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.