A Better Message." For example, U.S. Healthcare wowed the advertising industry with its "feel good" television campaign last year that portrayed among other things little girls sashaying in white dresses. While the ad did not mention the insurance company's name until the very end of the commercial, its creative use of color and blending of video made it a memorable commercial. "The effects of color are relatively subtle, it is definitely something to keep in mind while creating your logos, ads and banners," said Dr. Lynn Kayle, a consumer psychologist and professor of marketing at the University of Oregon. Kayle cites the works of Dr. Max Luscher, a Swiss psychologist who performed studies to show how color affects the human mind and body in many different ways. In general, colors at the warm end of the spectrum, like red, are more stimulating and exciting. The quieter, more soothing colors, blue, for example, fall at the spectrum's cool end. In terms of visibility, warmer colors outperform cooler ones, with yellow being most visible. "Pure" colors have higher visibility than shades (color with black added) or tints (with white added). The higher the contrast between two colors, bright orange or yellow and black, for instance, the greater the visibility. Studies have suggested that environmental color schemes have wide-ranging effects - in a workplace it can affect morale and productivity; in a penitentiary it can pacify prisoners; in a healthcare facility it can affect patients' recovery rates, said Geboy. The Color Strategy "You need to use color on a case-by-case basis," said Geboy. "First figure out what your message is and then use color to help communicate that." For example, in a series of award-winning television advertisements that ran last year for United Health Services that Geboy's firm created, the use of black and white photography served to create a "sense of drama" and realism. The ads had people sitting in natural settings such as their living rooms who were asked about their feelings towards healthcare. One ad that targets the elderly, used an elderly actress that talked about loneliness. "In a color television situation, using black and white is a way to stand out," said Geboy. "You always want to present a personality, one that is stylistic and individual." Because colors are associated with emotion, when thinking about how to use it effectively, it's a good idea to step back out of the subjective to assess the strategic issues first, then determine how color supports and improves the strategy. For example, an aggressive message --one that deals with empowering life-or-death decisions --might be a good candidate for direct, aggressive colors. In contrast, a message designed to encourage more introspective thinking might use colors that are soothing by nature, such as light blues and greens. And a sophisticated product or service, selective cosmetic surgery for example, could benefit from the use of urbane, refined colors, say, a sophisticated combination of lavender and burgundy. When launching a new campaign for an obstetrics unit, a new cardiac program or an allergy medication, most ads blandly tout that the services have the best outcomes, are technologically advanced or HEDIS rated, said Dean Fueroghne, senior creative manager and VP of the First Strategic Group in Whittier, Calif., but rarely emit emotional feelings. In many instances, the healthcare industry's ads that tout new technologies use unfamiliar healthcare jargon that leaves consumers isolated and confused. "People buy on emotion while they justify their purchases on fact," said Fueroghne. "Healthcare advertisers need to put more emotion in their ads in order to pull people to their products and services." Once you've determined the primary message, think about the ways in which color can help you accentuate that message. Color helps communicate complex information by invoking ancillary emotional responses. "The combination head/heart (rational/emotional) message is very effective in conveying information," said Geboy. "Your headlines and copy provide the rational information and emotional appeal, while color plays an important supporting role in communicating that message on a deeper level." Color also can be used to create a sense of personality for a brand, a positioning niche, or atmosphere for a service. In many tangible-product industries, choice of color often begins with the product or service itself. For example, in promoting your pediatrics department, your color choice might be based in a primary color scheme. The crayon-like primary colors instantly communicate a child-oriented message. Another example is the choice of pinks and blues for OB materials. However, Geboy recommends rethinking using stereotypical color schemes. She suggests widening the scope by thinking about creative ways to build on or enhance those colors that are immediately recognizable in conjunction with particular topics. Could your message be made more exciting if you dial up the brightness, or increase the contrast between two colors? Or would more toned-down hues elicit a new and innovative appeal? Again, the idea is to use color to support and extend your strategic vision for the product/service, not fight against it. (BVK/McDonald,414/228-1990; First Strategic Group, 310/696-2556; University of Oregon, 503/876-9000)

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