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The Challenges of Healthcare Branding Strategies

The healthcare landscape

At some level, branding is branding. In our work with healthcare organizations, there are a few emergent challenges that are worth noting. I’m about to make some very broad generalizations which will not be true for all organizations in the field, but try to keep an open mind because it will make this content more useful.

Healthcare Branding Strategies
This post relates only to healthcare service brands and is not meant to apply to healthcare product brands, which operate differently. Healthcare service brands can include hospitals, health clinics, medical testing facilities, doctors’ practices, nursing services, and so on. This post is not germane to pharma or medical device companies, which face different challenges.

Differentiation is extremely difficult in healthcare

Healthcare brands exhibit an extremely predictable pattern. University hospital systems will nearly all tend to tout innovation and cutting-edge medicine. Community hospitals are all about caring and compassion. All profess to offer quality care. How does a brand meaningfully differentiate itself in such a densely packed sea of similarity? If every community hospital boasts about their compassionate care, there is very little brand value in touting the intensity of your particular organization’s compassion. Branding in healthcare—like branding in any business category—must first and foremost concern itself with differentiation. If your offer is not meaningfully different, it’s all going to blend together in the customer’s mind. There will be no reason for any strong preference for one brand over another. Being better is useful if it is certified by some trusted third-party measure, but saying you are better is usually meaningless. Qualitative differences in service, for example, are knowable only through actual brand experience and therefore do not yield differentiation in the mind of a prospect.

If every community hospital boasts of compassionate care, there’s little brand value in touting the intensity of your organization’s compassion.

The branding of healthcare companies are comparatively weak

People generally do not align with a particular healthcare brand in the absence of a health problem. I’m not a Sloan Kettering fan before I or a loved one have had some experience there and had a positive outcome. I only become a brand adherent after the fact. I may have a positive mental association with an organization in advance of my having experience with a serious health issue, but this affinity is very soft and can easily be displaced in the rush or panic of an actual health emergency. The role of familiarity and the connection of familiarity with positivity is thus critically important in healthcare branding strategies. In the moment of choice among healthcare brands, you want your organization to be familiar and have positive associations. Much more than that is nearly impossible to achieve, because healthcare brands are not household or daily brands. They are special-case brands that only rise to conscious importance when needed, and when they are needed there is a lot of intense emotional interference with the normal decision-making process.

Healthcare is a risk-averse industry

Overall, healthcare is a comparatively conservative, risk-averse industry. This is part of the reason why so many healthcare brands are indistinguishable. Differentiation from the tried and true involves risk. The tendency to think of customer targets very broadly also exacerbates this conservative tendency. The fear of offending or putting people off tends to outweigh the potential upside of greater memorability that can come from greater risk in branding strategies.

Professionalism works counter to customer centrism

The high degree of education and professionalism in the industry insulates it from popular trends and blunts the adoption of genuinely customer-centric principles. I believe this is partially because customer-centric adaptations naturally elevate the perspective of the average “user” and this overrides the perspective of experts who may be uncomfortable with the perceived challenge to their hard-earned authority and expertise. The implication for branding is a prioritization of inside expert opinion, such as that of doctors, and the extension of those opinions into areas where the professional class within healthcare may in fact have very little genuine expertise. Marketing strategy springs to mind. The habit of always knowing better can infiltrate into areas outside of the practice of medicine. Think of the Doctor on the board or marketing committee who does not like the proposed advertising campaign because it insufficiently strokes his sense of pride in the cutting-edge cancer work that he has helped the institution pioneer, overriding market research data showing that what really matters to the customer are short wait times and the ease of communication using a new telehealth system.

Rigid hierarchy predominates

Medicine tends to be a rigidly hierarchical profession. The pecking order is clear, seemingly immutable, and based on educational attainment, training, and tenure. The value of fresh perspectives or ideas is buried under the weight of superior standing. This tendency to prioritize hierarchy stifles the generation of ideas from the lower ranks and discourages criticism of the way things are done. In other disciplines like manufacturing, which has many parallels to healthcare, the best ideas come from the front line, not from leadership. This means that the insights and observations of the lab technician, the nurse, and the nurse’s aide are just as worthy of being heard and considered as those of the lead surgeon. Studies in the adoption of new practices clearly show that this is indeed the case, but the culture of authority undermines this more flattened approach to problem solving. This culture, to the extent that it extends into the realm of healthcare branding strategies, has the same deleterious effect on innovation and adaptation.

The culture of authority, to the extent that it extends into the realm of healthcare branding strategies, has a deleterious effect on innovation and adaptation.

Healthcare has been highly profitable which has stifled innovation

The industry has enjoyed a long history of abundance that has fostered a kind of lethargy when it comes to issues such as user-centric design. So even though the industry is under constant pressure from a shifting competitive landscape, its endemic conservatism makes it difficult to respond with agility. Heavy regulation, and the high cost of doing business do somewhat protect the industry from outside disruption, but the inefficiency and slow pace of innovation make healthcare particularly vulnerable when disruptors finally find a way to break in. The slow pace of innovation also means that healthcare brands can easily develop product problems that are not resolvable using the tools of branding. Internal operational issues must also be addressed.

Recommended healthcare branding strategies

Involve the front line

Engage front-line personnel in any branding effort as they are the keepers of the critical knowledge of the human-level interface. Innovation should be encouraged to flow up the hierarchy as insights from the front line are invaluable in determining what customers want and need.

Don’t feed the sea of sameness

Take risks that peer organizations are unwilling to. If your brand is too comfortable, it’s probably weaker than it could be. Taking risks doesn’t mean completely deviating from your brand voice or personality—you still need to remain authentic—but it does mean finding and articulating a point of view that is unique to your organization.

Bring the customer into the decision room

Prioritize customer insights even in the face of internal opposition. Encourage a user-centric approach to brand strategy as much as business strategy and operational improvement. This will benefit your organization all the more now that performance metrics in healthcare have shifted to value-based assessments such as customer satisfaction.

Awareness is critical

Avoid radical brand transformation in cases that do not mandate it. It is easy to imagine how a new name that no one has ever heard before might seem like a good idea when trying to revamp an established healthcare brand, but at the end of the day, healthcare brands are not and never will be household brands. We typically do not have to pass through a healthcare brand on a daily basis; we call on them only when needed. They are therefore weak and tend to occupy very little mental real estate in the mind of the average consumer. This has momentous implications for healthcare branding strategy.

Related to this is our research finding that straightforwardly descriptive names such as Hospice of New York are much more powerful in the healthcare service sector than are evocative names such as Visiting Angels or abstract names such as Bayada. The brand weakness noted above means that the average prospect is generally less likely to be aware of your name at all, and if your organizational name does a poor job of explaining what you do, this weakness is even more pronounced and can have negative consequences including lower levels of active preference and selection among prospects.

Straightforwardly descriptive names such as Hospice of New York are much more powerful in the healthcare service sector than are evocative names such as Visiting Angels or abstract names such as Bayada.

Healthcare brands are primarily emotional. Rational benefits are important, but baseline awareness and familiarity is more important than is typical for product brands. The focus on achieving familiarity and the associated positivity that comes with it is as critical as the foundation for brand growth in healthcare. In rare occasions it will be possible to become widely known for some specific service or innovation, and achieve the kind of brand loyalty that drives active selection over other available alternatives, but more commonly the weakness of healthcare brands dictates that the brand strategy be directed toward reducing any friction when faced with the offer of your brand. Reducing friction means becoming the recommended or most convenient alternative at the moment of decision, and high awareness is an important factor that is often aided by the use of a straightforwardly descriptive organizational name.

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Photo for VNSNY by Bradley Ennis

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