How Authenticity And Wit Hit A Nerve, Solved A Crisis For Highmark Health

The Challenge

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

VideoThe Execution

Speaking at MediaPost’s Marketing:Health conference in September 2018, she said, “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.” (Here’s a link to the video presentation.)

The campaign won a gold Effie North America for effectiveness and evolved into two campaigns. In both, there was a deep, core insight as well as raw, authentic emotion, getting effective results.

Allegheny set out to tell stories, to show life as it unfolds. A day in the health system. There were a lot of stories told in a real way. It was more like a documentary, literally showing what’s happening right now. To make it more difficult (and impressive), Donohoe’s team decided to create 30 videos in 30 days. They even told the local press. They started in June and were on air mid-August.

“You can imagine the variety of stories that we had,” she said. “All authentic. Some are dramatic, touching. This was a surround-sound message. It wasn’t just 30 TV commercials, it was also on the news ticker on the morning news, on radio, a ton of digital — every aspect we could do.”

There was education involved, as well. Specifically, physicians had to learn that they weren’t the heroes anymore. On social, voices came from consumers. People were sharing stories about how they had been saved. It had a viral effect.

The brand set about creating big, bold and fast experiences. It built the world’s largest arm cast, 35 feet long. Then it invited all 26,000 people whose bones had been mended at Allegheny in the prior year to sign it (photo above). A catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates was one such person, which made it a media event. When it was over, there was the question of what to do with the cast? “We sawed it in half,” said Donohoe, “and put it up on a billboard, earning an award for a unique OOH placement.

Because the facility delivers 6,500 babies a year, the team got a hold of 6,500 plastic storks and took them to races, inviting parents to come by and sign one, take phones and share the experience online. It was a good way to demonstrate the size of the facility. Her team built a giant game of Operation, giving out red noses that lit up. They took it to events, gave kids lab coats and had them compete with doctors.

All of these efforts resulted in more volume organically than from paid. One of the surprising effects was that it changed the company, the culture and came at a time when the system and the health plan were coming together. It was even highlighted in Allegheny’s annual report.

By now, marketing was ingrained. The content was digestible and consumable so the team had to learn how long a story can last. It had to rip through content faster. Agile practices changed the way it did its work. To close the campaign, it asked the facility to give  same-day appointments for all specialties. From this came the “Call in by AM, be in by PM” campaign.

“We said, ‘Let’s own the morning,’” Donohoe said. Sleeves around coffee cups used the slogan, commercial laundry hangers promoting same-day service now added “doctor’s appointment, too.” Buses were wrapped. The team bought eight examination chairs, wrapped them for a race, and plopped them outside a bus stop and in the town square. 

Highmark handled a campaign for Blue Cross in Delaware by looking to the state bird, the Blue Hen. The leading provider in The First State had decided to offer two health plans in a year. Its product was going to be more expensive and it wasn’t allowed to communicate that with people. Donohoe’s team had 90 days to earn Blue Cross customers’ loyalty. 

A core insight was that Delawareans love their Blue Hen. The University of Delaware’s athletic team is the Fighting Blue Hens. So, the team tapped into that idea of loyalty to remind people of their loyalty to Blue Cross. There were no ruffled feathers when the increase took effect. Highmark used no paid actors. It was authentic, she said, and “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. Plus, it got 10,000 people to switch over.

Key takeaways

  • Give people an experience.
  • Be insistent and persistent.
  • Let people hear your message from their friends.
Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications