7 unconventional hospital ad campaigns that paid off

More healthcare ad campaigns are focusing on meeting patients where they are, which often requires hospital marketing teams to think outside the box. Here, seven health system executives share an unexpected way their system has reached patients.

Note: Responses have been edited for clarity and style.

Cynthia Schmidt. Director of marketing at VCU Health (Richmond, Va): Sometimes, the most obvious marketing opportunity is right out your front door — literally. VCU Health's main academic medical center is in the heart of downtown Richmond, surrounded by office buildings, Fortune 500 companies, ad agencies, art centers, financial centers and Virginia Commonwealth University. And like most cities, there's a thriving food cart scene catering to the 9-5 crowd during the week, where you'd find all kinds of workers waiting in line to make their lunchtime selections. That's when the light bulb went off.

We wanted to raise awareness of our convenient mammography services located downtown as part of breast cancer awareness month, working closely with our National Cancer Institute-designated VCU Massey Cancer Center team. "Where You Have Your Mammo Matters" was the campaign's overall theme, and we were using the usual traditional and digital media to reach into our primary service market. But we needed something to target these specific downtown workers. So we designed an eye-catching bright pink napkin printed with the theme, logo and mammogram appointment number that we distributed to all of the food carts throughout the downtown area. While walking through the state capitol grounds one sunny lunch hour, it was wonderful to see so many pink napkins in the hands of our potential patients as they enjoyed their food cart feasts.  

Christine Albert. Chief marketing and experience officer at LCMC Health (New Orleans): At LCMC Health, COVID-19 vaccinations became a cause for celebration. Located in a city known for its culture, music and colorful character, LCMC Health brought its human-centered brand strategy to life in its response to COVID-19 in New Orleans. The organization brought a fresh take to COVID-19 guidance like social distancing and masking with its "Be in that Number" initiative to break through the clutter of COVID-19 information and connect people with information and healthcare in a uniquely New Orleans way while supporting the local economy. 

Examples include partnering with the city of New Orleans on a mass vaccination site where the patient experience became the story — including hiring local musicians to play on site, hiring hospitality workers to staff the site and bringing positivity to masking by distributing bright yellow smiley masks to everyone receiving a vaccine. New Orleans symbols, such as crawfish and the streetcar, were signage used to navigate vaccine distribution sites, and local expressions such as "Dawlin,' it's not personal, but let's keep our social distance!" made floor decals and other facility signage more welcoming and brought a warm and welcoming tone to patient communication and the system’s social media presence.

 As COVID has evolved over the last two years, LCMC Health has sustained the momentum and community connection by adapting this colorful and celebratory approach to health and community connection.  

Brian Deffaa. Chief marketing officer at LifeBridge Health (Baltimore): Our system serves a population that is diverse — economically, racially, demographically and geographically. Some segments, especially those in more urban settings like Baltimore city, are reluctant to visit a doctor or get screened for chronic conditions due to a wide range of factors, from past racial abuse to COVID-19 apprehension to costs of visits. To overcome these obstacles and get people the care they need, we formed a partnership — through our internal innovation team — with Live Chair Health, which leverages the client/barber relationship to meet people where they are on their healthcare journey.  Through Live Chair Health and their free, innovative platform, we offer access to needed care for African-American men, and during COVID-19, we even offer on-site vaccinations through our mobile clinic.  

Chaka Jordan. Vice president of marketing and communications at Cape Fear Valley Health (Fayetteville, N.C.): When COVID-19 vaccines first became available and public sentiment was unsure about whether or not to get vaccinated, Cape Fear Valley Health's marketing team came up with a simple idea that would go on to be the theme of the health system's vaccination campaign, eventually drawing national attention. 

The team came up with "Why I Got The Shot" cards. The 8½-by-11-inch cards, with a blank space to customize a handwritten response, encouraged people to write down their reason for vaccination after receiving their shots while they sat in the waiting area post-vaccination. People also took selfies with the cards and utilized them for their personal social media posts. Filled-out cards quickly became wall decorations at the main vaccination clinic, covering the walls in the room where patients waited after their shots. A social media post drawing attention to some of the funnier ones ("My wife made me") made national news and was featured on The Today Show. The cards were also a central component of the hospital's myth-busting vaccination campaign on social media.

​​Amy Stevens. Vice president of marketing and communications at Tidelands Health (Murrells Inlet, S.C.): In 2019, Tidelands Health successfully opened a new $50 million outpatient medical park to serve the nation's second-fastest growing region of Myrtle Beach, S.C. As a newer entrant to the highly competitive market, we knew patient acquisition would require a bold outreach strategy. Thus, the idea for "Moving Day" was born.

Developed by our in-house marketing and communications team, the multimonth campaign capitalized on the moving day idea by highlighting not only our move into the new facility and market but also the importance of physical movement for better health. "Moving Day" used a broad array of engagement strategies — everything from traditional advertising, digital marketing and media relations to community events, social contests, physician outreach and more — to introduce the new medical park to the region. The campaign culminated in a pre-opening week of on-site activities at the new facility, including a Saturday "Moving Day" celebration attended by more than 1,000 community residents. The celebration also featured a "moving van" that — a la Publisher’s Clearinghouse — delivered movement-encouraging prizes such as paddleboards, kayaks and bicycles to the homes of contest winners as cameras rolled.

The highly successful campaign generated more than 600 pre-opening calls to a dedicated scheduling line, more than 2,500 attendees at pre-opening events and — most importantly —nearly 1,500 appointments scheduled before opening day. Today, the medical park continues to be incredibly successful, exceeding budget projections and boasting strong patient satisfaction scores.

Michelle Lazzarotti. Senior director of marketing at Saint Peter's Healthcare System (New Brunswick, N.J.): We have launched private Facebook groups for our nationally recognized neonatal intensive care unit and our bariatric support group. In these private Facebook groups, individuals and families share their experiences and support one another through their respective journeys, ultimately becoming brand ambassadors who enhance and extend Saint Peter's messaging. The NICU Family Connection Facebook group, created in collaboration with our NICU Parent Advisory Group, offers a safe, encouraging space for current and former Saint Peter's NICU parents to connect, inspire and share their stories, advice and wisdom. NICU nurses serve as ambassadors in the group, ensuring that any medical issues or questions are appropriately addressed.

Patients and prospective patients within the Facebook bariatric support group share their individual experiences and challenges along their weight loss journey, even taking it a step further by coordinating walks and exercise activities. This personal connection between patients is complemented by the online participation from the Saint Peter's Weight Loss and Bariatric Centers clinical care team, which offers advice and encouragement, creating the "it takes a village" approach to achieving goals. Fostering a supportive and engaging environment among like individuals and families on a social media platform on which groups are already engaged enables us to further connect with our patients during and after their healthcare journey.

Jonathan Hutter. Director of brand and marketing at Northern Light Health (Brewer, Maine): After two years of COVID, we are seeing the need to affirm connections with our community. While it's not unique, it is an unexpected surprise when the Northern Light Health brand is once again associated with community events. Most recently, we have started sponsoring girls' sports, which reach primary care and women's health audiences. Partnering with the Maine Principals' Association, we sponsored Maine' state cheerleading championships in February. Later this year, we'll be sponsoring softball and girls' soccer.

The immediate result is linking our brand to physical activity and healthy lifestyles for both parents and kids, with media coverage to boot, as well as placements on the championship website and on merchandise.

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