I overheard this a few months ago at a conference:
“Our CNO and CMO really need to reach consensus on whether we can synergize our clinical operations with those CTAs and make sure we are on brand.”
It was so cringe worthy that I ducked into a hallway to text it to myself for later contemplation.
What I think he meant was: “Can we keep the promises our advertising is making?”
The worlds of consultancy and advertising share an affliction with health care that I call Buzzword Dependency Syndrome (BDS).
The cause of this disorder is giving too much power to certain words. As the buzzword bandwagon rolls downhill, that institutional momentum builds like a snowball with every mention. And it can do real damage to an organization.
Sometimes, that bandwagon word is Brand.
As a brand consult, I fully embrace and understand the power of a relevant brand. A powerful brand can inspire trust, loyalty and patient volume…among many other powerful benefits. But like every powerful weapon, you must fully understand its capabilities AND limitations to wield it effectively.
So, what can brand NOT SOLVE?
Brand Can’t Fix a Bad Culture
In fact, it can make it much worse. Whether it is a comprehensive internal campaign or fervent chest beating in mass media, aggressive brand messaging from an organization with a well renowned culture of toxicity is not only useless and costly, it’s detrimental.
Of course brand is part of culture and vice versa. But bad culture always stems directly from poor leadership. If your organization has a culture of mistrust then talking about how great you are will only exasperate that distrust. And in health care, that distrust leads to a poor patient and caregiver experience—which is the death knell of a hospital brand.
This is especially true for health systems that are the largest employer in the community where word of mouth is much deadlier. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard in a focus group or survey something akin to “My husband’s aunt is a nurse at hospital ABC and she says that (insert terrible story here) so I don’t know what those commercials are talking about.”
That doesn’t mean brand isn’t a tool to help your culture improve. It’s all about commitment and proof. Once your leadership does more than talk, makes a tangible commitment to change and offers some finite proof points of reform, you are at a great place to start to integrate that into your brand message.
Brand Can’t Fix Bad Operations
Even caregivers who love their leaders can’t get around clunky operations that just make their lives and those of their patients difficult. Bad operations can come in the form of the catastrophically obvious or in death by a small thousand cuts. They all have different solves but brand really isn’t one of them.
Brand’s role in bad operations isn’t the fix but it’s definitely the vision. Defining the persona of your brand can tell you exactly what kind of experience you WANT your team and their patients to have, and you can shape your operations accordingly. Brand is the destination but it can’t directly fix the symptoms. That comes back to leadership coordinating with small unit leaders to fix the nuts and bolts of problems.
Brand Can’t Change Your Service Area
Health systems are somewhat unique in the branding sphere in the sense that they are very anchored to their service area. There isn’t really e-commerce for most hospital brands yet.
We always encourage health care leaders to benchmark other systems and industries but sometimes this goes too far. They are tempted to try and morph their brand into an identity that simply doesn’t fit their service area.
This is a mistake because the core DNA of any brand is authenticity. You have to own who you are and that means owning WHERE you are. If your brand is ultra sophisticated in voice and tone but you are serving a very rural or working class area, that’s not authentic.
Owning where you are is very relevant in other areas of your organization, such as physician talent acquisition. Many hospital systems struggle with presenting the strengths of their brand in a palatable way to physicians. Don’t try to be the system you are not. It will only set you up for false promises, and you want your physicians to match your true brand, not a fantasy organization.
If one of the most exciting things about working for your organization is honestly the super posh ski resort nearby, own that rather than focusing on hazy clinical plans that may or may not come to fruition. Doctors are skilled at diagnosis…especially at diagnosing malarkey.
Brand is a powerful word because it is a powerful thing. But make sure that power is applied appropriately.
In the long timeline of history, health systems are still relatively young in their brand awakening. Many CEOs are of the age where they still remember when hospitals “didn’t really have a brand” and therefore are prone to misunderstand it. As a marketer or leader, you are the champion of your brand. Give it the respect it deserves and be sure to deploy this weapon where it can make the most difference.