health care branding

    Health System Branding.


    I worked on the North Shore-LIJ Health System brand strategy about 20 years ago.  Today North Shore is called Northwell Health.  If I did my job correctly, the brand strategy should still be valid.  From everything I’ve seen, it is.  In fact, three ads agencies later, even with a professional yet rudderless ad campaign in place and a goofy tagline (Look North), I still see evidence of the original “system-centric” brand strategy. Some popping up anew after many years.   

    As someone who follows health system brand strategy, I recently came across one (it will remain nameless) for a which brand campaign was launched last fall. On the agency of record website this is what was said about the goals:

     “Integrated creative campaign that would increase system brand awareness and build a positive perception of the organization among the ____ community.”

    I kid you not.  Awareness and positive perception.

    The resultant advertising is beautiful.  Shot in black and white. Great casting. Lovely videography, maybe even cinematography to keep the quality and price up.  But idea?  Ugatz! Strategy? Ugatz!

    What gives advertising a bad name is freeform creativity without an endemic category goal.  The best creative directors want to accomplish something. They want to tell a story. They push for brand strategy.

    Healthcare system branding still has a long way to go.




    Big Data for Life!


    Big data is everywhere. The top three areas I’ve seen it taking hold are: education, healthcare and marketing. On the marketing side, IT budgets used to be the provenance of the LAN, WAN, hardware and software guys. Now that money is controlled by the marketing peeps. (What good are wires and iron, if you can’t do something smart with them?) As for education, we’re on the cusp of using data to better learn how to learn. Or teach, i.e., individualized lesson plans based upon a student’s learning style or where s/he is on the learning curve. Once we figure this out, thanks to data driven assessment and some smart pedagogy, we’re on our way.

    But nowhere is big data to be more impactful than it will be in healthcare. EHRs (electronic health records) also known as ISIL, I mean, EMRs (electronic medical records), are the next big platform battle. As is the case in free enterprise societies, new technologies often develop sloppily. That is, without a clear cut winner to start, the market is like a burlap bag full of cats. In my area of NY, there are 30 electronic health records companies serving physicians, hospitals and labs – very few of which speak to one another. It’s messy. And with the Affordable Care Act facilitating the need for EHRs, the battle is only now starting to occur in earnest.

    Data done well will turn all doctors into good doctors. (Question: Do you know what they call a physician with a C average who graduates med school? Answer: Doctor.)  Big data in healthcare has the ability to make healthcare in America the envy of other nations. Right now it is not. These are exciting times and when the politics wear off, we’ll start to really see some wonderful outcomes. Great docs and great data will make for great patients. And that’s a home run. Peace.



    Life. Giving. Breakthroughs.


    The headline above is the tagline for the extraordinary Brigham and Women’s Hospital, or so it appears on advertising and the website. It reflects a tripartite brand strategy. Maybe 4-partite if you define “giving” two ways. Most hospitals don’t really get branding. They understand the need to fill beds, increase revenue and improve reputation, but don’t really know how. So they establish a marketing board, fill it with retirees who once worked at Clairol, and raise money for an ad campaign. Someone at the new ad agency writes a poor brief and a lazy ad pops out about the latest treatment, a survivor story or an award. All tied up in a tidy little tagline like Life. Giving. Breakthroughs.

    Taglines are claims. Claims that meet at the intersection of what a brand is great at and what consumers want. If you take the periods away from the Brigham and Women’s tagline the strategy is about breakthroughs. Not a bad place to be if you can prove it. New York Presbyterian’s line “Amazing things are happening here” does a better job of making this claim from a poetic sense. But again, the strategy only works when you prove it by sharing amazing things.

    Healthcare, which makes up 18% of the GDP, is the consumer category that needs brand strategy the most yet employs it the least. Here’s a tagline and brand strategy that work. Tell me if you know the brand. “The best cancer care anywhere.”  



    MSKCC and Proof.


