Device ad-vice: three tips for positioning medical device brands

Amy Smith

HCB Health

(Continued from part 4 of the “Device ad-vice series”: “Device ad-vice: experience is the best teacher”)

In our latest Device ad-vice article, Amy Smith shares her advice on brand positioning for medical devices and the wealth of opportunity it presents for the creative marketer.

Doctors are trained to make decisions objectively: evaluate the data, compare the alternatives, weigh the risks. But the process isn’t terribly different from an average Joe choosing a new family car or purchasing a laptop for the home office. Clinical decision makers behave in much the same manner as consumers. They prioritize features, consult their friends, and kick the tires like the rest of us.

So why should that matter? Well, even when a decision is made based on facts and scrupulous attention to detail, sometimes a gut feeling can sway the ultimate decision. Some of the best marketing uses an emotional hook, employs a disruptive idea, or introduces a completely different problem from what the customer thought he or she had. The same holds true in device marketing, because the people who make decisions about devices are human, too.

Here are three tips that I always keep in mind when delving into positioning exercises for medical devices. They aren’t the only guidelines, but they’re some of the most important ones we live by:

1. Change the conversation

Have you ever found yourself at a dinner party completely bored by the conversation volleying back and forth across the table? Perhaps the topic was getting stale or uninteresting because no one was really adding a different perspective? That’s how marketing messages can tend to feel in a vertical where everyone is talking about the same thing. And with devices, it’s all too common.


“What about using an emotionally charged concept around urgency?”


I recently worked with a wound care company that was competing in a VERY crowded market. Many of the companies in this space tend to focus on innovative care or advanced healing (common themes for the space). Our advice to this client? Refocus the conversation in a completely different direction. What about using an emotionally charged concept around urgency?

This idea worked for the brand because it connects to an actual pain point that hits close to home with wound care nurses and other clinical decision makers: quickening the pace of care and fostering efficiency. And no other brands talk about urgency in this space! It may feel uncomfortable to break out of the safe zone of messaging within your market, but it’s the best way to get attention. The catch is making sure it’s really a feeling or idea that your audience can connect with.

2. Question yourself

Creating stellar positioning is like writing a novel. There are two parts. First you write, then you edit. After you’ve burned the midnight oil coming up with fabulous positioning ideas, you must ask yourself an important question about each of your concepts: “What does that get you?”

Here’s what I mean. We recently launched a new ventilator into the global ICU market. There was initially a lot of discussion about this ventilator being easier to use, which is true, but not very interesting (isn’t everyone saying that?). So we asked:

What does that get you? The answer led us to the notion that because the ventilator was easier to use, respiratory therapists could gather more insights from the ventilator.

What does that get you? It allows them to make adjustments that protect patients’ respiratory muscles.

What does that get you? It ultimately could help free the patient from the ventilator.

And what does that get you? A ventilator that’s designed to liberate. Voila! A much more compelling, emotionally charged brand story.

3. Walk the line. Or better yet, push it!

There’s a fine line between creating a believable brand position for today and an aspirational brand for tomorrow. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s to always lean toward the aspirational. It’s the secret of great positioning. It’s about potential. It’s about where a brand can take someone – even if it’s a surgical device with a seemingly finite use.


“Pharmaceuticals tend to yield a single, concrete clinical claim…”


The father of modern advertising, Bill Bernbach, once daringly commented, “we are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it. We are so busy listening to statistics we forget we can create them.”

It’s the rewarding risk you take when market research is involved, because your customers can struggle to reflect what’s not in front of them. And if you inspire your customers about what could be, the pain of changing behaviors and patterns can blind them to the possibilities.

A great example of this involves a surgical system for retinal procedures. Ask ophthalmologists what our brand stands for, and they’ll list the features and benefits (fastest cutting speed, better probe handling, surgeon-controlled duty cycle, etc). But tell the doctors that it will help them achieve what they’ve yet to imagine, and they’re stumped. What does that mean exactly?

Well, it means that the sum is greater than the parts themselves (or features in this case). It means that with this system, eye surgeons were actually developing new techniques because they could approach the procedure in ways they never could before (true story!). That’s a difficult concept to test, but an easy concept to experience. And it’s the job of brand positioning to pave the way for telling that story.

The most rewarding challenge

Medical device positioning presents a wealth of opportunity for the creative marketer. Pharmaceuticals tend to yield a single, concrete clinical claim – how lucky are pharma marketers?! But devices such as surgical equipment can offer many benefits to the user (easier, faster, intuitive, more efficient, etc.), which creates the potential for a messy exercise. The risk is staying in the weeds and not pushing beyond the obvious smattering of benefits. The secret to device messaging is to stay singular and go higher. It’s a challenge, but an immensely rewarding one for your device brand.

Part 6 of this series can be viewed here.


About the author:

Amy Smith is an account director at HCB Health in Austin, Texas, one of the top 25 independent healthcare communications agencies in the U.S. She leads the company’s professional / clinical account strategy team, with extensive experience in medical device, biotechnology and pharmaceutical marketing.

A graduate of the University of Texas, Amy joined HCB 10 years ago and built her department from the ground up, with a foundation of therapeutic and diagnostic healthcare experience spanning dozens of specialties and disease states.

HCB Health’s medical device credentials include work with numerous companies in the global healthcare space, including Alcon Labs (a Novartis company), Medtronic, Covidien and McKesson.

For more information, email Amy at or visit

What are your top tips for positioning medical device brands?