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How Northwell Health and Ascension executed massive rebranding campaigns and what other health systems can learn

A solid and forward-looking strategy, extensive internal education and engagement, rebranding cheerleaders, celebrating milestones helped drive them.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

There comes a time when many businesses, hospitals included, realize they need a new brand. Northwell Health and Ascension, for instance, have recently undergone rebranding initiatives and come out on the other side stronger for having done so.

We interviewed top executives involved with the rebranding efforts of both hospitals about why they decided to make the change, how they created and executed on a strategy to make it happen, and lessons learned that other hospitals can benefit from understanding before they embark on a similar initiative.

Northwell's name game

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For Northwell Health, the rebranding of the system which was formerly known as North Shore Long Island Jewish Health system was a very long time coming. At least 8 years to be exact. That's how long its senior leadership had been talking about it. Their former name was cumbersome, often mispronounced or botched up in some way by news organizations, other healthcare organizations and the public.

Terry Lynam, Northwell's communications director, said even employees messed it up at times. And while the name itself was known inside of the New York metro area, elsewhere in the country it wasn't recognizable.

Name game aside, Lynam said the system also wanted a brand that reflected its greater mission not just to treat people, but to help them be and stay well. Furthermore, they weren't just a group of hospitals anymore. Northwell had grown into a behemoth with 23 hospitals, 685 outpatient practices and a vast network of long-term care, rehab, home care, hospice and urgent care services as well as its own school of medicine, school of graduate nursing/PA studies and research institutions. Executives wanted a brand that reflected all that it had become.

Northwell hired a branding firm to help it come up with the new name and considered hundreds of possibilities.

"In this competitive healthcare environment, the need to be highly visible and clearly understood both within and beyond the New York metropolitan area requires strong name recognition which is why our Board ended up voting unanimously to rebrand as Northwell Health," Lynam said.

'One Ascension'

Ascension Health also had a defined strategy behind its rebranding, which was systemwide and included all 2,700 sites of care in the $24 billion system. It was a three-year undertaking that is all but done now, said Nick Ragone, chief marketing and communications officer for Ascension.

Like Northwell, the final decision to rebrand came after years of planning and discussion about the why and the how. Ragone started with the system 5 years ago when it was just beginning that journey after Ascension leadership decided that the system would evolve from a holding company, basically a system of separate autonomous health systems, into more of an operating company. To accomplish that, the system needed just one brand to be more efficient.

The undertaking became known as the "one Ascension journey."

"We felt like in order to make this journey real for associates and our communities you needed to walk into a site of care that said Ascension on it," Ragone explained. "That's why we did it."

Both systems made the decision that despite the implementation of new brands, the historic names of their facilities would be preserved. The names of individual hospitals remained the same and the Northwell name appeared with the original name. Ascension hospital names started with the Ascension brand followed by the local name already in place.

"Keeping the names of the hospitals was in recognition of their unique histories within their respective communities because many of them date back, in some cases, 100-plus years," Lynam said. "Others have been in existence for 50, 60 even 80 years."

Laying the groundwork because brands are emotional

Before any signs went up, there were months if not a year or two of intense marketing and communication both internal and external, engaging with all stakeholders and employees on why the rebranding was happening and making a major push to get everyone on board before moving forward.

Ragone called it their "inside out process"-- 2 years dedicated to explaining to 165,000 associates why they were making this transformation. He said for something this pivotal, you don't just send out a memo.

"Brands are very local and very emotional," he explained. "The associates and the community are very attached to those local brands. So you need to overcommunicate why you're doing this."

Once they got buy-in from associates, they started the actual branding processes: changing their name legally, new signs, changing email addresses, consolidating websites, new badges and lanyards, business cards etc. That, he said, was the easier part.

The harder piece is the internal communication. "You need full internal alignment before you can get to the external piece."

Lynam said Northwell leadership also recognized early on that there was a lot of close personal association with the old name, especially among employees who had been with the system for decades.

