It is always dangerous to pigeonhole patients into one broad category because you run the risk of alienating them, as evidenced by a recent New York Times article that illustrates that not all women with cancer want to be categorized as “cancer survivors.”

Whether we’re communicating with a patient who is undergoing treatment for a life-threatening disease — or suffering from a chronic disease he or she must learn to live with — patient self-perceptions can be diverse. If we’re not mindful of this, instead of making patients feel connected and completely understood, our communications can actually be divisive.

It is such a common tendency for pharma marketers and healthcare providers to assign labels for patients (“arthritis sufferer” and “diabetic” are two that quickly come to mind). There is clearly a need to step back and remember that behind every label is a person who we need to connect with on an emotional level. We also need to avoid the pitfall of the false assumption that we all see things the same way and behave in the same way.

I often see patient brochures in physicians’ waiting rooms that open with the statement, “If you have X disease, you are not alone.” While true, there is no warmth or energy to it. By talking to patients and learning the range of emotions they may be feeling, you can then craft communications in ways that can truly resonate.

Lumping professionals under one label is just as dangerous. Healthcare providers are people first, which means they have diverse self-perceptions and emotional triggers, too.

I tell my teams that in branding, assumptions are the mother of all screw-ups. One exercise is to write down all of our assumptions about a target audience so we’re fully cognizant of our preconceived belief systems. Then we set about to see how right — or how wrong — we really are.

The only labels pharma marketers should pay attention to are the ones that provide instructions for washing clothes. There’s a lesson there, too, because if we make assumptions, we may end up having to buy a new wardrobe.