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What's in a name? Northwell Health renaming shows power of brand in consumer-driven healthcare

A growing list of health systems have turned to marketing to transform their public images.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling (photo by Jennifer Romonyske)Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling (photo by Jennifer Romonyske)

The former North Shore-Long Island Jewish health system had a problem, albeit a good one. While the system was already among the biggest in New York, the "Long Island" moniker was keeping it from broader name recognition beyond the boundaries of that suburban area. To fix that, CEO Michael Dowling led his team through an exhaustive rebranding process that pushed the system's marketing muscle and leaned on the past experiences of other major system rebrandings.

Because in an era where patients are now consumers, brand matters in healthcare.

"The old name localized us as being too Long Island-focused, when the bulk of our organization has expanded beyond Long Island," said Dowling. "It became very confusing to people. Some people would refer to us as the North Shore system, some as the LIJ system, some as the North Shore Jewish system."

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In September 2015, the system changed its name to Northwell Health.

[Also: Northwell Health, formerly North Shore-LIJ, to spend millions on rebranding, chief says]

"It's more than just the name," said Dowling. "The name is important, but it allows us to tell our story better. We're the largest hospital system and largest private employer in New York state. We've been pretty silent in the marketing world for a few years in anticipation of a new name."

It may seem that marketing should be low on the list of Northwell's concerns. The health system is the 14th largest in the nation, encompassing 21 hospitals and about 450 outpatient physician practices. In all, the system includes more than 6,600 beds, employs more than 13,000 nurses and is affiliated with more than 10,000 physicians across a wide swath of practices and specialties.

It also oversees CareConnect, the state's first health system-based insurance company, which generated about $93 million in premium revenues in the first six months of 2015 alone. In that year, the system's total operating revenue was $4.2 billion.

Northwell didn't grow to that size, however, by ignoring the marketplace.

"We're in a competitive marketplace," said Dowling. "The consumers out there make choices based on what they believe you are. They develop loyalty to one organization or another. They choose where they want to go based on the transparency, metrics, patient outcomes, patient satisfaction data … in many ways, like any other company. If you don't earn the business, you don't deserve to get it."

In addition to consumer interest, industry-wide changes in reimbursement drove the rebranding as state and federal policy started shifting healthcare to a payment model that penalizes hospitals when they lose patients to other providers. A name with some marketability was imperative.

The system's board unanimously approved "Northwell" after deliberations that bled into last summer.

"The Northwell name is a made-up name," said Dowling. "It keeps a little piece of our past -- the 'North' -- which signifies direction: We're going north. The 'well' part of it is all about an increasing orientation in healthcare in general, but also for our business, and how we can take care of people and their health and keep them being well."

It isn't an easy pivot, moving from a well-established name to one that executives made up. But Northwell's not the first health system to undergo an identity overhaul.

"A number of health systems over the last few years have rebranded, and a major one was Dignity Health," said Dowling. "It's a very large system on the West coast. It was known as Catholic Healthcare West. Today, nobody refers to it as Catholic West at all. It's known as Dignity."

Learning from Dignity

The rebranding of Catholic Healthcare West as Dignity Health didn't happen overnight, though, executives said.

"A name is something that I think carries an organization forward," said Mark Viden, Dignity's vice president of brand marketing. "The employees have to believe in what you're doing. We felt dignity is our core value."

Viden said the "Dignity" name captured the spirit of the organization's Catholic roots without referring to a specific religion. It was an important consideration, especially since Dignity markets both Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals.

"It's a real word, it's a word that has resonance within the organization, and it really does capture the things that we're all about," said Viden. "As we went about changing our name, we wanted to accurately reflect this history of compassion, this attention to really listening to patients, to providing the types of healthcare services people want."

But Viden said the switch wasn't easy.

"Changing a name is one of the more difficult things you can do in a healthcare organization," said Viden. "Names have meaning to people. It's important to our constituents, especially the sisters who brought healthcare ministries to our organization. It was important that we chose a name that reflected their passion, their history, and their community.

[Also: Hospital marketing departments expand with focus on data, social]

A major rebranding is generally worth the time, because it can directly affect a healthcare organization's efforts to grow and expand. Marketing is essential in an industry increasingly swept along by consumerism, which is why a special committee established by Dignity put the hours into explaining to stakeholders why the switch was so necessary.

"Marketing sophistication in healthcare is more important than it has ever been," said Viden. "In the past, healthcare decisions were made primarily by employers and governmental agencies. Consumers are now more responsible for making their healthcare decisions, and we want them to select a healthcare plan that has Dignity Health in it, which is different than how it was in the past. We have to reach the individual through a wide range of traditional and nontraditional media."

To that end, Dignity adopted an ad campaign it dubbed "Hello Human Kindness." Prior to the rebranding, hospitals in the network each had their own specific ad campaigns. When the switch took hold, the system sought to unify its marketing initiatives, and to do it in a way that eschewed some of the tired bromides of healthcare advertising: the men and women in lab coats, the quasi-parental admonishments to have one's heart checked.