Northwell leadership brought in a "brand bus," an actual bus that they used for a tour where they went to all facilities and engaged employees about the rebranding to underscore the reasons for the massive change. By the time it officially launched in January, there was full awareness of why it was happening and improved acceptance of the new name.

While Lynam said Northwell saw some pushback, Ragone said Ascension's issue was that stakeholders actually wanted to see the rebranding move faster, including Sister Lois Bush, former Chief Mission Integration Officer for Ascension Wisconsin.

"She took me by the lapel and said 'are you the young man in charge of our brand?' I said yes. She told me to 'just write a memo and be done with it.' She wanted us to go faster," Ragone said. "I told her it didn't really work like that."

Getting down to brass tacks … and signage

Both systems said rebranding was a costly endeavor, albeit one that was well worth it. Lynam said the signage alone on all hospitals, outpatient facilities and vehicles took a couple years to change and cost millions of dollars.

Introducing the Northwell name to consumers via marketing and advertising also carried a hefty price tag.

"Those early years were where there was well over ten million dollars a year spent on marketing and advertising to get traction for the new name. That doesn't include the cost of signage etc."

For them, it came down to trying to succeed in a competitive environment and the importance of being clearly understood and highly visible, especially in the NY area where they are competing against iconic institutions like NYU Langone, Mt. Sinai and New York Presbyterian.

But it's been three years now with the new name and Lynam said you don't hear the old name anymore and the focus groups they have seen show a good recognition rate.

While they haven't released any exact numbers, Ragone also said the signage for them was the most expensive part, garnering 70-80 percent of the cost of the overall campaign. But it's worth it to have accomplished the goal of giving associates the feeling of truly being part of Ascension and owning the concept that they are "one Ascension."

They also feel the new brand is more consumer-facing, which is important in an age where people have more choice, more information and more access. Ascension needed a strong identifiable brand and to create a unified consistent experience.

Finally, they also have a growing voice in Washington D.C. to advocate for things they think are important like Medicaid expansion, lowering the cost of generic drugs and advocating for the poor and vulnerable.

"We are speaking now as one voice," Ragone said.

It's not something you do on a whim

The road to rebranding can have its pitfalls. Lynam said one thing to be prepared for is the onerous process of trademarking a new name once you've narrowed your choices down. He said they went through hundreds of possibilities but whenever they tried to find out if a name was taken, it was.

"Just like naming a kid, selecting a new organizational name is a subjective process and not everyone will like it initially," Lynam said. To quiet skeptics, leadership pulled together a team of internal brand ambassadors to push it and gave them key talking points and did formal presentations.

Telling and retelling your brand story to as many people as possible is critically important.

Don't get too "hung up" on signage either. Lynam said they put up temporary signage first recognizing it would take a while to get the permanent ones up.

Ragone agreed, advising that systems allow 18-24 months of just internal alignment and then the same amount of time for the external piece.

You should also celebrate the converting of sites because it's a big deal. Ragone said they had ceremonies when a site rebranding was completed to include the staff and community.

Most importantly, rebranding is not something you do on a whim.

The evolution of Northwell as a system and its growth made it more and more apparent that a rebranding was needed.

"You have to understand it's going to take time," Lynam said. "It's not going happen overnight and you have to get buy-in internally before you try and push it through."

Ask what are you trying to accomplish, said Ragone, and if it is just to have a name on the building that isn't enough. There needs to be an underlying strategy not just a rebrand. Ask what the strategy is and how rebranding will drive that goal.

As for Sister Louis, Ragone said she is quite pleased at how the rebranding campaign has ultimately unfolded and the positive changes it fueled, lapel-grabbing aside, proving the importance of taking your time, overcommunicating the "why and the how" and celebrating the victories as they come.

"Sister Louis," Ragone said, "has been our number one brand ambassador and cheerleader."

Focus on The Business of Healthcare

In December, we take a deep dive into what top business decision makers need to know about digital transformation.

Twitter: @BethJSanborn
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