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Fighting talk

One thing that grasps my interest is how society has adopted military style language when talking about cancer
Treatments are described as “defending” or “protecting” whilst cancer patients themselves are “fighters” who “battle” to “beat” the disease. These abstract metaphors of war are used in an attempt to articulate that cancer is a very emotional experience for all involved.

This terminology is intriguing to me, as whilst widely recognised as persuasive, it is also considered controversial.  War-like analogies suggest that there will be a “winner”, “loser”, and a “battlefield”. Sadly there are hundreds of types of cancer, and short of resection, there is no definitive cure for any of them. Many patients inevitably end up the “loser” as they endure a “battle” against symptoms of the disease, and the side effects of therapy – which all too often only gains a few more months PFS before the “fight” is “lost”. Perhaps more poignantly, their own bodies are the “battlefield” where this all takes place. I have to ask myself, how do progressed metastatic patients feel anything other than failure when we talk about the disease in this way? 
When I’ve personally conducted interviews with medical professionals and patients alike, I hear time and time again their aversion to this style of language. Oncologists have even told me that in medical school they were taught to actively avoid using this vocabulary, and as a result they are unresponsive to any type of marketing materials delivered in this style.

So why, when companies are spending so much time and resources into researching effective messaging, are we continuing to use language that knowingly disengages the target audience? As researchers we know that it’s imperative to ensure that brand messaging speaks directly, and appropriately, to our target audience - and sometimes when conducting research that’s not always just about what the respondent says but rather, how they say it. By including some extra language profiling questions and completing an extra step of analysis when conducting market research, we can determine what segments are likely to exhibit a particular trend of language compared to another segment. The value to this insight is that our language is usually indicative of our behaviour; thus providing an extra layer of understanding into the minds of customers in terms of how they might behave in a particular context, which can inform both communications and sales materials.

Knowing what language ‘works’ for different customers can bring to life the other key factors that are relevant to each audience segment - which not only increases buy-in at implementation but also tailors the communication for optimal outcomes.

With approximately 100 projects conducted in oncology within the last 2 years, it's the single largest therapeutic area studied at the Research Partnership, and it is clear to see that advances in detecting, diagnosing, and treating cancer have evolved - and are continuing to evolve at a significant rate. Perhaps it’s time we also evolve the way we talk about it, ensuring that we speak in language relevant to the target audience, avoid the “fighting talk” clichés and start using unique positive terminology to talk about “life beyond cancer”?

Research Partnership is one of the largest independent healthcare market research and consulting agencies in the world. Trusted partner to the global pharmaceutical industry, we use our expertise and experience to deliver intelligent, tailor-made solutions. We provide strategic recommendations that go beyond research, helping our clients to answer their fundamental business challenges.Find out more here:

2nd April 2015



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