    The new advertising for Memorial Sloan Kettering has great potential yet under-delivers. The idea or promise is “More Science. Less Fear.” MSKCC the CC stands for Cancer Center) is known for its best-in-class cancer outcomes. If ever you have a chance to speak with someone who has been treated there, you know that they understand the science. Intimately. So the promise (brand idea) is dead on. But if you read or listen to ads on the radio you get no science. You get generalities. “We treat every cancer patient differently.” We us a team of specialist.” Flah flah. I was doing ads like that as a kid.

    I’m not sure where the breakdown is. MSKCC has the proof. They have the science to educate consumers – they just don’t seem to use it. Perhaps they believe we’re not all science majors and won’t be able to process the info. Not so. The narrative doesn’t have to be in chemistry 401 language.

    Branding and advertising is all about claim and proof. MSKCC has the claim…it’s the proof they’re having difficulty with. Proof of more science, should be the easiest part of the equation.

    It will get better. There are smart people at the helm. Peace.


    Together We Well.


    Together We Well is the new tagline for Northwell Health. I get where they’re going but must admit to being underwhelmed. That said, it is way better than the previous ad campaign-derived line “Look North.” Which effectively said “use us.”

    There are two kinds of healthcare: preventative and curative. Hospital systems make their money on the latter. After someone gets sick they are treated. If people stay healthy, they needn’t be treated. Prevention is good for society but not always for the bottom line. That said, Northwell is on board with prevention.

    Giving patients a role in prevention is good – the “together” part. Everyone should be contributing to better health. Practitioners and consumers. And that is what the Affordable Care Act is all about. Under the ACA, doctors are compensated based on the degree to which they keep their patient population healthy. So we are moving in the right direction.

    But population health is a societal issue. It goes beyond Northwell. Don’t get me wrong it is imperative America gets better coverage at better prices. But it’s not a brand position. Strawberry Frog, Northwell’s agency, gets this — and they likes to create movements. Sometimes it works. My bet is not this time.

    I would make the “together we well” idea a brand plank — supporting the claim – not the claim itself.

    Brand claims should add value straight to the bank. In the case of Northwell they need to convince patients the system is better than other systems. When I worked on the Northwell brand (it was called North Shore-LIJ at the time) the tagline was “Setting New Standards in Healthcare,” a line created by Della Femina. It was provable, albeit not easily.  

    “Together We Well” is contemporary. Maybe hip. A big aspiration. And even provable. But what it is not is money in the Northwell brand bank. Not a direct deposit anyway.



    Proof Not Platitudes.


    I once wrote a marketing communications deck for a billion dollar healthcare system that included quite an array of advertising and branding objectives. The obs were stuff like: increased doctor retention, increased patient satisfaction scores, improved close rate on nurse hires, reduce cancer patient outmigration to NYC – I mean, full monty stuff. My marketing director looked at me like I’d taken hallucinogens. “We can’t do all that.” I believed we could. I believed these results were already underway, he just didn’t see it.

    The health system was indeed changing healthcare for the better, across all of its entities. And the brand strategy and service area (cancer) ads were chronicling it. You see, when “proof” not “platitudes” comprise your branding efforts, people tend to believe you. Sure, they might wonder about what you are not telling them but over time proof convinces. Proof is reality.

    I can’t share the claim and proof array on this particular brand strategy, even though it was written close to 20 years ago, but believe me when I say it still applies. It still works, and it still shows healthcare improvements across a wide variety of objectives. Not the least of which is a nearly 4 fold increase in revenue since that fateful  meeting.



    Unhealthy Healthcare Advertising.


    Healthcare branding is my jam. I know, I know, it sounds sort of geeky and sans luster but it really is a deep and emotional category. When I first dabbled, I expected it would be a downer. Most healthcare organizations, especially systems, couldn’t find their ass with their hands when it came to promoting – let alone positioning. But over the last 15 years or so, brand craft in healthcare has inched forward. Sadly, not everywhere.

