When many people think of branding, they jump straight to design, visual identities and logos. But the words we choose to connect people to our cause are equally important, especially when it relates to a sensitive subject.
One area where brand language has a particularly important role to play is when it comes to communicating about death and dying.
The pandemic put dying under the spotlight. And it was during this time that Compassion in Dying were developing a new brand to enable people to be in control of their end-of-life decisions because we believe there is no one better to make them. Here’s what we learnt along the way…
Semiotic analysis can help find the way forward with difficult subjects
As part of Compassion in Dying’s brand project, one of the first things that was done was to commission a semiotic analysis. Semiotics is the study of cultural signs and symbols, and semiotic analysis is a deeper look into the unconscious cultural patterns that shape our behaviour and responses to textual messages or imagery.
This looked at how the subject of death and dying was written about and how that was changing over time, looking at traditional themes, dominant themes and emerging trends. Insights that helped provide a starting point from which to evolve the brand and find its place in modern culture and society.
One of the more traditional themes was ‘medical maximalism’. This refers to the dominance of a medical model in which absolutely everything is done to keep a person alive – regardless of wider considerations and choices around their dying process. The scope for autonomy, choice and preference on the part of the dying person is narrowed – the dying process is medicalised, rather than treated as social, spiritual or emotional. There is also little scope for a sense of dying as a process or journey – a transition with different stages – and less scope for a person to be able to influence or shape it.
In dominant culture, the focus shifts away from the passive patient (medical maximalism). There’s a new sense of individual self-confidence, assertiveness and empowerment. The individual gets their own voice and is encouraged to be assertive around their end-of-life care and experience. There’s also growing awareness of cultural diversity – it’s about recognising social and cultural diversity in dying and respecting different customs and traditions.
There’s also a move in emergent culture to demystify dying and the choices which surround it. The language surrounding this demystification is provocatively pragmatic and down-to-earth. The emergent ethos is that thinking about death is a life-long pursuit – it’s not just for terminally ill people or those in advanced old age. We need to integrate death into our lives – engaging with it on an ongoing basis, not shelving it until it’s staring us in the face. Thinking about dying is everyone’s business, no matter what life stage you are at.
A dominant theme that emerged from the analysis is around individualism. The individual is at the centre of the decision-making process – with choices coming from their own sense of volition as an autonomous decision-maker. But the mechanics of choice-making are becoming more of a shared process, in which the idea and language of ‘conversation’ play a vital role. Talking with loved ones, as well as with professionals, is coming to be an essential part of the way the end of life is approached.
These trends were applied to brand strategy positioning concepts ready for audience research.
Use audience insight to inform brand language
The Compassion in Dying team are fascinated by how the language we choose can influence people’s perception of death and dying. So, when we conducted audience research to inform our new brand, we saw an opportunity to explore the public’s views of the language around death, dying and advance care planning.
Looking at our brand through the eyes of the people we support has hugely impacted the language we use. We discovered that some language choices can reinforce unhelpful myths about the end of life and create barriers to accessing services. Whereas other language can help establish the benefits of advance care planning (although we found people prefer the phrase, ‘recording your wishes’) and help us move away from the notion of death being a ‘taboo’. Many people want to shape a new, more open discussion about death and dying.
We spoke to people we’d supported before, people who knew of us, those we thought may need us in the future and professionals working around the end of life and in primary care to inform our thinking. And using qualitative and quantitative research including in-depth interviews, focus groups, and online surveys we gained valuable insight and a robust set of data.
It was absolutely critical to involve our wide-ranging audiences and to explore language with them. Because if we’re going to enable as many people as possible to consider and record their end-of-life wishes, we need to use language that resonates with people who don’t know anything about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
Apply what your research tells you
Through our research, we learnt that people want to move away from euphemisms and the language of taboo. The people we spoke to welcome a more vocal, pioneering approach to death. They want something that counteracts the silence surrounding dying, which they see as negative.
The term ‘good death’ had begun to emerge within our sector and so we were really keen to explore it. Those who work in palliative care and end-of-life policy have put a lot of thought into what makes a good death. It is at the heart of what the hospice movement aims to achieve, and it consists of different things for different people. What a ‘good death’ looks like for each individual can form the basis of important conversations with them about end-of-life planning.
So how does this look in practice…
We found ‘good death’ must be explained for it to be motivating as people told us when we used the phrase it was an oxymoron. But crucially, ‘good death’ IS engaging IF it is followed by an explanation: A good life should include a good death. In a place you choose, with the people who matter. Having the care and treatments you want, and not the ones you don’t.
Our research identified a number of barriers and benefits to someone beginning the process of making an advance decision (living will).
In particular, there were concerns that the process sounds fixed, and they might change their mind in future, Our new brand stresses that recording your wishes is not fixed, you can change it to suit you: you can record and revisit your wishes whenever you want, for free.
Focusing on the benefits of recording your wishes can overcome the barriers to doing it. The most significant of the benefits we researched was the impact on family. So we are reflecting this in the copy we use. Like this: Planning can make things easier for family and loved ones. If you wait until it’s too late, medical professionals may make important decisions without knowing what matters to you.
Using semiotic analysis and researching different brand positioning concepts has enabled us to establish a new way to speak about being in control at the end of life with confidence. It is something that can be applied to any cause and we encourage other charities to think about in terms of how the people they support relate to the messages they communicate. Why not give it a go for yourself and see how it can help you develop your brand in a way that reflects how your audience feel about the big issues too.
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