What's in a brand? A lot, as it turns out, and the importance of branding is only growing in the healthcare space, particularly in an era defined by consumerism and choice.
It's a new world for many providers, who typically haven't had to put much thought into their public image and outreach. But the healthcare industry of old is evaporating, making way for a marketplace that looks more like retail.
That represents a challenge, but also an opportunity, because providers who concoct an appropriate branding strategy are poised to capture a larger share of the market.
The opportunity for brand in healthcare is driven by the challenge of increased consumer choice. That's something to which hospitals and health systems haven't typically been accustomed.
"In the healthcare world, we've historically operated with control of the entire experience," said Justin Wartell, managing director of Monigle. "We tell somebody, 'Go here, do this, go see this specialist,' and historically people have done it.
"Given the changes in healthcare and the reframing of the consumer experience … the power the consumer has is much more significant. Any time you see consumer orientation in the sense of control growing, it puts the onus on brands to start thinking about the consumer instead of just thinking about themselves."
This creates the need for providers to develop a new type of "muscle memory" when it comes to mimicking the best practices of other industries. Consumers want to interact with brands like they would interact with Netflix from a content perspective, or Amazon from a shopping perspective. It's putting pressure on organizations to function like retailers.
"Consumer packaged goods companies are especially effective at gaining end user insights very quickly," said Wartell, "really challenging the boundaries of data collection and market research, and the speed and effectiveness of it.
"Oil, gas, financial services -- folks in those industries bring to light kind of a pushing-the-boundary perspective, since they understand how highly-regulated industries are working. It's less an industry-specific translation of skills and more what those industries have leveraged or amplified in terms of capability."
For a health system to have a successful brand, there are certain essential components they need.
First, it's not just about having an eye-popping logo (although that can help). A true brand, said Wartell, needs to be broader and more purpose-oriented, and create understanding of what the organization is all about -- not just from a consumer standpoint but also to the internal stakeholders.
Second, it's crucial to truly understand the audience, and commit to the insight generation and data collection process so you can define the pillars of your brand. Know what consumers want from you.
Third is to ensure the brand permeates every facet of the experience, both for the consumers are those who work in the organization.
"This is probably the hardest area to implement," said Wartell. "It's not just how we look from a logo standpoint. Our behavior should influence how we train our folks, how we evaluate the impact of our people. It should impact our digital experiences and our physical experiences."
MEETING THE CHALLENGE
The first step in a successful branding or rebranding strategy is to rally the leadership team around the idea; this sets the stage for what the organization wants to accomplish. Everyone needs to be brought on board, and a good way to do that, especially at the leadership level, is to emphasize the business impact a successful brand can have.
"Brands should drive business performance," said Wartell. "That applies whether you're for-profit or not-for-profit. Ultimately you've got to fund the mission, and you have to be profitable when it comes to delivering this brand."
One of the most successful rebranding campaigns Wartell has been a part of was the re-naming and reimagining of Northwell Health, one of the largest health systems in the northeast.
Formerly North Shore-Long Island Jewish, the health system had a problem, albeit a good one. While the system was already large, 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.
With the large number of hospitals in the system all coalescing around a shared sense of purpose and unity, Northwell grew to become the 14th largest health system in the country. 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.
"The market in which it operates is one of the few across the country that has a high degree of value and focus around innovation and the latest technology," said Wartell. "Most markets in the U.S. don't value technology and innovation in that way. Very few brands were taking that position in the marketplace.
"The brand strategy pivoted around defining the future of healthcare. The brand strategy was all about that forward-leaning orientation, and it worked because consumers value innovation so much, but also because all the stakeholders, from the CEO down to the nurses, cared about that leading-edge orientation."
Other organizations have initiated similar rebranding strategies. Florida-based Adventist Health System is embarking on a system-wide rebranding that will have the system known as AdventHealth starting next year. Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, which until recently primarily covered the Bangor and "downeast" area of the state, renamed itself on October 1, in a branding move meant to reflect the growing scope of its services and attract digital-savvy patients.
And in 2016, Ascension Health reorganized its areas of expertise into two new divisions and renamed some of the hospitals in the Ascension Michigan health network in a rebranding move of its own.
Simplicity is key. A convoluted message won't connect with consumers, and it will make it more difficult to get senior leadership on board. There's a strong correlation between the likelihood of brand success and the commitment of leadership to the idea.
And the sooner health systems get on board, the better, because Wartell predicts that consumerism is here to stay.
"Ten years out we're looking at a situation where the power of consumer choice will only increase," he said. "As a result, the organizations which have built clarity around what they stand for will be able to drive more meaningful choice in the marketplace."