How Telemedicine Companies Are Making Healthcare Faster and Cheaper, and Its Marketing Edgier

Hipper than traditional providers, they're gaining traction with consumers

Telemedicine companies are changing the face of healthcare marketing. Mr. Murdoch/Getty Images

When Zachariah Reitano was a teenager, he suffered erectile dysfunction and—like many of the 30 million American men who experience ED—he was embarrassed by it. Unlike most of them, though, he has a father who’s a doctor specializing in men’s sexual health, so Reitano was comfortable asking for help. That decision wound up saving his life: His ED was a symptom of an undiagnosed heart condition.

The health scare gave Reitano, now 27, a sense of purpose—he wanted to make it easier for others suffering from embarrassing conditions to get treatment.

So in 2017, he founded Ro, a subscription-based healthcare startup—a niche called telemedicinewith more than $91 million in venture capital. Ro has two verticals: Zero focuses on smoking cessation, and Roman caters to men who suffer from erectile dysfunction, genital herpes, hair loss and other conditions. Users pay $15 to message, call or video chat with a licensed physician who works for or is contracted by the company. After a physician determines that a patient has ED, for example, the physician writes a prescription to be filled either at an outside pharmacy or through Ro. The service sends discreetly packaged personalized shipments of medication to customers who buy it through the company. 

Ro: A subway ad for Roman stands up for men with erectile dysfunction.

So far, Ro has facilitated more than a million patient-physician interactions, says Reitano. And though it doesn’t take insurance, it does speed up access to healthcare. (While some telemedicine companies accept insurance, others skip it altogether and charge low out-of-pocket fees.) According to Reitano, it takes roughly 29 days to see a doctor in the United States. By contrast, Ro patients get a response from physicians within 24 hours, and they pay far less than they would in time spent getting to an office and in co-pays. 

“One of the best things about telemedicine is that we don’t have to choose between cost, quality and convenience,” notes Reitano. “We can offer less-expensive, higher-quality and more-convenient care through software and limited retail infrastructure. On the pharmacy side, we don’t have to pay for expensive retail locations, which allows us to have a different cost structure.”

Telemedicine companies are also changing the face of healthcare marketing. Gone are the days when ads for wellness products featured a silver-haired couple holding hands on a beach or staring into a meadow’s middle distance. In this new era, healthcare startups embrace an edgier tone in marketing materials. Websites and out-of-home ads on subways, billboards and elsewhere depict real customers and real healthcare providers. Young women with multiple ear piercings. Interracial couples lounging at home. Men with dreadlocks. A team of clinicians smiling, their arms around each other’s shoulders, as if they’re at brunch. There are people of all colors, if not quite all ages or weights.

Part of this marketing shift is regulation related, says Katelyn Watson, vp for marketing at Nurx, an online women-oriented healthcare startup that accepts insurance. Nurx offers physician consultations, regular shipments of birth control, home HPV screening kits and Truvada, an FDA-approved HIV prophylactic.

Nurx: The brand’s marketing materials speak to empowering women.

Drugmakers have historically faced limits on what they can show in ads, Watson explains. “[But] we’re a little bit different because we’re providing a service; we’re not a drug manufacturer,” she says. “What that means is we have choices in how we build our brands.” 

Although, one remaining obstacle for telemedicine companies is that they’re regulated at the state level based on where customers—not the businesses—are located. That’s why not every company is available in every state.

Patients’ pain points

Nurx will relaunch and broaden its offerings within the next three months. (Watson declined to share details.) The company’s forthcoming campaign features vibrant photos of customers who answered an open casting call designed to reflect diversity. Images are overlaid with script-based fonts expressing sentiments about women’s empowerment and control over their bodies.

Nurx’s marketing also points to an obstacle that women face when seeking medical attention: too few pharmacies and too few ob/gyns. Even when a woman can find a doctor, physicians sometimes refuse to prescribe birth control for ideological reasons—stories of which Nurx’s customers have shared with Hans Gangeskar, the company’s co-founder and CEO.

Logistical factors also impinge on traditional means of accessing healthcare, according to Jane van Dis, medical director for Maven, an online women’s clinic that enables patients to consult with doctors, midwives, nurses and other clinicians through messaging and video chat. “A woman often has to take time off from work,” she notes. There’s the time needed to travel to the doctor’s office and the wait once there that hinges on whether the doctor is running on schedule. “The whole process can take two to three hours out of a workday. For women who work in the home, they may have to arrange for childcare.”

Maven: As a digital clinic, it uses high-end photography to humanize its caregivers.

And then there are the social taboos that make it uncomfortable to be open about one’s healthcare needs. To combat those, many of these startups employ candor and humor rather than euphemism.

Ro’s wittily named Morning Glory app tracks erection rates not for the fun of it, but as an indicator of potentially more serious conditions. Sly copy on the women’s health and wellness site Hers asks, “If it’s not prescription skin care, how do you know you’re not just applying marketing?”

A bold message

With their modern relatability, these sites are destigmatizing conversations around all aspects of wellness. The online men’s site Hims, for example, embraces real talk to woo customers to its online subscription-based healthcare service. For example: “Erections—sometimes you get them and sometimes you don’t.” Hims also asserts that it wants to make getting help “stupid easy.”   

“We’ve been excited about the idea of normalizing these topics,” says Daniel Kenger, digital creative director and partner at Gin Lane, who has worked with Hims on developing its brand identity since its launch in 2017. He and his agency have also been intimately involved with the conception and execution of sister site Hers, which debuted last fall.

Hims: The website’s visuals are cheeky and represent a hip, diverse audience.

“We’ve always tried to be bold and direct, whether through our aesthetic or our copy or the content of the actual image itself in order to open up the conversation,” Kenger says. Subtle choices like a warm, muted color palette and closely cropped imagery make sites more inviting. With milliseconds to attract and gain the trust of a would-be user, such decisions are critical. “In the direct-to-consumer game, it’s important that the appeal is threaded throughout,” he adds.

Opening sensitive conversations and meeting customer needs, he and colleagues insist, are what inspire these sites—not the bottom line.

“The objective is to help people be healthy and to drive down costs,” says Gangeskar. “There are over 50,000 new HIV infections each year. We try to tell people to use condoms, and the needle’s not moving. We think meeting people on their own terms, where they are on a radically different cost basis, can radically change the numbers. The most important message is that people can access healthcare on their own terms.”

Hims CEO and founder Andrew Dudum agrees.

“In modern times, efficiency and speed and an experience that is enjoyable is almost required,” Dudum says. “The healthcare system is still one very much where you need to go in person, and you’re at the whim of medical institutions. It’s a burdensome and expensive system. Making a brand that could remove those complexities and save people hours and hours of time and hundreds of dollars—and making it something they love—was almost a requirement of building the company. … From the beginning, we tried to craft a brand that was approachable and witty.” 

Indeed, direct-to-consumer healthcare is no different from any other DTC product, says Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

“We live in a world where Amazon will deliver almost anything almost before you order it. Going to a pharmacy is almost a foreign concept. When an alternative comes around that changes and simplifies that, young people will be quick to say, ‘Sure,’” says Calkins. These startups are “building brands that have a real tonality and a real personality.”

As Reitano puts it, “What we’ve done with tech is turn the luxury of a personalized concierge into a commodity.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 4, 2019, issue of Brandweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Sara Ivry is Brooklyn-based freelance writer, editor and podcaster.