Today's Reality for Hospitals: Brand is the New Must Have

The following has been excerpted with permission from InterbrandHealth.

The distant rumble of change that has been approaching the hospital community for years has landed with a roar on the desks of management and boards. Now, in the face of shrinking reimbursements, rising operating costs and a rapidly changing healthcare culture and treatment system, hospitals must rethink their delivery of superior and cost-effective care if they are to be successful in the future.

This will often require a modified business structure to accommodate accelerating changes in delivery of care. Understanding this new environment and a hospital's distinct and sustainable position within it is key to long-term success. Now more than ever, the ability to communicate positive change, make an emotional connection and create lasting relationships is critical.

This sea change as an opportunity for hospitals to develop a strong brand as well as an opportunity for the brand to bridge institutional gaps, differentiate the organization, galvanize stakeholders, attract consumers and strengthen bottom lines.

A strong brand provides a lifeline that will outlast this current sink-or-swim environment.

What exactly is a brand?

A brand is far more than a symbol. It embodies tangible and intangible qualities that create value; it influences both how an organization functions and how it is perceived, internally and externally. From a marketing or consumer perspective, it is the promise and delivery of an experience; from a staff perspective, it is a culture and mission; from a business perspective, it is the security of future earnings; and from a legal perspective, it is distinct intellectual property.

Brand and hospitals

Hospitals handle the same sorts of organizational, bottomline and consumer issues that affect any business. But hospitals depend on a uniquely extensive and varied range of stakeholders for their ultimate success. They also trade in delicate and emotional concerns and services beyond standard business fare — matters of life and death. And while hospital customers are not always customers by choice, choice is playing an ever-greater role in where and how they get care.

The need for brand differentiation

Patient expectations and desires are changing, altering the competitive landscape. Some prime features of this shift are:  

Increased patient choice and empowerment, generated by the following:

  • Healthcare reform is and will continue to revolutionize nearly every aspect of how patients approach hospitals, from top to bottom.
  • Economic changes have increased patient price shopping.
  • Digital transparency, especially the government's Hospital Compare and Physician Compare websites, offer patients instant access to data that strongly influence choice. The ratings that patients give hospitals on these sites are now tied to federal reimbursements. So not only might a patient's feedback on a hospital experience influence a future patient's hospital selection, it also affects non-consumer funding.
  • Communication technology, particularly social media, has amplified and accelerated word of mouth and, with it, consumer power. While this is a well-stated trend across all industries, its ramifications for hospitals are unique and sometimes delicate.

The rise of comprehensive services — such as office visits, pharmacy, wellness programs and so on — add functional as well as cultural layers to coordinate and communicate. They also raise patient expectations for what a single hospital should offer. More and more, this includes full-paying customers who seek exclusive, "five-star"-style accommodations.

The current trend toward wellness and preventative care affects consumers' approach to hospitals. Patients increasingly seek health care guidance in the absence of illness and, following a diagnosis, desire a broad and nuanced variety of options.

All of the above economic and cultural factors amount to steeply increased competition.

Hospitals are no longer just providers of healthcare, and therefore need brand to drive strategy, convey their expanding range of services and assets and create lasting relationships with varied constituents. An increasingly competitive environment calls for a more strategic and well defined brand platform.

The keys to transforming your organization

The same forces that increase competition also offer hospitals great opportunities to differentiate themselves, own markets, and find their way to the other side of the current turmoil — on a clear path they can follow into the future.

Ask yourself some vital questions:

  • What are your hospital's greatest assets? State-of-the-art facilities? Preeminent doctors? Competitive pricing? Respected history? Specialty expertise? Renowned teaching facilities? Even a high-end cafeteria? Chances are your hospital can boast a combination of these and other strengths. The key is to determine which combination is the most differentiating and develop a robust yet flexible brand that embodies and broadcasts those attributes.
  • How do you reach patients before they become ill or injured? Make your hospital top of mind locally and in wider markets? Establish to what degree you want to reach patients and how you want to reach them. The tools that offer consumers new power also give hospitals the opportunity to speak directly to consumers and provide channels for two-way communication. As you identify your target markets, you will need to contact them in varied ways. It's critical that brand aligns all platforms, language and media.
  • How will you attract and retain talent that suits your hospital? By applying a confident, differentiating brand, you can draw exceptional staff who, through brand-right behaviors (known as employee engagement) help attract and retain customers — which will in turn perpetuate the brand's differentiation and strength.
  • Do you want to be considered either a local hospital or a destination hospital? The popularity of destination hospitals opens up a whole new realm for messaging. As hospitals gauge the roles they play in local communities, many recognize that their strengths at home can transmit more broadly. Whether to capture the attention of corporate collaborators or individuals — in your community or further-flung regions — the keys here are definition and differentiation.
  • Are you using new media to your full advantage? Both social spaces and the government's Compare websites offer organizations unprecedented access to insight that can be used to monitor the brand message in real time; to see where and how your hospital is being encountered and evaluated, every day. This can help you learn the language of decision — the very words patients use to frame and convey their experiences — which you can reflect back to them via brand. It will also help you efficiently discover new markets and improve operations. Many hospitals now have websites and Facebook pages that both track and shape the customer journey, serving as both forum and foyer. These virtual spaces are where many patients first "enter" a hospital, and are where they might most often return and refer others. You want yours to be welcoming, organized, dynamic and definitive, and reflective of your brand.
  • Are you conveying your purpose to local leaders and legislators? The definition and tenor of your hospital's local presence will be both mirrored and broadcast by media and policy makers who could have a say in how your hospital receives funding and projects permission. The more coherently you project your brand, the greater your power of persuasion.
  • How will you navigate restructuring? The tumult caused by new legislation as well as mergers and acquisitions can be best charted by a definitive, unifying brand. During transition — especially for smaller hospitals being integrated into larger, more sophisticated organizations — a strong brand can steer the message, improve efficiencies, reassure communities and unify all stakeholders.

Ultimately hospitals need to engage a wide variety of stakeholders — from current patients to potential patients, employees, payers, donors, employers, government, volunteers and media — while streamlining the message. The brand is a powerful business tool that, if strategically defined and creatively expressed, has the ability to galvanize and inspire all of these groups and provide the vision to drive business performance, culture, experience, emotional connections and attitude. By defining and applying brand consistently across every touch point, from the get-go, hospitals can harness flux and transform it into stable momentum, for the long term.

Gwane Levey is InterbrandHealth's Director of Global Strategy where she leads many of the company's engagements, from consumer health product branding to corporate M&A re-brands. Gwane lives in New York City and is a graduate of Columbia University. To learn more, contact or (212) 739-9671.

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