    Two local health systems here in North Carolina like to promote how thoroughly they cater to their patients. How the patient is job-one. (Here’s a secret, that’s the promise of 70% of hospital systems out there.) Today I read an ad from one of these systems Advent Health that spoke about Corona Virus preparedness. The headline “Your trusted source for Corona Virus Care,” sat atop a subhead “Nothing is more important to us than you.” The copy contained more promise, no a lick of proof.

    Most healthcare orgs. and systems don’t have a brand strategy – a discrete framework of value. A claim and proof array, as I refer to it. Had Advent a brand strategy, they would have been able to write an ad that was not simply unsubstantiated claim, but was an evidentiary tale. Filled with reasons to believe/

    Poor or non-existent brand strategy leads to poor paid communications.

    It’s crime. It’s a waste. Frankly, it’s unhealthy.



    Amazing Things Are Happening Somewhere.


    I’m putting the Future of Work series on pause for a day in order to report a timely example of how brand strategy can help the creative process in advertising and content.

    Back when a brand planner for client North Shore-LIJ Health System, now Northwell Health, we had a well-healed competitor in New York City named NY Presbyterian Health System. Their ad agency was a shop called Munn Rabot.  My shop Welch Nehlen Groome was doing great strategic work for North Shore-LIJ and fine creative. Munn Rabot was doing fine strategic work for NY Presby and great creative.

    The NY Presbyterian’s brand claim was “Amazing Things Are Happening Here.” North Shore’s was “Setting New Standards in Healthcare.” As ad agents, our jobs were to prove those two claims, through communications, every day. It was a dogfight.

    Today, both healthcare systems have grown and thrived but their brand strategies have regressed. Northwell Health is still setting new standards to a degree, recently repurposing BiPAPP machines as ventilators, but ad agency Strawberry Frog is still reinventing the wheel and missing the opportunity. And I’m sure NY Presbyterian, like Mount Sinai, is delving into antibody plasma treatments for the coronavirus but they’re not sharing that or any other “amazing things,” because they are caught in the headlights of this heinous epidemic — and no longer using Munn Rabot.

    If Northwell or NY Presbyterian had marketers at the helm ministering to their legacy brand strategies instead of pumping out one-off ads and web pages, they’d be ahead of the curve sharing the amazing/standards consumers expect of them.

    (That said, props to all the heroes at all health org. doing the work no one else can do.)




    Health System Brand Strategy.


    Brand planning for a health systems is not easy. When weighing customer care-abouts there are few. Well actually, just one: make me healthy. And deciding how best to serve up the health system good-ats, which stakeholders tell you are many, until you ask them specifics. And they all say “It’s our quality of care.”  You have to be a surgeon to extract true evidence of differentiation and superiority. Not easy.

    I got into health care and health system brand work by telling a system it had a great strategy  “Setting New Standards In Healthcare,  but horrible execution.  None of their advertising and marketing material showed the system setting new standards. Imagine that? Having a strategy then ignoring it.  You know what’s worse? Not having a strategy. And even worse allowing your public image to be developed by an advertising copywriter. An advertising person who supposedly knows words but not your business.

    Advent Health, a system in the southeast, uses the tagline “Feel Whole.” Part of the system’s value proposition is its commitment to “the healing ministry of Christ.”  I didn’t know that until I dug deep into their website. A wholistic, spiritual approach to healthcare makes sense for Advent. I get it. I’ve worked with religious health systems before and they take their missions seriously – even to the point of not performing abortions or treating addiction. It’s not why I’d go to a hospital, but hey.

    If Advent wants to heavy up on Christianity, that’s their decision. But then at least deliver it in your branding and communications. Don’t go all x-ray equipment and prescription technology on me. Spiritual wholeness is your wild card. It’s what makes you different. Celebrate it. Don’t then act like every other hospital system.

    Did I mention hard?