Hospital Branding

Hospital branding is the pits: A look at messaging

Do you believe hospitals care about patients? Do you believe doctors and nurses are excellent at their jobs? How about advancing the care of patients? Whether you believe those or not, welcome to the world of hospital branding.

These clichés are the hallmarks of current hospital branding. Stealing Share strategists looked closely at the market and what did they find? That hospitals, big and small, carry the same messages, images and even feel. They blur together to form a blob of marketing that leaves patients choosing based on everything else other than brand.

Location, clinical reputation, referrals and the like determine what hospital you go to, without audiences having any emotional bind to it. How could they? If one hospital says, “We care,” how can anybody choose a nearby one that says the same thing?

OK, we get it. Hospitals and their staffs care. But no more than other hospitals. It’s like a bank saying we have friendly employees. OK. But, for that to be a reason to choose, a competing bank would have to say it has nasty employees. That’d be the only way there could be a choice.

Otherwise, it’s just a bank and all those marketing dollars pay for squat. With that in mind, our strategists ask this question. What’s the point of hospital branding and marketing if they do nothing unique to recruit patients or even doctors?

The hospital branding market

The market itself breaks up into a few different patterns. There’s non-profits and for-profits. There’s hospital systems and there’s individual hospitals. And there’s teaching hospitals and those that aren’t. But does anyone really care? All news is local, right? You only care about the one nearby.

That’s why you’ll see some examples of hospital branding tout their local flavor. Sutter Health, a non-profit out of Sacramento, advertises its 26 hospitals by saying, “Proudly caring for Northern California.”

Or better (or worse) yet, Norwood Hospital of the Steward Health Care System in Boston claims, “World class health care where you live.”

But no hospital branding message is more clearly expressed than one that boils down to “We care.”

Novant Health, headquartered here in North Carolina, unveiled a new campaign around “Making Healthcare Remarkable” by showing how much its medical professionals care.

How different is that from UnityPoint, a 15-hospital system in Iowa?

Now, of course, no one is choosing between Novant and UnityPoint, but they are representative of the entire market. Check hospitals in the same market and you get similar messaging, with the only difference measured in production budgets.

How do patients choose?

In the absence of meaning, factors you can only tangentially control create business. You wonder why all those pharmacy chains build stores at the same general location? Because they don’t own meaningful brands. They just compete for being on the right side of the street as it pertains to traffic patterns.

With hospital branding being so flat, those kinds of factors determine the success or failure of a hospital or hospital system. You are nearby. Patients are referred to that hospital. A patient’s doctor is associated with a specific hospital. A hospital owns a certain specialty or expertise. And so on.

You also have to remember that patients often choose hospitals in the spur of the moment, rather than a long consideration. Hospitals are low involvement brands – until you need one.

Because of that, a hospital brand needs to be understood immediately. And it needs to resonate. Because so few hospital branding is designed to create preference, those other factors loom larger.

That’s all well and good, but that means patients are just as likely to move onto another hospital for the same reasons. Hospitals aren’t capturing the patient emotionally. They just hope to trap ‘em, like an airline affinity program.

With that in mind, consider this. According to a recent survey, the median marketing budget for a single hospital is $3.1 million. What’s all that cash used for? It doesn’t create preference. It only creates awareness, which a hospital should already have based on its presence in the community.

What is spent on hospital branding?

So let’s take a look at what all those hospital branding dollars produce. Only a few themes emerge because everybody uses the same ones.

Who says they’re transforming health care?

Raise your hand, Aurora Health Care (13 hospitals) of Milwaukee. “Reimaging Health. Transforming Care.”

Northwell Health (21 hospitals) of Long Island. “Raising the standard of health care.”

Novant’s “Making healthcare remarkable” and so on.

How is any of that hospital branding emotional? For one thing, that theme defines the hospital, not the customer (patient).

To create preference, you must define who the customers are when they use your brand. If you represent a self-reflection of the target audience emotionally, then that audience is incapable of choosing someone else. Otherwise, it would mean choosing against your self. Saying you are improving healthcare just means you are…a hospital.

Are there any unique brands?

There are a few hospital systems trying something unique. But very few.

Banner Health (20 hospitals, Phoenix) ushers in a recent campaign around the idea of “breathe.” Essentially saying you the patient can breathe easier because we (Banner) make healthcare easier.

However, it’s really not all that different. It still comes down to “we care” in an emotional sense. Also, it’s just an advertising campaign. It’s not a definition of a brand. Oh, and is “making it easier” really what patients are looking for? Maybe. But only quantitative research would demonstrate that. We’re dubious that believing health care is hard is the highest emotional intensity in the market.

To be frank, the only hospital branding that intrigues us happens in San Francisco. Where Dignity Health and its 36 hospitals actually mean something.

The unique brand of Dignity Health

First, let’s examine the name. Dignity Health. Most hospitals and hospital systems are named after an area with “Health Care” tacked on such as Intermountain Health Care (17 hospitals, Salt Lake City). Or an association with a church, such as the many that are part of the Catholic Church. (Catholic Health Initiatives generates more than $14 billion in revenue.) Or hospital branding that defines the hospital not the patient.

That’s what makes Dignity Health so interesting. Its name aligns itself with an emotional belief in the market. That you lose your dignity, control and/or humanness when you enter a hospital system. Stealing Share’s own experience with hospitals says the leaders at Dignity Health have some big cajones by actually naming its system after a belief.

Hospital brandingDignity Health also feels differently. Its current campaign uses viral video to demonstrate human kindness, a direct relation to dignity. You could interpret this as sidling up to “we care.” But Dignity Health’s hospital branding makes it real. Without the brand, it would feel like a one-off. The brand puts the advertising in context.

One other point about Dignity Health. Its color scheme is different than the rest, with its orange and white. Most of the medical profession is blue. And, while that may seem insignificant, everything you do is a means to differentiate yourself from the competition. (We’re not too wild about the logo, though.)

Sutter Health, mentioned before as serving northern California, at least is green. But its first message on its website is “Care where, when and how you need it.” Ugh. Dignity Health’s is “Find a doctor who puts humanity in health care” is better.

Where does hospital branding go from here?

Hospitals need to do the hard work that comes from building meaningful brands. First, the ones that climb out of their current ruts of same old, same old have the most opportunity. That takes leadership open to change. (Think Dignity Health.) Too often, players in relatively stable markets would rather do nothing than venture into something that’s potentially much more profitable.

More profitable, we say? Let’s consider this. One of the reasons why hospital leadership is generally reluctant to change is they mistakenly believe current target audiences will leave after a change.

That’s a crock of shit. With the competition marketing bland messages, patients have no reason to switch. In fact, improving your hospital branding makes them more adhered to you because you’ve made your brand about them. You now become more important to them.

The next steps require objective processes. No more brands about care, improving healthcare or even medical excellence. Those are the clichés of the market and are, therefore, ignored. (And they’re about the hospital, not the patient.)

You must uncover the highest emotional intensity among target audiences, and align your brand with that intensity. To do that, you must put everything on the table. Your name, your promises, all of it.

You need quantitative research that asks different questions than your usual usage and attitude studies. Then you must develop a brand strategy that’s single-minded. Not one of those brand trees or circles that end up just confusing everybody. You need to find the single most persuasive thing you can you say to incite change and preference.

Few are willing to go that far. But the ones that do find themselves with more than just patients. They find brand ambassadors.

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