Commentary

Successful Brand Building In The Changing World Of Healthcare

The healthcare interaction model was traditionally defined by the patient-doctor relationship, with the physician “brand” the source of decision-making, care planning, and patient loyalty. Since then, there have been drastic changes in market dynamics--improvements in outcomes and quality, choices of providers, availability/transparency of information, and the integration of physicians into healthcare systems. While the patient-doctor relationship is still important, patients look beyond their primary care physicians, elevating the role of the healthcare system. To that end, healthcare systems should consider their brands as a vehicle to build relationships with consumers, a compass to help patients’ navigate decisions, and a beacon to unify a system across multiple touchpoints and points of care.  

So what is a brand?

At its core, a brand is a promise made, an experience consistently delivered and--when managed well--an emotional connection that is hard to break. This promise has the ability to provide direction internally and externally and to serve as a way to differentiate from the competition. Every company (and person) is a brand, viewed by customers and other stakeholders in certain ways. 

With so much complexity already embedded in the healthcare experience, healthcare brands must simplify the decision-making process, while inspiring how people feel, influencing how they behave and compelling them to act. The brand must act as the guide for strategic decisions as well, a compass and a filter for identifying and evaluating new capabilities or acquisitions.

In healthcare, three fundamental pieces characterize the branding puzzle. The first is communications: internal and external messages that are aligned with the brand, regardless of the vehicle used to deliver them. Communications tell the brand story, set expectations, start a conversation and continue a relationship. A lot of brand discussions focus on communications, so let’s look at the remaining pieces: employees and experiences. 

Engage employees to be empowered brand ambassadors.

Many powerful brands become that way thanks to the experience created by their employees. Southwest understood the value of employees in delivering their brand; many customers choose the airline because their employees--from gate agents to pilots, all the way up to the CEO--are such great brand ambassadors.

Patients and communities interact with the brand through employees, making it critical that employees are engaged and understand what it means to “live the brand.” Employees must engage with the brand to understand how it guides their behaviors and patient interactions. They must be energized across a number of fronts to hear, believe and live the strategy. They must also understand how it influences and encourages unity and teamwork across the entire health system. 

Leaders must also be engaged; they have the ability to exemplify the brand for employees or drive the organization in a different direction. At some of today’s most successful brands – Starbucks, Apple, Nike, Oracle and Google – the leaders are both brand builders and ambassadors, driving change for their companies, and inspiring employees and customers alike. 

Design a customer experience that delivers the brand promise.

From a clinical standpoint, care must meet certain quality standards to be deemed acceptable, yet the patient experience can vary greatly. A brand sets expectations; the experience is where the brand’s ability to live up to its promise gets put to the test. The right experience helps patients navigate a complex environment, connect the dots across touchpoints, and focus on the issue rather than the process. Inadequate delivery at any point in the experience results in a broken promise that damages the brand. 

The experience must be created around the needs of the consumer and aligned to deliver the brand. Brands in hospitality, travel, banking and other categories raise the bar for consumers’ healthcare experiences. To truly differentiate in the marketplace and build meaningful customer relationships, healthcare systems must go beyond the expected and create experiences are ownable, true to the brand and serve as an extension of the brand promise.  An experience that brings the brand to life in a compelling way, consistently, also has the potential to reinforce the brand promise,

Patients today are better informed, better equipped, and smarter; they have expectations that are higher and more demanding than providers could have imagined years ago. Healthcare systems need to understand their brands and use them to their best effect, creating loyalty and improving satisfaction, as the symbol and promise of how their relationships with their patients and communities will unfold.

8 comments about "Successful Brand Building In The Changing World Of Healthcare ".
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  1. Kevin Burke from WholesomeOne, July 10, 2013 at 10:59 a.m.

    This article is spot on! In many other categories, like you mention, there are well established consumer brands that people trust, and thus they garner significant value. Can you name a few in healthcare that rival that status?

