Branding strategies used by the most trusted health systems in the US

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One of healthcare marketing professionals' main goals is to build trust, but that can be difficult to achieve across an entire health system.

In October, branding agency Monigle released a list of the 10 most trusted health system brands in the U.S. In partnership with the American Hospital Association and Society for Health Care Strategy and Market Development, Monigle surveyed 30,138 respondents who were the healthcare decision-makers for their household. 

Below, executives from five of the systems that made the list share their trust-building strategies.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Lisa Schiller. Chief Communications and Marketing Officer at UNC Health (Chapel Hill, N.C.): We believe multiple factors contributed to UNC Health's No. 2 ranking, beginning with the human, compassionate experience our teammates deliver every day, but especially during the past 20 months of the pandemic. 

Another important, differentiating factor was significant efforts around patient and consumer listening. Pre-pandemic we created a consumer insights team that delivered significant important understanding of consumer sentiment and beliefs throughout the pandemic. We conducted more than a dozen research studies among both our internal and external audiences. We developed plans, messaging and specific tactics as a result of the insights work that aided in consumer trust. We developed a consumer website for all of our COVID-19 content at yourshot.org.

We also had a strong focus on health disparities in COVID-19 testing and vaccination, which served to build trust in underserved communities. Early in the pandemic we initiated mobile testing and later mobile vaccinations. We partnered with community organizations to address vaccine hesitancy. We paid special attention to health literacy. We also showed that we cared deeply about the emotional toll of the pandemic for both internal and external audiences.

Finally, throughout the pandemic, our experts became trusted sources for traditional media, social media, internal audiences, etc. Our news team held regular, weekly media briefings. Our experts developed the first COVID-19 testing, developed the science behind important COVID-19 drugs and tested vaccines. We translated this important scientific work into media outreach and answered thousands of press inquiries locally and from around the world.

Trust is not built overnight; it’s established through one patient relationship at a time. At UNC Health, our goal is to take the extra step toward understanding both the patient’s physical needs, as well as their current wellness mindset. 

Andrew Thomas, MD. Interim Co-Leader and Chief Clinical Officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center (Columbus): As one of America's top-ranked academic health centers, our mission at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center is to improve people’s lives in Ohio and across the world through innovation in research, education and patient care. We can only accomplish this by advancing clinical discovery, being a trusted resource for our patients and the community, demonstrating clinical excellence and exhibiting compassion in the care we provide.

Beginning in February 2020 prior to the first COVID-19 cases in Ohio, Ohio State Wexner Medical Center has been at the forefront of our regional and statewide response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In terms of the strategies which had the greatest impact on our inclusion on Monigle’s list, there are a variety of long-term and short-term tactics which helped significantly.

Long-term tactics: First, to be successful in this effort, a medical center has to have experts in the key clinical fields impacted by the pandemic. We have very strong teams in infectious diseases, epidemiology, critical care and pharmacy that were well-prepared to lead in this crisis. Many of our faculty staff serve on state and national committees, have NIH or industry-funded research programs, or have worked to advise groups as varied as the Ohio Department of Health and the Big Ten Conference on these topics.

For many years prior to the pandemic, our media relations team has effectively engaged our faculty on the importance of a faculty member’s time in responding to media inquiries. In local, regional and national media, our faculty are often approached to comment on medical stories, so even prior to the pandemic, our infectious disease, critical care and medical administration leaders already had significant experience with media interviews.

We insist that the media outlets that we routinely work with go through our media relations department instead of contacting faculty directly. This allows our media relations team to prepare the individual being interviewed and work with the reporter to best meet their needs. 

For many years, our government relations group has worked closely with our physician leadership and many of these physician leaders had preexisting, strong relationships with local, state and federal governmental officials prior to the pandemic. So when a governmental official needed an expert for a press conference, a constituent town hall or just a personal briefing, those officials knew where to call. For example, having one faculty member involved in a number of the governor’s press conferences early in the pandemic gave credibility to our “brand message” on pandemic response and was a stimulant for multiple follow-up media interviews that were distributed amongst a number of members of the clinical leadership team. 

