They say the only constant thing in life is change. And wow, is this a time of change, especially in healthcare. Medical insurance is changing. Demographics are changing. Physicians’ practices are changing. Anything and everything remotely related to the healthcare industry, it seems, is changing.
Faced with these enormous shifts, many hospitals are realizing that their branding, internally and externally, needs to be repositioned, refocused, and reinvigorated, or they risk losing out to more savvy competitors. Yet if they merely develop catchy slogans or re-design their logos, they will have missed the point. Branding is not about your color palette. It’s about who you are, what you stand for, and why someone should choose you rather than “the other guy.” And especially in healthcare, branding is about communicating the kind of experience people can expect when they walk through your doors.
At Simon Associates Management Consultants (SAMC), we work with clients who are dealing with change. One of our clients who realized that their brand message needed to be examined, possibly overhauled, was St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, CT. Founded in 1903 as Daughter of Charity Hospital to serve the poor and vulnerable, St. Vincent’s is now a 473-bed community teaching and referral hospital and a member of Ascension Health, the largest Catholic healthcare system in the U.S.
When we first started working with them, they were a mish-mosh of names and logos, each with their own brand story: St. Vincent’s Health Services, St. Vincent’s Medical Center, the Elizabeth Pfriem Center for Cancer Care, the Women’s Imaging Center…you get the picture. But we weren’t sure the consumer did.
With all the disparate logos and titles, were all these services coming from the same place, with the same standards? Would people get the same St. Vincent’s care at all of them?
We quickly realized that what the organization needed was an overarching brand strategy—something that would encompass its many service lines and specialty centers, and that could be clearly communicated to consumers.
First step: Asking questions as a means of getting to the core message.
Brands answer the question, Why You? With St. Vincent’s, we needed to know: What was the essence of their brand, what did they stand for that was unique and ownable? What were their shared values? Internally, how did they treat one another? And what about a higher purpose, beyond just making people well?
We began by looking at their existing brand. Internally, we asked physicians and employees to tell us their stories and what we most often heard was, “When I walked in the door of this place, I just felt like I belonged.” “It feels like family to me.” “We are not just the team, we’re a community.” We also heard references to its being a spiritual organization, not just from the Catholic perspective, but in the fact that the employees really felt called to work there.
We then asked, how do St. Vincent's patients feel? The same as employees or different? What we found was that they focused on how it felt to receive care. Just like the staff, they felt they belonged when they were at St. Vincent's. They knew that the medical standards and nursing care were excellent. But the experience that they had, that their family had, was most important to them.
Then we went outside the hospital and talked to consumers, both users and non-users of St. Vincent’s. The most common refrain was: “I want to go somewhere where I feel like people care about me.” It didn't matter if it was an 82-year-old woman or a strapping 35-year-old man, they wanted to be in a place where someone cared about them. That came through very clearly.
At the end of our sessions, we realized that everybody expects new, clean and safe. The latest technology and the best doctors. The key theme that emerged was that they wanted an experience that was one of caring.
It was then that we had our “a-ha” moment.
From the research results, we developed a brand promise that immediately resonated, internally and externally.
In changing times, the key question we are all asking in healthcare is: Can we create and communicate a brand makes my organization the place to go for healthcare? Or has it become so commoditized that people will go anywhere that's the right price with an assumed quality?
In the end, the brand promise we felt would best communicate the essence of St. Vincent’s and its many constituencies was neither earth-shattering nor a complete turn-around from the way they already thought of themselves. It was what they already knew, but maybe hadn’t been able to see clearly.
The promise was that St. Vincent’s would be that healthcare organization where there is a community of caregivers whose compassion makes them better at what they do. That they would listen more carefully, work together more efficiently and use the tools of modern medicine more skillfully. That they would bring their hearts and minds to work, helping patients and their families feel calmer and more confident in a stressful time in their lives.
Now that we had the brand promise, we had to communicate it.
When it was time to launch St. Vincent’s new theme―Gentler Hands, Sharper Minds―we made sure everyone inside the institution bought into it before we took it out to the wider community. Since we know humans buy with emotion and justify with reason, we explained the theme emotionally, then rationally. The hospital gave out themed t-shirts and mugs and held rallies to get everybody on-board and engaged. Then, leadership communicated with the staff, on all levels, how to consistently live the brand, every day. Your employees, after all, are your organization’s ambassadors.
At the end of the day, it's all about the experience.
In a competitive environment like healthcare, you have to go beyond the expected and create experiences that separate you from the rest. That’s what St. Vincent’s did, and as a result, are reaping great benefits today. People knew they would get good medical care there. What they needed to understand by way of the branding message was that when they were at St. Vincent’s, they would feel like they belonged.
Now is a crucial time to think about your brand, what it says about you, and if anybody out there cares. Is it time for a change?