Austin, TX– Healthcare and people: both are capable of amazing things. Yet, all too often and on too many levels, they are not connecting. Add in a ton of new technologies, data, predictive modeling, and platforms–and it can be downright overwhelming. And, if it is overwhelming for us as marketers who live in this space, just imagine what it is like for physicians, their teams, and others dealing with health challenges.

This is just one of the many reasons why we were so inspired by our time spent recently in Austin, Texas, at the 30th annual South By Southwest® (SXSW®) Conference & Festivals. We experienced and encountered amazing people, sessions, and ideas that reinforce and fuel the GSW mission of Speak People–so by injecting healthcare with human care and by turning have-to-do into want-to-do–we can impact the lives of all of those engaged in the health and well-being of people.

Throughout the conference, two themes became obvious:

  1. Meaningful behavior change is critical to health success.
  2. Change does not come unless we really want it.

Meaningful behavior change is critical to health success

In one session, a behavioral scientist said that for technology to truly be a beneficial tool in behavior change it has to be designed to put “boundaries of self into more rational thinking moments.” This is what he called a “commitment device,” which could be a simple solution that helps people make the rational behavior change commitments needed to reach their goals by reducing the temptation of emotional decision making. He used the mythical story of Odysseus lashing himself to the mast of his ship (a device of commitment), and ordering his men to plug their ears with cloth (another commitment device) to help them stay the course and not succumb to the Siren’s song (an emotional “temptation,” for sure) and, thus, be dashed upon the rocks.

At GSW, we created a simple mobile app for a client brand designed with the single intention of doing one thing really well–to nudge people to keep their commitment to their weekly therapy schedule. Experience tells us people need constant reminders and routines for their daily medications. We learned from insights mining that this becomes even more important for a weekly therapy schedule. It is not rocket science, however, a simple notion that could have been overlooked because of a focus on the convenience of one injection per week vs seven injections per week.

We connected this to another session, where a physician was illustrating the need repeatedly to ask the question, “why?” to get to the root of the behavior. Attempting behavior change alone is not going to help most people. It is understanding the true “why?” which drives the behavior that makes the difference. What are the emotions and experiences that lead people to make the decisions they do that result in reduced health and quality of life? These two things have to be combined for success.

Change does not come, unless we really want it

In another session, called “Use Behavior Change Science to Improve Your Health,” we learned healthcare is only 10% of the overall health status, with 51% attributed to lifestyle. Knowing this, highlights the importance of helping change behavior to impact health, but it is beyond difficult. People have a hard time connecting present actions with future outcomes. Just think about the irony–it physically takes less effort not to pick up the fork to eat a piece of cake, yet we tend to give into the emotion of now. If we can incentivize behavior today, it will impact desired outcomes tomorrow.

GSW and inVentiv Health do this by, first, uncovering the real insights of motivation for people, and then translating that understanding by speaking a different language and expressing ideals, like empathy, social support networks, and leading with love in authentic ways that allow physicians and patients to build trust with each other and with a brand. It is a trust that allows them to feel confident in their brand’s role for helping them with the tough behavioral change work they need to do for success.

This work feeds our passions and our culture, which is about working with brands, ideas, organizations, and people who are committed to make lives better.

Another motivating idea we experienced was about the power of human touch–that is, how hugs can improve creativity, increase team member engagement, and actually have the power to keep us all healthier. That’s right! Hugs! And lots of them. One study from Penn State University indicated that people who hug others at least five times per day are happier and healthier. It is a simple solution. It requires behavioral change; however, it can have a profound impact–maybe not as obvious, but definitely as simple.

The solutions we need to come up with may not be that obvious either, but they are out there. We believe that to find them, we need to change the conversation, move from lecture to dialogue, complex to simple, and inaction to action. And, much like SXSW’s inclusiveness and reaching for new things and challenging what is, these are our core values as well.

GSW, based in Columbus, Ohio with offices in New York, Pennsylvania, and Canada, is one of the largest health and wellness advertising agencies in the world. The company provides a full range of client resources, including research, analytics, marketing and brand consultancy, advertising, promotion, public relations, advocacy, medical education, meetings and events, interactive communications, and more. For more information, visit

About the Author:

Zach Friedman