As a public, nonprofit, land-grant academic medical center, we have a strong track record in community education and outreach, which provided a good foundation for our brand in the nonprofit and community organization space. These groups were major influencers for the individuals they work with in our community and our preexisting relationships with these groups gave us credibility with their membership. When those individuals see a Wexner Medical Center faculty member interviewed in the media, they may be more likely to view our physicians as credible experts because they have had an engagement with a different medical center faculty or staff member through community outreach.  

For example, our emergency department physicians host community dinners at a local church each month. These dinners allow community members to interact with doctors in a casual setting, sharing health information, offering screenings and genuine conversation.

Well before the pandemic, we have hosted and staffed weekly free clinics that focus on the Asian-American, Latino and Muslim communities and help staff a clinic for Somali immigrants. 

Our Moms2B program provides small group health and wellness education at eight sites around the city to low-income, predominantly Black pregnant women who are at higher risk for premature delivery.

Short-term/COVID-19-specific tactics: Through the course of the pandemic, our media relations team hosted 13 press briefings for local, statewide, national and international press with faculty and staff experts addressing the most pressing issues that week related to the pandemic. We would provide general updates about the state of the COVID-19 outbreak in the state and in our region as well as focus on topics related to COVID-19 variants, vaccination safety and effectiveness, and the impact of long COVID on patients recovered from the infection. Some of our local media streamed or posted these briefings on their websites and they provided outstanding video for use in our social media channels.

While we unfortunately needed to limit access for members of the press to our clinical facilities due to visitor limitations, we leveraged our large vaccination program with both national and local print and television media outlets, providing access to film on-site and even interview patients and employees (with appropriate consent). 

We have delivered over 250,000 total doses of COVID-19 vaccine in our community since mid-December 2020, and the bulk of that was done in the concourse of our basketball arena and concert venue on campus, the Schottenstein Arena. We provided the media with everything from vaccine "firsts" to "behind the scenes" tours, multiple visits by Governor DeWine and celebrations for our 100,000th and 200,000th doses. 

Our ability to package video into clips for social media posts was incredibly valuable, as the official White House Twitter account reposted some of our content.

Throughout the course of the pandemic, our medical center leadership hosted numerous free employer briefings to local corporations, nonprofit organizations and governmental entities to share best practices for COVID-19 testing, vaccination, safe "return to work" programs and employee mental health/well-being. These educational events were supplemented by a fee-based consulting program for more in-depth assessment and feedback to an employer. Having the messages from Wexner Medical Center experts echoed by our local employer community assisted with our brand reputation. 

Even if a faculty or staff member was not directly involved in the pandemic response, our medical center leadership team worked to arm our own students, faculty and staff members with accurate, actionable information about COVID-19 that could be shared with family, friends and others in their communities through virtual town halls, educational programs and routine, weekly emails with the latest updates about the pandemic. With over 25,000 employees and learners, the dissemination of this information with an expectation that people share it with those they are close to was most likely helpful in building our trust in our region.

Frank Lococo. Vice President of Marketing and Communication at Nebraska Medicine (Omaha): Trust doesn't just happen. It requires intentionality and it requires time. That said, this is a long game and it’s really more of a side benefit to a good mission, solid values and a great culture, all shared by a talented, focused and collaborative team. 

Relationships: I like to hijack a quote my executive vice president uses: "Build confidence, earn trust." Fostering collaboration takes time and effort. This is not accomplished overnight. Building trust starts inside and then works its way outside. Marketing and communications partners with our subject matter experts and amplifies their voices on platforms that reach the right audiences at the right times. At the same time, it’s a two-way street and we work every bit as hard with reporters, for example, to ensure we have good relationships with them so we’re finding alignment and delivering them value as much as we want to accomplish certain goals and objectives. 

