8 questions with the brand expert behind Northwell Health

The story behind the transformation of New York's largest health system.

Justin Wartell, managing director at Monigle, is not one of those brand guys who starts with an idea and then uses the process to make it so.

Wartell Justin

He's a practitioner. Someone who listens to data. You can tell he genuinely enjoys the analytical process. I sat down with Justin just a few days before the Jan. 1 launch of the rebrand of Northshore-LIJ, based in Great Neck, N.Y., to Northwell Health. On this day he wears a plaid shirt with a gray wool jacket. It's not hard to imagine him as a professor. A golf hat and pipe wouldn't look forced. When Justin talks, it doesn't take long to realize that he possesses a massive library of knowledge related to branding and what it takes to transform an organization like Northwell Health.

Question: What was your initial reaction when you heard that you were going to be working on this major healthcare system in New York? What excited you about it?

Justin: My first reaction was, "Wow, this is a gigantic organization!" The sheer size of Northwell Health is quite amazing. More than 20 hospitals, thousands of employed physicians, hundreds of clinics. We're talking about a huge, sprawling healthcare organization. And I think that's the part that was both most exciting but also a little bit intimidating as well.

Q: What's the single biggest thing that enables you to develop a brand platform for a large and complicated organization like this?

Justin: It's not just one thing; it's actually two. The first is data. The more that you can bring to the table, rationale for your decision-making, the reason we're trying to move the organization in the direction that we want it to, that's the most important piece of insight you need. The second piece then is the patience of communication and consensus building. When you have an organization of that size, you have to bring them the right information that you need in order to enable their decision-making or to help them along. But, at the same time, you have to be patient as things shake out, so to speak. And we always have to be conscious of the fact that sometimes it's a quick process, and sometimes it's a little bit slower, as in two and a half years of working through a rebrand at an organization like this.

Q: If you move too slowly, by the time you get to market, don't you run the risk that you have missed the window that your insights have opened?

Justin: It's always a risk. What we're trying to do is establish an idea around a brand that can stand the test of time and that won't become irrelevant, whether it's two or 10 years down the road. We do that by looking toward the future and setting the criteria around that brand — something that's relevant, something that's differentiating, something that helps an organization really stand by its own mission and culture — but also something that's stretchy enough to adapt to the way that the world might evolve.

Q: What was your definition of success going into this engagement?

Justin: For an organization of this size, being able to get them moving was our biggest objective. More from a Monigle perspective, the challenge is how do you help an organization that big take action to move as opposed to standing still? When we first walked into the offices there out on Long Island and started to do our stakeholder interviews, what really grabbed our attention was that this was an organization with an incredible appetite and energy for getting moving. Sometimes you encounter leaders across an organization or that variety of stakeholders who maybe aren't all the way bought in or are hesitant. However, this was an organization just eager and hungry to take action out in the marketplace, both from a brand and delivery perspective.

Q: What role do the people within Northwell Health play in making a branding effort like this possible?

Justin: From an organizational culture standpoint, it really started at the top. Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO, is a visionary healthcare leader who wants to do things differently, is willing to try, and is willing to push the envelope relative to the decisions that are being made. And that sort of mentality trickled out to many leaders across other departments within the organization and across their various geographies and facilities.

Ultimately, from a brand perspective, it was working with the marketing team who really took the reins on this particular branding engagement. Everyone from the head of marketing (Ramon Soto, SVP and chief marketing/communications officer) to his direct reports (Don Simon, vice president of marketing and Jen Nelson, senior director of advertising) to everyone who is responsible for pushing forward ideas around what this brand stands for. And, potentially even more importantly, bringing the right stakeholders to the table would be required in order to get folks on board and to move the project itself forward.

Q: Typically, great brands are defined as a single-minded idea. What was the big idea for Northwell Health?

Justin: To talk about the big idea, we need to step back a bit to what we learned in quantitative research. We do quantitative research in healthcare across the country, and we have a sense for what matters to consumers when they're making decisions. What was intriguing about the New York region in general is it was the only market that we've yet encountered where the idea of innovation — latest medical treatments, latest medical technologies, cutting-edge medical breakthroughs — where those ideas or attributes mattered. And that really surprised us. We didn't anticipate that particular insight from a consumer perspective.

When you think about that opportunity, it really sets up that something tied into innovation, breaking through, and doing things differently would have to be core to what we do. So the big idea really started with the way we carried the big idea forward. A sense of innovating at the cutting-edge of medicine, and really borrowing on much of what we've historically done as an organization — trying new things, pushing the envelope, challenging what's expected, and challenging convention. We were pushing to establish that cutting-edge mentality, that innovative breakthrough orientation, to the heart of what we do as a brand.

Q: How does Northwell Health define success related to brand looking forward?

Justin: Looking forward, we're starting with a series of internal metrics from an employee engagement standpoint. The excitement and energy that people have for this new idea, how they're living it on a day-to-day basis, manifests in a series of their patient experience scores and the assessments they do on that front. It's also a sense of how much proliferation have we gotten through the brand to the various parts of the organization. Has it taken hold across the enterprise?

Q: What about in terms of the business metrics?

Justin: As we start to think more broadly from a business metrics perspective, we want to see brand advocacy happening from a consumer point of view, positive patient experience scores associated with something that is distinct in the marketplace. Ultimately, we want to see people choosing us instead of someone else, especially from a big procedure perspective. We want to see people choosing us because we are the most compelling and relevant offering in the area. Not because we're located in Long Island versus Manhattan. Not because we're academically oriented or not. But because we represent what people want from a healthcare experience.

Over the next several months, we'll continue to explore the story behind Northwell Health. This series will provide answers behind what it takes to build great brands from some of the other people, both within Monigle and Northwell Health, whose unique experience and perspectives will shape Northwell for years to come. Connect with us if you would like to be notified when our next brand story becomes available.

Luke Bemis is a senior strategy director at Monigle. He has more than 25 years of experience turning ideas into reality, and making reality a better idea. 

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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