6 health system marketing execs recall pivoting their strategy when COVID-19 hit

The pandemic forced every department within hospitals to change their operations —  including communications and marketing departments, which had to pivot their strategies to better address their audiences' new needs and concerns.

Below, six marketing executives from health systems across the country discuss the importance of creating marketing strategies that are flexible and allow for pivoting when necessary.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited lightly for clarity and style.

Nick Ragone, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, Ascension (St. Louis): All marketers have been forced to adapt their approach during the pandemic, especially those in the healthcare space. Back in March of 2020, we pivoted our entire marketing communications approach — our messaging, media buying, insights, etc. — over a span of 72 hours in order to re-orient it toward associate and patient safety.  

This wouldn't have been possible if not for the work we had done the previous years to create an integrated marketing model that had the ability to flex and pivot at a moment's notice. We continue to focus our marketing communications on associate and patient safety, which now includes the importance of getting vaccinated and the need to continue social distancing, hand washing and masking.

Matthew Pinzur, vice president and chief marketing officer​, Jackson Health System (Miami): Every stage of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to be nimble. Since Miami was an early hotspot, we had to slow down or freeze most of our traditional marketing and pivot resources to managing a flood of media and community information requests. As the first waves subsided, we quickly partnered with other systems to create comprehensive public service announcements about COVID-19 safety, as well as our own broadcast campaign about safety measures that reassured patients about using our programs. 

This winter, we became the overwhelmingly largest provider of vaccines and transitioned from vaccinating our own staff to the general public of patients 65 and older — that forced us to dramatically accelerate our plans around public education and community outreach at the same time we partnered with faith-based and non-profit organizations to reserve vaccination appointments for traditionally underserved and hard-to-reach groups. Nothing we have done in the last year has gone according to plan, but the passion and professionalism of our staff have empowered us to do all of it with excellence.

Anne Robertson, assistant vice president of marketing and consumer experience, Intermountain Healthcare (Salt Lake City): Before COVID-19, health systems were already thinking of digital transformation. Intermountain Healthcare was two years into a process to digitize the healthcare journey through app and web-based experiences. With the unforeseen events of COVID-19, plans to launch the experience were immediately paused as health systems shifted to address the health crisis. 

At Intermountain, we kept a pulse on consumers’ expectations and needs in healthcare and realized that during a pandemic, we needed to pivot quickly to launch the digital health app to help consumers. In rapid fashion, we redid the marketing launch plan to address the tools and services to help people at the time — COVID-19 test results, telehealth, behavioral health access, symptom checkers – and launched the campaign within weeks. By understanding consumers' needs and quickly pivoting our marketing approach, we not only saw more than 200,000 users access the platform within a few months, we increased our relevance and connection to help those in need during a vulnerable time.

Joan Gubernick, chief marketing officer, Einstein Healthcare Network (Philadelphia): Einstein has a structured marketing process in place so we can align with corporate, entity and service lines goals. We create marketing playbooks that, while comprehensive, contain a certain amount of flexibility. Experience has taught us that in healthcare things change — it's the nature of the industry. Change in healthcare is the constant. It is all about innovation — new services, new ways to deliver the services, change of physicians/providers, reimbursement, environment — we know we always need to be adaptable with the strategy and the message.

However, unpacking unforeseen issues and applying critical thinking do not come close to describing the impact of a pandemic. Einstein's marketing team needed to shut the playbook and shelve the plans. We now know that when it became time to safely reopen services, the messages had to change to support the new patient experience. For us it was not only important to be flexible in strategy but critical to have the talent and the team who were able to pivot and think outside the box.

Manny Rodriguez, chief marketing, customer and experience officer, UCHealth (Aurora, Colo.): Looking back to early in the fall of 2019, we were planning our marketing and communications strategy for the new year to highlight our patients and their amazing journeys of overcoming adversity. No one could have predicted the gravity of the pandemic that was about to impact the entire world, but by the start of the new year, our clinical teams were preparing for COVID-19 and so we quickly too began adjusting our thinking for 2020. 

Early on, our focus had turned to creating content and messaging that shared vital details the public needed to know to protect themselves from what was coming, which was still mostly unknown at the time and constantly developing. We were able to pull our advertising that focused around our brand strategy and instead began sharing videos and other campaigns that communicated real-time information featuring our experts and front-line healthcare workers conveying what we were experiencing and how we were working to care for patients amidst the fight against COVID-19. This lasted throughout most of 2020 and continues now in the new year. 

The messaging in the content changes frequently depending on what is happening, such as surges in cases or vaccine distribution. We understandably could not continue business as usual, showing patients “living extraordinary” without wearing masks, when everyone was impacted by COVID-19 in some way. It’s important to build flexible strategies because we recognize that adapting to changing priorities especially in health care can mean all the difference in the world.

Suzanne Bharati Hendery, chief marketing and customer officer, Renown Health (Reno, Nev.): A year before the pandemic hit, our CEO and board finalized a new branding effort for Renown. Built on the values of hope and determination, the campaign is titled "Fight the Good Fight" and featured our clinicians wearing masks in our trauma center. I regularly ask my team not to photograph clinicians in masks, because it doesn’t show how friendly they are — but this time we agreed to the images since they went with the "Fight" analogy. 

Little did we know the unforeseen events that would follow, and the need for masking and personal protective equipment. When the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Reno, every television ad and billboard in our city featured this inspirational imagery. It was destiny, fate or kismet — and having a flexible strategy and brand values firmly in place have helped to support our healthcare heroes and community through this difficult time.


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