Truth and transparency: Stick to the facts. Base yourself in science. Ensure the voices you are amplifying are the true subject matter experts and not administrators or marketing and communications professionals. And don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Vulnerability is hard, but it humanizes people and the brand. I think it actually brings credibility. 

Timeliness: Listen, like really listen. What is the community talking about? What conversations are the physicians and staff having? What is the data telling you? Who is inquiring? Then, be responsive. Be nimble. Be inclusive. 

Christine Kotler. Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Baptist Health South Florida (Miami): Our team believes that trust is instinctive. That is why we are committed to affirming Baptist Health’s position as the place people instinctively turn to for all their healthcare needs. To achieve genuine trust, people want to know that you’re there for them and their families, not only when they need you, but always. They want to know not only that you will take care of them and their loved ones, but that you will always do what’s best for them. Being connected to that human experience is what drives us and is foundational to our trust-building strategies that distinguish us as a healthcare system driven by compassion and humanity. 

Nearly two years of unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic prompted us to adapt and reimagine how we lead in the healthcare space. The answer was a more intimate, community-focused approach. When people see our pineapple logo, we want them to immediately experience that feeling of warm, compassionate care. We strive to connect with that very personal human element in every aspect of our work. We have done this through proactive and personalized messaging.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have evolved from being a content creator for our brand into a trusted resource for the community. Though not mutually exclusive, the crisis demanded we shift our mindset quickly. The pandemic proved that knowledge is power, and our community leaned on us for the vital information they yearned for, more than ever before. Knowing what was at stake, we took that responsibility very seriously. Through tireless work and creativity, we stepped up to inform the community about COVID-19 — from what was happening inside our hospitals and outpatient facilities to what was happening outside in the community and even around the country and how people could best protect themselves.

Our content creation teams pursued innovative strategies to directly connect with our audiences in real time by developing, diversifying and enhancing our many platforms, from podcasts and blogs to social media live events and earned media. Our marketing and digital teams employed that same approach through reprioritized messaging activations on our website, mobile app, newsletters and text messaging capabilities. We focused on providing content that was relevant to all age groups and demographics and gave our physicians a platform as trusted experts in the community, providing insight into how the ever-changing circumstances of COVID-19 were impacting other healthcare conditions, hospital safety and operations and personal safety in a way that contributed to people’s health and well-being. Through this, we met our community’s growing needs, answered important questions and conveyed reliability, honesty and accuracy when people needed it most. By offering choices of access to this information, being transparent and listening to our audience, we were able to forge that level of trust that defines our brand.

Jonathan Lewin, MD. CEO of Emory Healthcare (Atlanta): Emory Healthcare is honored to be recognized as one of the most trusted health system brands by the American Hospital Association and its collaborators on this project. Improving lives and providing hope to those we serve through exceptional clinical care is paramount to our work and is demonstrated by our caring and talented team of medical experts, clinicians and care team members every day. We thank them and our community for putting their trust in us.

Trust-building strategies that have been successful for us include good communication between our healthcare teams, our patients and their families; being transparent with our patients and our workforce; and providing exceptional and compassionate care across a range of specialties, as well as clinical trial and research opportunities. 

As an example of communication and transparency during the pandemic, we worked together with other local health systems in metro Atlanta to coordinate communication in dealing with the many challenges posed during COVID-19. These included surges in cases, shortages of supplies, how to screen visitors at the hospitals and more. By sharing best practices and collaborating, we worked to create common messaging, education and transparency for the public.  

Emory has also excelled on the research front during the pandemic, conducting clinical trials of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccine candidates, and working with Pfizer on developing the pediatric vaccine. Emory researchers have also been instrumental in testing COVID antiviral medications such as remdesivir, and invented and discovered the antiviral molnupiravir through Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory. Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics then commercialized the drug after licensing it from Emory. In early November, molnupiravir was approved by the U.K. as the first antiviral pill approved for use against SARS-CoV-2, and on Nov. 30, molnupiravir went before the FDA for emergency use authorization discussions in the U.S.

Emory’s advancements such as these put much trust into our health system and university as leaders in the field of medicine.

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