How Authenticity and Wit Hit a Nerve and Solved a Crisis

Proof and Blue Chickens: How Authenticity and Wit Hit a Nerve and Solved a Crisis

Cindy Donohoe, EVP, CMO, Highmark Health

The Challenge

Allegheny Health Network wanted to demonstrate that it had as good quality as its bigger competitor in Pittsburgh. Some in the company suggested just saying that we’re No. 1! But, said Cindy Donohoe, that couldn’t be it. Everyone’s No. 1. Besides, people don’t talk about places being No. 1. They talk about what they can do know. Their own outcome, the people. They want innovation but in hands of a doctor who listens. So, how do you change someone’s mind?

The Execution

We decided to be big, bold and fast. Donor of Detroit came up with #LivingProof to show evidence of how we’ve changed people’s lives.

Effies No. America, gold, went to two campaigns, to be up there with Mars, Unilever, very proud. But we really learned a ton. With both campaign, deep core insight, raw, authrentic emotion, tears and laughter, getting effective results.

Allegheny Health Network, challenge: how to demo we have as good quality as bigger competitor. Just tell them we’re No. 1! But the claim couldn’t be it. Everyone’s No. 1. People don’t talk about No. 1. They talk about what they can do know. Their own outcome, the people. They want innovation but in hands of a doctor who listens. So, how do you change someone’s mind?

Big, bold and fast. #LivingProof by Donor of Detroit. Evidence of how we’ve changed people’s lives.

  • Give them an experience. 
  • Be insistent and persistent. 
  • Hear it from friends.
We set out to tell stories. It was cool to be able to show you life as it unfolds. A day in the health system. Lots and lots of stories in a real way. More like a documentary. Literally showing what’s happening right now. Capture and let people be voyeurs. To make it more difficult, we’re gonna do 30 in 30 days. Told press. Started in June, on air mid-August. Releasing to TV stations as ad. Best part about it was authenticity. 

You can imagine the variety of stories that we had. All authentic. some are dramatic, touching, this was a surround sound message. Not just 30 TV commercials, also on the news ticker on morning news, on radio, ton of digital. Every aspect we could do.

We had to educate the physicians that they aren’t the heroes anymore. What we did on social, voices came from consumers. People sharing stories about how they were saved. Did have a viral effect. 

Set about creating experiences: big bold fast. Larger than life, built world’s largest arm cast, 35 feet long, we had mended 26,000 bones that prior year. Invited those people to come sign the cast. Pirates catcher was one; made it a media event. What to do with cast? Sawed it in half, put it up on a billboard. Got an award for unique OOH.

Delivering babies. We deliver 6,500 a year. Got 6,500 storks, took them to races, invited parents to come by, sign one, take photos, share online. Great way to get point across about how big we were. We built the largest game of Operation. Gave out red noses that lit up. Took it to events, gave kids lab coats have doctors compete with them. 

Social: first time ever we got more volume organically than from paid. We had postpartum depression spot got shared virally. Surprising thing about this is that it changed our company, our culture, came at a time when the system and health plan were coming together. Reminded us that it’s not about us, it’s about them. Highlighted in our annual Report. 

Marketing was ingrained. Our production costs were $50K per commercial. Content now is digestible and consumable so we’ve had to learn how long a story can last. Rip through content faster. Agile practices, changed the way we do our work. To close this campaign, the retail side, we said, give us same-day appointments, offer for all specialities. Created “Call in by AM, be in by PM” so gratifying, patient last week in a lot of pain, she got one of our direct mailers at home, called, diagnosed, got meds. Such an impact.

We said, Let’s own the morning. Sleeves around coffee cups, laundry hangers same day and now doctor’s appointment, too. Wrapped buses, we bought 8 exam chairs (took stirrups out), wrapped them during a race, plop outside the bus stop, town square.

Blue Hen campaign in Delaware, different situation, leading provider in Delaware. Decided to have two health plans in the year. Our product was going to be more expensive, we weren’t allowed to communicate with people. 90 days. How do we get core insight. Delawareans love their blue hen, state bird, University of Delaware has the Fighting Blue Hens, tap into loyalty to remind people of their loyalty to Highmark, to Blue [Cross]. No ruffled feathers. Other retail things, lot of similarities, no paid actors, authentic, super simple.


  • 18 points uplift in unaided awareness. Consideration went up 20 points when we launched. Most important metric is about quality. After two years, only 2 points behind in difference with competitor.
  • Inpatient volume rose1.8%, new appointments went from 17% to 34% and have maintained that.
  • Brand favorability rose in 73% of the population.
  • Blue Hen campaign achieved retention goals. Got 10,000 people to switch over.
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