Naming Challenges: When and Why to Consider a Brand Makeover

What’s in a name? Well, these days: everything. Health systems have a big punch to pack with a name that usually spans no more than four words. Let’s consider what hospitals are dealing with: The hospital industry is rapidly consolidating — there are new affiliations, collaborations and partnerships popping up left and right — reflecting the journey towards a “continuum of care”. There is heightened focus not only on high-quality care, but accountable care, and hospitals have adopted a new goal: to be known as centers of wellness in their community rather than places for the sick.

These are tectonic shifts in the world of healthcare — major changes in how consumers think about our nation's hospitals. Given these evolutions, hospitals may want to revisit their brand and question whether it accurately reflects where the hospital is headed.

From three names to one
Don Giller, senior project director at BrandEquity, headquartered in Newton, Mass., led the branding engagement for St. Peter's Health Partners — a new health system to be created by the merger of St. Peter’s Health Care Services in Albany, N.Y., with Troy, N.Y.-based Northeast Health and Seton Health. A rebranding process for the merger of three healthcare systems into one is a delicate situation, but in this instance, two of the systems were willing to take a back seat when it came to the name. St. Peter’s and Seton are faith-based systems, and Northeast is secular. The merged organization will be secular but respect the ethical and religious directives of the Catholic church. The logo for the new system, St. Peter's Health Partners.

"As a key part of the branding process, these organizations really emphasized the importance of market research, and they felt comfortable with the new name, because they had insisted that the naming process be based on objective information derived from exhaustive consumer and physician research," Mr. Giller says. "In 10 or 12 years, St. Peter’s had built a brand that surpassed the local academic medical center in virtually every aspect of brand equity. Seton Health and Northeast were won over by the fact that consumers had such respect for St. Peter’s."  

After 15 months planning, with up to four of those months dedicated to brand research, each system’s board signed off on the new name and devoted time to internally adjust before launching it externally.

"The systems are taking the time to get everybody behind it, or at least develop a neutral attitude to the new name," says Mr. Giller. Allowing proper time for employees to adjust is a large piece of the rebranding puzzle. After all, patient experience is the essence of the brand, he said, and employees are directly responsible for that.

Attention to detail
Mr. Giller said that one word in the new system's title was very deliberate. While "Partners" reflects a literal collaboration among the three merged systems, it also reflects an attitude.
"The word 'Partners’ is important. It not only conveys three organizations coming together, but they do intend to creatively partner with payors, businesses, the physician community – and other provider organizations," he said.

With hospital consolidation on the rise, it will be interesting to see if branding campaigns have more collaborative undertones to help foster relationships with outside providers. Still, while promoting a spirt of collaboration, all of the system’s four acute-care hospitals have high loyalty with their local populations and will retain their names as part of St. Peter’s Health Partners’ branding, according to Mr. Giller.

One word, it seems, can make a significant difference in an organization’s name. For instance, a recent survey showed that American consumers prefer "hospital" rather than "medical center." Interestingly, the word hospital connoted a wider range of services, better quality and more up-to-date medical care. Consumers are also under the impression that hospitals are more likely to have physicians who are experts in their field compared to medical centers.

When rebranding might be appropriate
It goes without saying that hospitals need to rebrand when merging or forming a new system, but when else might a makeover be appropriate? Mr. Giller says that there are three distinct occasions when hospitals should reconsider their name and logo. First is when there has been major recalibration of the hospital’s mission or strategy, and the current name may no longer reflect it.

"Generally, this is a positive situation and a strategic decision," says Mr. Giller.

In January, Indiana University Health Goshen changed its name from Goshen Health System to better reflect a 10-year-old partnership between the system and IU Health. While the partnership wasn’t new, research found that consumers did not know the health system had an academic affiliation, leading to the change in name.

The second scenario is when a hospital faces a reputational issue.

"There might have been an issue years in the past, but it was a harsh situation and people don’t forget it," Mr. Giller says. "Hospitals might face a reputational issue that has been resolved, but they still need to remind the market of that resolve and help them move past it."

For example, Stroger Hospital in Chicago recently announced a marketing campaign to strengthen its market position and shake the poor reputation it has faced since the county-owned hospital opened in 2002.

Finally, hospitals might want to rebrand when launching a major new initiative that requires major masterplanning.

"This might be a facility project that requires a capital campaign, or some type of restructuring," says Mr. Giller. In instances such as this, he says that hospitals might have a name that is too small or focuses on the wrong aspect of their organization. A name might be very local even though the system is crossing county lines and becoming regionally renowned.

For example, Sisters of Mercy Health System, based in St. Louis, recently announced a change in name to Mercy Health, effective Sept. 1. Mercy will be added to the beginning of each individual hospital within the system — such as Mercy Hospital St. Louis and Mercy Hospital Washington — to prevent confusion, since hospital officials said that many people didn’t recognize the Mercy affiliation across communities.

Still, sometimes the best thing hospitals can do is nothing.

"Sometimes we go in and convince an organization to not make a change," says Ted Selame, president of BrandEquity. A name change is a large undertaking in the scheme of things, and hospitals might not need to go that far. Rather, a hospital might need to reposition itself in the marketplace or tweak its execution of its mission, vision or strategy, he said.

Related Articles on Hospital Branding:

5 Tips to Improve a Hospital's Brand
Rebranding a Hospital: Q&A With Jim Dague, CEO and President of Indiana University Health Goshen
7 Hospitals Undergoing Name Changes

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