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by Alina Wheeler
Published on October 31, 2018

Alina Wheeler is a branding consultant and author. Her book, Designing Brand Identity: An Essential Guide for the Whole Branding Team, is currently in its fifth edition. Wheeler demystifies branding and provides a comprehensive resource and roadmap for all brand builders


Branding serves a higher purpose

People need health care from the moment they're born and throughout their entire life. Just as the need for care is lifelong, so is a company’s need for building its brand. Why? A brand is a reputation. It’s a company’s largest asset. For hospitals and health care systems, it's what people say when they’re among friends. People fall in love with strong brands. They trust them and they believe in their superiority. It is vital to seize every opportunity to build trust and assure consumers that they have made the right choice – particularly when they’re making choices about their health care.

Building brand loyalty and investing in sustainable long-term relationships with key stakeholders (patients, health care professionals and partners) across a multichannel world is a business imperative. A strong brand can withstand the ongoing disruptions in the marketplace, and a differentiated brand will stand out in a competitive marketplace. Each positive experience with a brand helps build its brand equity and increases the likelihood of lifelong customer relationships. 

Being vigilant about the consumer experience has a high return. Positive experiences for consumers can fuel word of mouth and become referral and marketing engines.


What is branding?

Branding is the discipline process used to build awareness, attract new consumers and extend customer loyalty. View it as a critical ongoing business activity, like accounting. The branding process itself can motivate the examination of your organization’s direction, its aspirations and its promise to those it serves. It allows the organization to articulate its vision and measure how close they are to achieving it. It builds consensus among staff and stakeholders. It creates momentum to live up to your highest aspirations.

Hospitals and the health care industry start with a powerful competitive advantage since their shared goal is improving people’s lives. Health care revolves around the fundamental human condition – everyone has a story to tell and share. Everyone has had an experience.

In Jim Stengel’s book, GROW: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, the author states that businesses with the brand idea of improving people’s lives outperform their competition threefold. No industry is better suited to this mission than health care. As the industry shifts toward value-based care, many organizations are embarking on the branding process to reaffirm why they exist and what they are here to do. The mission statement must translate into tangible actions and communication. Today’s hospitals must understand the value of making sure that everyone who walks through the door understands the mission.


What is brand identity?

While brands are an emotional connection, brand identity is any tangible expression of a brand, from the hospital’s website to the welcome desk to the hospital room and even the donor recognition wall. Every touchpoint, whether it is in person or digital, is an opportunity to increase awareness and build consumer loyalty. 

In response to the constant change in the marketplace, these brand touchpoints, including mobile apps and social media, are evolving. A hospital’s website helps consumers choose from what can be a bewildering array of choices. Its mobile app may offer an intelligent wayfinding system that makes it easier to navigate a complex campus. Hospitals should optimize their logo and content marketing for digital.

When is it time to rebrand?

Leaders need to recognize when it is time to rebrand. Right now, the health care industry is undergoing significant change. There are a lot of moving pieces: regulatory ambiguity, updates to reimbursement policies, an increasing emphasis on the consumerization of health care and technological advancements. Some of the reasons that health care organizations start the branding process include a recent merger, a need to activate a new visitor/patient experience to stay competitive, or a need to envision a different future in preparation for the brand’s expansion into new service areas and locations.

The branding process focuses leadership on four key questions:

What do we want to be known for?
What do we do better than anyone else?
Why should consumers choose us over others?
How will we prove our competitive advantage?

For hospital leadership looking to transcend the noise and refocus their mission, it’s important to seize every opportunity to form long-lasting, trusting relationships with people on all sides of the continuum of care. This includes patients, their families, physicians, nurses, technicians and even community and financial partners. Brands don’t only apply to the consumer; they define an organization’s relationship to all its audiences.


Think beyond the customer

Although consumer expectations and insights have altered the way hospital leadership approaches branding, it’s important to think beyond the consumer. 

It takes strong teamwork and a belief that the hospital will do the right thing to optimize patient outcomes and deliver care at the highest level — and that comes from physicians, technicians and other clinical team members. Patients are trusting clinicians with their most precious asset: their health or the health of their parent or child or spouse. The clinical team is also trusting that their organization is doing everything it can to help deliver the highest quality of care. 

Hospital brands build trust with authentic achievements and core values. It doesn’t mean that things are perfect; it means that if things go wrong, there is a process for addressing them in a caring way, simultaneously valuing the consumer and improving the organization. If leadership can handle missteps with thoughtfulness and care, they become opportunities.


Use a disciplined process

A strong brand aligns with clear direction. It evolves from a disciplined process and takes into consideration leadership's vision for the future and an analysis of marketplace needs. Insights into the needs of consumers and the hospital's opportunities, weaknesses and threats also come into play. 

Strong brand positioning helps an organization grow and refocuses key stakeholders on the vision and mission of the organization. When done well, people throughout the organization — from C-suite leadership to individual clinicians — feel empowered and begin to “own” the new brand.


The 5-phase branding process

Brand management requires strategy, planning and orchestration. The five-phase process is a proven method used to achieve business results. Distinct phases define the branding process regardless of the size and complexity of the organization. The process includes research, brand strategy, design execution, launch and governance. Most branding projects involve individuals from various departments and outside consultancies to generate an interdependent sustainable solution. 

Although a branding initiative requires a mandate from the top, employee engagement is a critical success factor. Leadership must explain why the brand is important and give employees easy-to-use tools to bring the brand to life. As brands become more social, digital and experienced-based, our governance must be more agile.


Be the brand of choice

Great outcomes come from vision, commitment and collaboration. Organizations that use a disciplined approach to branding can achieve remarkable results. 

Before launching a new brand strategy or a revitalized brand into the marketplace, key stakeholders must understand why the change is necessary and how that change supports the organization’s core purpose and vision. Everyone in the organization needs to know that they have a role in protecting and building the brand. To be successful, brand builders need to stick to the basics, stay calm on the rollercoaster of relentless change and seize every opportunity to be the brand of choice.


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