July 12, 2017

The Most Powerful Word in Hospital Marketing

During our 30 years as a health care brand consultancy, we’ve worked with hundreds of hospital Chief Marketing Officers in various capacities. Through these long relationships, many of these executives have become close friends and confidants.

From executive board meetings to TV shoots and endless ‘deaths by PowerPoint,’ we have the privilege of being by your side and observing you in your natural habitat.

Yes, the view from the cheap seats is different. Being able to step back and add a fresh perspective is easier when you aren’t asked to put out fires all day. We get that.

But 30 years gives us a lot of data. We’ve come to recognize the common traits every rock star CMO shares. When it comes to CMOs, we can usually tell who will struggle and who will triumph.

That fresh perspective has led to some interesting conversations about the noble creature that is today’s Hospital Chief Marketing Officer. In these conversations, I have come to notice something.


And that word is: No.

The power of no has certainly been discussed across many disciplines and subject matters. It is perhaps most prevalent among therapists who are coaching clients on difficult relationships, often rephrased as “establishing boundaries.”

With that in mind, the power of no is amplified in the health system marketing space.

And that’s because so much of a hospital CMO’s work life is based on relationships and boundaries. It’s about your relationship with your CEO and C-Suite colleagues. It’s about physician relationships and speaks to your relationship with service line leaders.

Learning to effectively yet diplomatically leverage the power of no is a crucial building block to gaining professional respect.

And that’s critical because respect is the 100,000-pound gorilla in health care marketing that we simply don’t talk about enough.

The vast majority of health systems are just waking up to the power of brand. They’re just now grappling with this new consumer driven world of health care. Many leaders simply don’t know how to utilize your department’s talents to win in this new world. More health systems are operating under an archaic marketing paradigm rather than seeing marketing as a tool to increase volume and enhance the patient experience.

This is further amplified by the simple fact that most hospitals are exceptionally patriarchal. Most CEOs and health system boards are still run by older men and more than half of CMOs are women. Despite all our efforts, we will all bring generational and gender politics into our interactions and this can further complicate the issue of building understanding and ultimately, respect.

They can’t listen to you if they don’t respect you as this new solution to health care’s transformation.

And they can’t respect you if you are doormat who says yes to every request.

We encourage our clients to build “Stop Doing” lists. This list in compiles all of the things that aren’t directly focused on building your brand and feeding the patient lifeline. Of course, the more often you say yes to the minor requests, the less you can work on these major initiatives. Father Time is a jerk like that.


You know what these requests are. But as a refresher, let’s take a look at some of the requests that come from the dusty tomes of classic hospital marketing:

“I want to do an entire series of ads about all the awards we’ve won.”

“Physician Group ABC is mad. Let’s do a series of ads about them to give them some love.”

“I want you to lead that nurse recruiting seminar. You do events, right?”

“Hospital ABC is talking about their new gizmo. We need to get our ad about our gizmo out there ASAP.”

We’ve seen CMOs of all stripes get these types of questions. That’s common. But what differs is how the CMO answers them. The most effective operators resist these requests. Those that don’t will continue to tread water—and if the disease of knee-jerk “Yes” answers continues, they’ll never get traction on the initiatives that really matter.

Marketers must be seen less as doers and more as thinkers. Thinkers answer questions with more words than just yes. And when your answer is no, what’s sure to follow is some productive conversations about marketing’s true role. Your requestor may not like it, but they’ll know your point-of-view…they’ll know you’re a thinker.


Of course we know that the best warriors pick their battles. You may know that your CEO has a strange thing for that sign at your outpatient center and it will sometimes make sense to simply change the sign per his request and live to fight another day.

But you’ll find that saying no gets easier with each incident. Even if you must relent on an issue, resisting non-essential requests sets the table for future encounters and may even weed out some silliness if a colleague knows your stance based on a previous debate.

Humans take the path of least resistance. Don’t make that path you.

How have we seen it done? Let’s go back to our request list where I’ve paraphrased some real replies we’ve seen from some of the best CMOs we’ve worked with.

“I want to do an entire series of ads about all the awards we’ve won.”

“I can see why we’re so proud of all these accolades. We can certainly work some of these awards into our tactics. But I don’t recommend that we lead with such self-serving messaging. I’d like to explore leveraging them more internally to recognize the people who earned the awards.”

“Physician Group ABC is mad. Let’s do a series of ads about them to give them some love.”

“I’ll look at our physician engagement scores first or ask them if advertising is the root of the problem. I’m really focused on patient volume right now in our campaigns and if physician engagement is going to be partly my responsibility, I’d like to have other colleagues to help on that front because I know we’ll need more than advertising if they are really that unhappy.”

“I want you to lead that nurse recruiting seminar. You do events, right?”

“If you need some support, I can look at my staff availability but it’s best that departments lead their own events if they are not marketing oriented. We are focused on our patient volume campaigns right now.”

“Hospital ABC is talking about their new gizmo. We need to get our ad about our gizmo out there ASAP.”

“We’re working hard to focus on what makes us different. Let me do some research to see how compelling this new technology might be to patients. I’d like to look at our other messaging in that service line and get back with you to figure out how we can use this to make us stand apart even more.”


Take notice from these real-world replies. They don’t really say no literally (hence the diplomacy). But what they are doing is saying no by changing the conversation to more productive grounds.

Whether you ultimately lose and have to do the darn nursing seminar anyway isn’t what it is all about. That will happen.

The power of no comes with the conversation that follows. You can’t really lose if your boss or colleague has a better understanding of your department’s vision and capabilities. With that understanding, you’ll find they are more likely to bring you initiatives that you will eagerly say yes to.