  2. Cory Dillon from Market Creation Group, July 10, 2013 at 11:11 a.m.

    I love the idea of using employees as brand ambassadors. Who better to be the voice of an organization than the people your customers interact with on a regular basis?

    One thing to keep in mind though, is the management of how and what those ambassadors communicate your brand message. Does your company have standard messaging or value statements? Does your company have keywords you like to own?

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 10, 2013 at 1:57 p.m.

    Healthcare is not just a product/service like what you would call a brand. Responsibilities of medical decisions is not like putting on the wrong socks or put them on inside out. No matter how much more SOME patients are about SOME medical situations, it doesn't mean they do something about it or even pay attention. The growth rate of obesity and its consequences is just one example. It is still the obligation of the advertisers and medical staffs to inform customers of what to believe or not.

  4. Maria Tazi from Prophet, July 11, 2013 at 5:20 a.m.

    Kevin - you are absolutely right that there are consumer brands that people trust. Not much of a surprise, but trust is one of the most important attributes in healthcare. Not only is trust relevant for information seeking, but in this field, it represents all of the perceptions that deal with the quality of care. However, it is often developed only after an experience. While local brands are trusted in their communities, some national brands, such as Mayo Clinic, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Cleveland Clinic, have become trusted without their care being experienced, and have been able to translate this trust into value. Interestingly enough, these brands have built trust by doing the same thing consumer brands have been doing - sharing their expertise, and living up to their respective missions.

  5. Maria Tazi from Prophet, July 11, 2013 at 5:29 a.m.

    Cory - that is an excellent point, but I think there is a blurry line between educating and policing. It is our job to engage employees with the brand so that they live and breathe it, use its words, and tone, but not to police its every expression. While there is nothing wrong with building equity around a particular experience (ala Chick-fil-A) or statement, we have to be make sure that employees always understand why they are doing (or saying) something and not just what to do (or say). This organically creates brand ambassadors, rather than rehearsed performers. My colleague had an interesting point of view on creating brand ambassadors out of consumers and warns of the dangers of inauthentic brand advocates (http://theinspiratory.com/2013/01/24/wanted-better-brand-advocates/).

  6. Maria Tazi from Prophet, July 11, 2013 at 5:36 a.m.

    Paula - I agree with you 100%. We can't go around comparing surgeons to car mechanics, or allow patients to self-diagnose themselves. I am not advocating that the human aspect is obsolete. I am arguing that it needs to transform. We also need to accept that patients have choice, they're more informed than ever (usually armed with a folder of print-outs from WebMD and Mayo Clinic Symptom Checker), are seeking value for the first time, and have experiences outside of healthcare. I wrote about this last year: http://medcitynews.com/2012/10/155982/

    We no longer have captive audiences, which means branding in healthcare will continue becoming more important as consumers look for guidance on how to navigate this complex landscape.

  7. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 11, 2013 at 11:39 p.m.

    Maria, go spend some time in assisted living and nursing homes. While you are there explain all this stuff and then ask them what they are going to do about it. You will have the best answers you will get out of the people in the same situations but not able to live in supervised homes. Good Luck to get people to know what year it is. Maria, you are very naive.

  8. Maria Tazi from Prophet, July 15, 2013 at 10:29 a.m.

    I'm not sure what it is that you're arguing, but the need to provide greater value, improve (or fix) the patient experience, and keep employees engaged is apparent across all care settings. In the time I've spent working in various post-acute settings (rehab, assisted living, nursing homes, etc), I have spoken to administrators, MD, RNs, LPNs, residents and caregivers (at this stage most "patients" don't know what year it is, and they're rarely still the decision maker - it's either the social worker / case worker or care giver). As more of these facilities open, residents will start having the option to switch to a competing facility (similar to the situation in acute care now), emphasizing the need to build and deliver on a strong brand. Even in settings that appear to have a "captive audience", there are reimbursement concerns (i.e. a caregiver calling the State Ombudsman to report a facility has financial impact on the facility rating), which act as a forcing function for improving care delivery.

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