Shifting brand strategies for cancer survivors

Published on October 16, 2017

Pulling on a particular pair of boots, sipping a special tea as a daily ritual, or curling up in premium sheets can have a powerful effect on shaping a cancer survivor’s identity.
Bauer College marketing professor Vanessa Patrick, Ph.D., MBA, investigates this phenomenon in “Mastering Survivorship: How Brands Facilitate the Transformation to Heroic Survivor,” published in the Journal of Business Research.

Patrick and co-author Candice Hollenbeck, Ph.D., have worked on a series of research papers investigating coping strategies that ease a cancer survivor’s transition to survivorship. In this research paper, they used a qualitative methodology to investigate how female cancer survivors utilize brands to engineer a heroic self-transformation from victim to survivor.

“Brands symbolically reinforced the heroic archetype and provided a means for externalizing control over unwanted circumstances and encumbering counterforces,” they wrote.

Using face-to-face interviews supplemented with information collected from survivors’ blogs, the researchers learned that even choosing something as utilitarian as an olive oil dispenser can become a significant marker that symbolizes life before and after cancer. One interviewee explained that she had stopped using the cheaper, off the shelf container for olive oil, replacing it with a beautiful clear vessel. In that way, the bottle became far more than a utilitarian kitchen item, functioning for her as a “daily reminder that she is purifying her body,” the researchers reported.

Yet another respondent shared that she felt powerful and invincible in a particular pair of boots, a healthy state of mind for a recovering cancer survivor.

The findings are critical for women – and the businesses and organizations that serve them. In previous research, women have been found to be more likely than men to deny feelings associated with disappointment and fear, and less likely than men to absorb cultural cues for traditionally masculine warrior traits such as strength, bravery, and courage.

“While cancer survival for men is portrayed as a test of pre-existing character, for women it is a significant identity transformation,” the authors reported.

“Brands must become a sustained and rewarding presence in the lives of consumers,” the researchers noted.

Creating a new identity as a cancer survivor is multi-faceted, but a broad implication for brand managers has to do with the importance of being aware of culturally embedded archetypes, and how consumers use brands to create and sustain identities according to those archetypes.

Patrick wistfully recounted why she got interested in studying cancer survivors.

“My mom was diagnosed with third stage lung cancer in 2009 and was in remission for three years before she succumbed to this terrible disease in 2013. I collaborated with my friend and co-author Candice to work on a series of studies to help me make sense of what this disease does to people and how it affects their lives and the lives of those around them. My cancer survival papers are dedicated to my mom’s memory…I think she would be very proud.”

By Julie Bonnin