How to build a consumer-centric brand architecture: Insights from two leading health systems

“How do the leading brands do it?”

That’s a question health care brand leaders consistently ask when it comes to brand architecture strategy.

In our five decades in business, we’ve found brand architecture to be, by far, the most political and complex aspect of the brand challenges our clients face. Brand architecture has a direct impact on organizational structure, profit and loss management, consumer experience, and internal and external perception of the brand. The topic is especially relevant in health care, considering the environment of ever-increasing mergers and strategic partnerships within the industry today and for the foreseeable future.

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, brand architecture — the way you organize and present your portfolio of offerings based on how consumers want to engage with you — is a key tool to cut through the noise and differentiate your organization. As consumers demand higher levels of participation and engagement, a consumer-centric brand architecture drives awareness, consideration, satisfaction and revenue.

We recently discussed brand architecture with our clients from two of the nation’s leading health systems. Elizabeth Kistner, Executive Director, Brand Strategy & Consumer Research at Mercy, and Kim Vecchio, Director of Brand at UCHealth, shared insights they’ve gained while helping to guide their organizations’ respective rebrands. While the conversation hit on a wide variety of architecture challenges, three key aspects rose to the top:

1. Physician Practices
Physician practice branding is one of the most challenging tension points that health systems have to address in brand architecture. As health systems continue to acquire practices and grow their provider networks, consumers see the benefit of their primary and specialty care physicians participating in a larger network. The ability to access a more diverse range of specialists, better knowledge sharing, and seamless coordination of care are some of the key consumer benefits.

However, physicians have put a lot of their lives into building their practice brands, and often argue that their name is the real brand. Therefore, the integration of physician groups is a delicate discussion that requires significant data supporting the change, and respect for the value they bring to the organization.

In the case of Mercy, its offerings are unified under a single brand — a pure masterbrand strategy. As Mercy was shifting to this brand architecture during its rebrand, the organization removed every individual physician practice name and replaced it with a name that followed the new nomenclature: Mercy Clinic – service line – location. The results are practices with names like Mercy Clinic Primary Care – Watonga and Mercy Clinic Family Medicine – Carthage.

“Our physicians were essentially coming together to create a united, integrated clinic organization across all of our communities,” said Kistner. “Renaming individual practices was part of the culture-building process of moving toward being part of one organization, one unit.”

The renaming process was difficult, requiring a back-and-forth with hundreds of clinics on name choices, and then the ensuing implementation steps like business cards, website updates, legal work, etc. was also controversial.

“There were some physicians who struggled with using the term ‘clinic,’ because it had different historical connotations in different communities,” said Kistner.

While the majority of practices were receptive to the standardized naming system, some had deep reservations; a few even left the organization. Still, for all of the struggle, Kistner said the resulting cultural transformation and unification made it all worthwhile.

“The process was extremely important to the overall outcome and success of the physician clinic venture,” said Kistner. “As a result, it helped to make Mercy Clinic a much more cohesive organization, instead of looking and feeling like a collection of different practices.”

2. Service Lines
Many health care organizations today are using system-wide service lines to demonstrate integration and promote capability over location. Service lines allow health systems to capitalize on the strength of one or more locations, and institutionalize that capability across the system.

UCHealth has cardiovascular teams in three regions. Prior to rebranding, each region used a different convention for naming this service line. When Vecchio and her team proposed a unified service line name, Heart and Vascular Care, the regions expressed their concerns.

“We brought the key stakeholders into a room and offered them a bunch of names and told them they needed to align on one,” said Vecchio. “From a consumer standpoint and a consistency standpoint, alignment was critical.”

Ultimately, as long as the regions called themselves something within reason, UCHealth marketers didn’t have strong feelings on the specific name chosen. The most important thing to them was to have one service line name, to be used across the organization, that would simply and clearly convey the capability to consumers.

In the end, the stakeholders walked out of the room having decided on the same name that was originally proposed: Heart and Vascular Care. But because they had been involved in the process, they felt comfortable backing the new name.

“They were brought in and they had bought in,” said Vecchio.

3. Children’s
Children are an audience, not a capability or a service line. Because of the unique nature of this audience, children’s hospitals and centers can benefit from an extra degree of warmth and friendliness. This is the one area where consumers want (and expect) some distinction outside of the unification desired everywhere else. The degree to which children’s entities are distinguished from the enterprise brand is typically driven by perceptions and stretchiness of the enterprise brand.

During its rebranding process, Mercy elected to go in a unique direction with its children’s entity, creating an extension to the masterbrand strategy. Prior to the rebrand, the organization didn’t have a distinctive children’s brand, although it was in a marketplace where other organizations did. To add to the lack of visibility, Mercy’s chief competitors had standalone children’s hospitals to go with their standalone children’s brands, whereas Mercy’s two certified children’s locations were hospitals within a hospital.

Mercy conducted research that indicated the St. Louis community was highly familiar with Mercy’s children’s care and considered it a strength of the system. This, combined with market forces, contributed to the decision to create the first of what would be two sub-brands: Mercy Kids.

Like the physician practice branding, this decision was not without controversy, with some pediatricians objecting.

“Using the term ‘kids’ in the name was seen by many as not serious enough,” said Kistner. “There were doctors who wanted to use the term ‘children's hospital’ or ‘pediatrics,’ because that sounded more specialized. We consciously decided to give ourselves a unique name in our marketplaces that would be friendly, accessible, and celebrate the fact that we have a full continuum of care.”

In Mercy Kids, Mercy created a single unifying children’s brand that could be applied across multiple locations and serve to elevate children’s care across the system. The organization even locked it up with its own identity, adding “Kids” onto the Mercy logo in a different typeface, and developing some different graphics and colors for the sub-brand. Today, the initial resistance is a thing of the past.

“The Mercy Kids brand has been completely embraced internally at this point,” said Kistner.

Final Thoughts
Physician practices, service lines and children’s branding are just a few aspects health systems must account for when approaching brand architecture strategy. Other considerations include academic affiliations, partnerships and donor naming.

While brand architecture is often regarded as a means of structure and organization — a way of making it easy to identify entities and convey how everything fits together — when done right, it can be a catalyst for improving patient experience. A strong brand architecture not only fosters cultural unity in health systems, it helps consumers understand who you are, what you offer and where you operate — all in a clear, easy-to-navigate manner.

Gunnar Jacobs is executive director at Monigle. An expert in brand architecture, he has more than a decade of experience in helping position and rationalize some of the nation’s leading brands, both in health care and across industries.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Becker's Hospital Review/Becker's Healthcare. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

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