We are entering the age of trauma-informed marketing: meet the SIMI empathy framework

Every time an ad starts with the words “In times like these…” its a recognition that Marketers know that times have changed and that their default moves won’t be relevant.

Perhaps customers have never been how most marketers imagine them to be. There is a natural tendency for Marketers, me too, to simplify and sanitize consumers. But in truth, our buyers are engaged in life struggles which define their daily existence far more than our products.

In my work and teaching, I’ve introduced the abbreviation SIMI: stress, illiteracy, mistrust and inequality as obstacles to engagement we as communicators must constantly recognize. We should recognize the hard terrain our buyers navigate.

Almost every day I see fresh studies indicating the high baseline of stress that most people face. This week, the US Census, which is as credible a researcher as they get, reported that one-third of Americans now show signs of clinical anxiety or depression.

It’s hard to assign root causes – but as I pointed out back in November (see point 5)  in highly-wired households where all members have their own computers, teenagers spend six hours a day engaged with devices and on average, and four minutes a day of uninterrupted time with their parents.  This seems like one of those areas where the Kant’s view that quantity becomes quality may be painfully correct. The concept of quality time is negated when its duration becomes inconsequential. I say this as a parent of teens, who don’t always make it easy to stay involved.

Along with the devastating influence of stress, as communicators, we must recognize the growing barrier of literacy. Half of Americans read at or below a seventh-grade level, according to a report by The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), while only two percent read above an 11th-grade level. This is a big problem because so much consumer-facing web content is written at a level that would frustrate the average reader.

This same report shows that reading ability in the US has shown a gradual but long thirty-year pattern decline. Understanding insurance claims and processes, medication doses and diagnoses can be challenging regardless of reading level, but the challenges are exacerbated by illiteracy. Numerous studies have found a link between low literacy skills and chronically poor health. From filling out lengthy personal history forms to reading health pamphlets or medicine bottles, patients with lower literacy skills can struggle to understand their treatment and make the best decisions about their health.

The healing alliance of healthcare is rooted in trust. After all, many of healthcare’s services are what we’d call credence goods, that is, one may not know if they needed or benefited from a service, even after receiving it. Add financial opacity, which is amplified by secret rate agreements with payers and drug companies – and consumer mistrust becomes a significant gap for many healthcare brands.

In 1975, 80% of the public had confidence in the healthcare industry. In 2018 only 34% of the general public told Gallup that they had a positive view of the industry. Complexity, opacity, the real change of financial devastation, the inherent avoidance that goes with medical care constitutes, and the erosion of authority so common in digital culture combine to make a toxic cocktail of mistrust.

Finally, as we conduct primary research with patients, they are profoundly concerned about inequality and fairness in healthcare access. Just this week, an NPR investigation found that in four out of six of the largest cities in Texas, testing sites were disproportionately located in whiter neighborhoods. This is just one of the structural inequities making COVID19 more deadly among racial minorities. Healthcare brands can’t remain silent about improving equality of access – this is becoming a politically and culturally charged topic. 

Stress, Illiteracy, Mistrust and Inequality are powerful forces — but they mostly are outcomes of cultural systems that we can improve.

So, here’s a final inspiration — one of the most powerful forces for health and economic prosperity may come from preventing advertise childhood trauma. This short video lays out research showing how childhood trauma influences a lifetime of health outcomes. If you can, take a break from the urgency of the news cycle, and see if you don’t find this to be among the most important things you see this week. I did, and I’m sharing it with you with my thanks. I hope you’re having a great weekend.

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