The result was a multi-platform blitz that appealed to people's emotions. One example is the messaging adopted for its cardiovascular program: "We care for your heart so you can love longer."

Big and small

While Dignity and Northwell are among an elite crowd for their size, it isn't just the larger health systems who stand to benefit from more concerted branding efforts. The smaller providers can see a boost as well.

That's been the case for the University of Vermont Health Network, a two-state system operating in Vermont and northern New York. Formerly known as Fletcher Allen Health Care, the group decided a couple of years ago that it wanted to focus more on operational and clinical integration, and the name "Fletcher Allen" was deemed a less-than-ideal starting point for creating a whole new brand.

There was the usual round of talks with physicians, staff and medical teams, of course. All agreed that it would be best to choose a name that sounded more like a hospital system and less like an insurance company. Settling on that name was trickier business.

But the system had something going for it: an affiliation with the University of Vermont Medical Center. Associating the system with an academic facility might be beneficial in terms of a renewed marketing push, but executives wanted to be sure.

They decided to ask the public directly.

"We talked to 550 people in northern New York and Vermont -- what they liked, what they didn't, did they know about the association, would that make a difference," said President and CEO John Brumstead. "What we found is if people knew their community hospital was tied to the university, there was a significantly higher tendency to recommend their local hospital."

That's what they were hoping to hear.

"The idea is we want people to keep their care local," said Brumstead. "That kind of drove us in that direction right away. If people can get care that's closer to home, it's better for them. We needed to let people better understand, quickly, the services that we provide. There is a consumer benefit to that."

It's a testament, he said, to how important branding has become in healthcare. In a fragmented industry increasingly dominated by consumer choice, a health system needs to more forcefully make its case to the public.

That may require marketing strategies that mimic those of non-health entities, like Apple or Coca-Cola, or even traditional retailers.

"Retail is learning healthcare faster than healthcare is learning retail," said Brumstead. "You've got the Wal-Marts and CVS's of the world, and they're starting to offer outpatient services that used to be provided by primary care and the hospitals. People are eating away at the margins there. We don't want to lose out to someone who has developed a better brand strategy," he said.

"If you don't have a brand that has some meaning, you're not even in the conversation."

The big game

On Feb. 7, the nation tuned in to watch the Carolina Panthers take on the Denver Broncos on sports' biggest stage. Super Bowl 50 drew an average audience of 111.9 million, the third most-watched television program in American history. As usual, corporations climbed over themselves to produce water-cooler advertising, salivating at the prospect of cashing in on the exposure.

In regional markets, a commercial appeared in the second quarter featuring footage of mothers embracing their newborn babies for the first time. Video for the spot was shot seconds after the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day, and was filmed at Northwell hospitals. It highlighted the health system's name change, but it also marked a change in the way the system conveyed its message to consumers.

"We are trying to take a different approach with our ads than other healthcare providers that feature testimonials of patients who've recovered from disease," said Ramon Soto, Northwell's senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer. "Where others may see them as just newborn babies, we see people whom we will be looking after and keeping healthy their whole lives. It's a much more positive way to tap into that emotion."

[Also: Northwell commercials to air during Super Bowl]

The first version of the ad, broadcast on YouTube hours after the births on Jan. 1, had generated about 2 million views through Northwell's social media outreach by early February.

If health systems need to start adopting some of the strategies of more traditional corporate advertisers, then technology will be key in reaching the desired audience, said Dowling.

"(Technology) had to be a part of the overall strategy," he said. "We deliver about 42,000 babies every year in our health system. How do you develop a lifetime loyalty with those families subsequent to the birth of a baby? You have to be communicating with them on a regular basis, so they know you are their partner for the remainder of their lifespan. That's how you draw the whole family in."

But while you should always be communicating, you also need to know when to listen, said Dowling.

"We have to be responsive of consumer wants," he said. "We have to get away from this idea that healthcare providers are going to tell you what to do because we're knowledgeable and you're not. That whole model is changing. Consumers are becoming very knowledgeable. There's a lot to learn from other businesses, and we're working on that."

Inspiration can strike from anywhere: General Electric, Ritz-Carlton, even aviation companies -- anyone who's breaking new ground and innovating, he said.

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Northwell will be spend tens of millions of dollars over the next two to three years on advertising, acquisitions, expanding its ambulatory facilities and spreading its influence over a vast geography.

"We're all doing the same thing," said Dowling. "The particulars may vary by location, because what you can do in Idaho might be very different than what you can do in New York. But the general strategy is very consistent across the board. We share best practices. We learn from each other. If Kaiser Permanente is doing something good on the West Coast, I like to learn about it. The last thing you want to be in this environment is locked in your own little world," Dowling said.

"If you're not willing to change, you're going to be dead. If you're not going to transform, you can write your own obituary."

Twitter: @JELagasse