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23 Bloodlust: a case study of theranos and the embodiment of a brand’s values in a chief executive
  1. Michael Denham
  1. Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons


Objective Once a Silicon Valley startup valued at over $9 billion, Theranos aimed to provide low-cost, rapid blood testing performed with small samples of blood directly to consumers, ultimately hoping to jumpstart a new wave of preventive medicine. However, the blood diagnostics firm is now defunct, having been accused by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission of conducting an ‘elaborate, years-long fraud.’ Theranos’s fall was largely the result of the efforts of whistleblowers and John Carreyrou, a journalist at The Wall Street Journal and author of Bad Blood, which examines the company’s elaborate scam. However, its rise is less well understood; the logistics of its deception seem much clearer in hindsight, but much of the messaging and grand visions touted by Theranos’s CEO, despite being iterations of phenomena common in Silicon Valley, have remain unexamined in sociological research. Because sociology of expectations literature has thus far lacked extensive analysis of the promotional activities of individual firms, this research aims to contribute to this field by examining the role of the celebrity executive in promoting and embodying the brand of a firm. The primary focus of this research is to deconstruct the messages and mechanisms by which Holmes embodied the values central to Theranos and its mission.

Methods This goal is carried out in the form of a case study analyzing 221 articles discussing Holmes and Theranos, ten public speeches and interviews given by Holmes, and 304 tweets posted by Holmes’s Twitter account. Drawing from literature on cults of personality, promissory capitalism, and the sociology of Silicon Valley, I uncover how former CEO Elizabeth Holmes used her role to represent the anticipatory nature of Theranos and its ethos.

Results I examine four main themes as they appear in Holmes’s external marketing: consumer sovereignty and rights language, consumer empowerment, timeliness and prevention, and persona of social transformation.

Conclusions After exploring these four themes and offering a brief normative critique of the firm’s values, I conclude by suggesting that, despite Theranos’s former ‘unicorn’ status, the framing of its vision and marketing tactics employed by Holmes as the company’s CEO were far less unique. Because such framing may have a significant impact on the way in which a culture of overdiagnosis is fostered, this marketing deserves to be critically examined by all relevant stakeholders in the diagnostics biotechnology industry.

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