Why rebrand a health system now?

Even as hospitals and health systems deal with razor-thin operating margins, some continue to rebrand, sometimes changing a single word — or letter — in their names.

It can be an expensive proposition, as the organizations have to alter their signage, stationery and websites and educate the public about the rebrands through marketing and media campaigns.

But is there a right or wrong moment to do it? Becker's reached out to healthcare marketing experts to find out.

"It's a bad time to rebrand, unless you're merging," said Thomas Beeman, PhD, a professor of the practice of healthcare administration at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia and former president and CEO of Lancaster (Pa.) General Health. "Our problem is staff. We're spending an awful lot of money bringing outside agency help into our health systems, and we have to fix that problem. So rebranding and bringing a lot more patients into the institution probably doesn't make a lot of sense in my estimation."

Three big health systems announced rebranding efforts in recent weeks. The scope of their change varies.

Brentwood, Tenn.-based LifePoint Health said it was making the "p" in its name lowercase. Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare declared it would be dropping the "care."

At least one system gained its first official name: Corewell Health became the new moniker for the combined, 22-hospital entity of the former Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Spectrum Health and Southfield, Mich.-based Beaumont Health, replacing the temporary "BHSH System."

"Our new brand and logo are essential parts of our work to unify the new system," a Corewell spokesperson emailed Becker's. "That’s why we included the rebranding work in our integration plan. The rollout will take a couple of years beginning in early 2023, with appropriate measures to minimize cost."

The marketing experts interviewed by Becker's all said a merger is a valid reason to rebrand, no matter the economic conditions.

A spokesperson for Intermountain, a 33-hospital system, said more details would be released once the rebranding begins in 2023 and pointed to the organization's September announcement. "The name change signals an increased emphasis on whole health-focused initiatives while staying true to Intermountain’s rich foundation of providing extraordinary care for the communities it serves," the health system stated at the time.

Lifepoint Health, a for-profit chain of 95 hospitals across 29 states, declined to comment for this story.

Besides a merger, other good reasons for a name change include an addition in service lines or if the brand has become stale, measured in quantifiable ways like net promoter scores, said Markus Saba, professor of the practice of marketing and executive in residence at the Center for the Business of Health at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Bad reasons might be that you just brought in new leadership or a new marketing agency that wants to put its personal stamp on the organization, Mr. Saba said.

"I've never known of a good financial time to do it," he said. "If sales and operations are all going in the right direction, you're not going to ponder changing a thing. You're always making these decisions when there are not enough funds, when margins are getting squeezed. From a purist marketing perspective, if the criteria are met, you almost by default have to do it."

None of the three big systems undergoing rebrandings would specify how much they expected them to cost. But healthcare marketing experts told Becker's they can range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars (and typically more than initially anticipated).

It obviously depends on the size of the organization. When Whidbey General Hospital in Coupeville, Wash., became WhidbeyHealth in 2016, officials estimated the cost at between $90,000 and $115,000. The rebranding of Mass General Brigham, the Boston-based system made up of Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital that used to be called Partners HealthCare, reportedly cost around $100 million.

Leonard Berry, PhD, a distinguished professor of marketing at Texas A&M University in College Station, said badly timed rebrands can corrode the mood of your workforce, especially if they happen amid staffing shortages and high turnover.

"People working in the trenches might be saying, 'Why isn't management investing money in the work we're doing and bringing in more people to help us?'" he said. "You have to have a really good reason to rebrand, and in these times with such extreme financial pressures you'd have to have an extra really good reason to rebrand."

Dr. Berry studied as a visiting scientist at Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic in the early 2000s, writing a book about its management. Mayo didn't advertise for the majority of its existence yet became one of the most valuable healthcare brands in the world, largely through word of mouth, he said.

"The best way to build a strong brand in or outside of healthcare is to improve the efficiency and the effectiveness and the quality of the service you provide," Dr. Berry said. "That leads to customer retention, that improves staff morale, that makes everything better."

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