Finding your story: How system execs, strategists rebranded the combined Wellmont-MSHA entity into 'Ballad Health'

Even before receiving the final approval from the Tennessee Department of Health Jan. 31 to officially move forward with their merger, Kingsport, Tenn.-based Wellmont Health System and Johnson City, Tenn.-based Mountain States Health Alliance executives and their partners at Monigle, a Denver-based brand experience agency, were working hard to establish a reputable, differentiated brand and story for their combined entity.

Monigle, which also led the rebranding of Great Neck, N.Y.-based Northwell Health several years back, said their goal for the Wellmont-MSHA rebrand was to craft a new identity for the organization that reflects the region's cultural roots. With input from both systems' leaders, employees, patients and community members along the way, officials rebranded the organization "Ballad Health," and have begun rolling out promotional material for the new brand on social media ahead of the organization's formal launch Feb. 2.

Justin Wartell, managing director of Monigle, and Jordyn Greenberg, lead strategy consultant working with Ballad Health, spoke with Becker's Hospital Review Jan. 29 about building the brand and the opportunities and challenges they faced along the way.

Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What excited you most about working on the prospective project?

Jordyn Greenberg: What was really exciting was that our clients, Wellmont and MSHA, were located in a different part of the country in a very culturally and economically unique area, and in terms of health status. It was interesting for us to flex some different muscles and think differently in terms of how to build a brand that really connected to the community and to the region. That focus on community and culture became the focal point for a lot of the work we did.

Justin Wartell: It's not often that you run into an organization that is so intimately connected to the communities it serves. You really felt Wellmont and MSHA's presence and impact in some of these more rural communities in Tennessee. We tried to articulate and bring to life a brand that was so intimately connected to their audiences. It was pretty interesting and exciting for us in that regard.

Q: How did you come up with the "Ballad Health" brand name?

JG: For this effort, we did extensive research, conducting stakeholder interviews, employee focus groups and physician surveys. We also spoke with local communities and patients. What we started to see was that while medical outcomes, top doctors and innovative approaches to medicine often are top drivers of choice for health systems, what rose to the top for these folks was that patients really wanted to be listened to — they really wanted to feel that personal connection with a provider, at the bedside and in any interaction they have with those delivering care. They really wanted to feel that this organization would have their undivided attention. That understanding became the catalyst for everything we created and why it's such a meaningful thread woven throughout the organization's brand.

The name "Ballad Health" comes from the definition of the word "ballad," a story or song from an anonymous author. As these two health systems came together, we thought about how all of the legacy elements of the systems must be left by the wayside for the organizations to begin a new story together.

Q: What was your "plan of attack," so to speak, to develop a brand platform for a large and complicated organization like Ballad Health?

JW: When we build brands, we often talk about it in terms of the "inside-out" and "outside-in" perspectives. For an organization like this, the "inside-out" approach involved gaining an understanding of the collective vision among key leaders, the elements that are different and those that are shared among the different stakeholders involved. The "outside-in" component refers to the research. We have to talk to members of the community, patients, folks that maintain different levels of engagement with the organization, and understand what they want from a healthcare brand, and how we can build intimacy with and advocacy for a brand in this unique market. By combining those two perspectives, we're able to get to discover the intersection of ideas that are shared between the stakeholders of the organization and the needs and expectations of the audiences they hope to serve.

If you think about the main components of a rebrand, you think about the data collection and the discovery steps we undertook to get started. From there, we moved into the more creative steps of the process where we defined the brand's story and determined how it translates into a name and a logo. What's interesting and often surprising is that that's really where the hard work begins. Getting to the name is the easy part; the hard work comes after when you have to figure out, especially for an organization of this scale, how to get signs on buildings, digital properties converted, new business cards into peoples' hands, and a new culture and shared behaviors deployed across thousands of employees.

Q: What were some of the difficulties of crafting this new brand from scratch?

JW: The biggest challenge associated with the work wasn't under our control — it was the number of delays we all encountered as the health systems sought to obtain regulatory approval for the proposed merger. That was probably the most significant disruption throughout the course of the project.

In any rebrand situation, you also always encounter some level of hesitancy to change, especially among long-standing legacy members of the organization and physicians who don't want to see certain elements of their own practices be deprioritized in support of the system's brand. In this case, the solution was to ensure staff, physicians and community members were thoroughly involved in the process to help them understand the brand and what it could represent for them. We included tenured employees who tended to identify with a specific hospital instead of this broader system and engaged them in a dialogue about the change that was underway. The creation of such an incredibly powerful story really helped to get them on board.

Q: What, in your opinion, are the keys to making a rebranding effort stick?

JW: One of the biggest and most important practices is the notion of using that "inside-out" perspective to make sure people understand why the change is happening and why they should get on board. The way you do that is through ongoing engagement — continually bringing people into the process and getting their opinions, as well as holding people accountable to deliver on the behaviors tied to the new brand to make sure the change doesn't feel like a fad.

To make the rebranding stick, you also have to be able to see it through with consistency to ensure the brand comes to life through every touch point — our physical plant, our digital properties, even in the behavioral interactions we have with patients and community members. If an organization is all about storytelling, it doesn't help if a patient walks into a facility and doesn't get that sense of story from their interactions. That philosophy must go from the bottom of the organization to the top. An organization's CEO and senior leadership team must use the brand as a filter for their decision-making, ensure the brand's tone and style comes through in every touch point and then ensure those ideas are being upheld across the organization.

Q: How involved were leaders at both MSHA and Wellmont in making this rebrand possible?

JG: We make sure the rebranding process is very much one of co-creation, and our clients are involved throughout every step. That includes collecting feedback from health system officials, weekly calls with smaller working teams, and bringing in a cross-section of the organization to stress test go-forward ideas, especially around employee engagement. Our goal throughout the process is to ensure everyone begins and remains aligned, and Wellmont and MSHA have been great in their understanding that they're engaging in this rebranding effort for the community — that realization and understanding has really been able to push the project forward full-force, and has allowed everyone to keep in mind the bigger picture. It's been relatively easy in terms of building that consensus and agreement among everyone involved as the systems move toward Ballad Health. Leaders at both systems were also very proactive at including community members throughout the entire process.

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