How to think about branding healthcare services

There are principles that make the consumer branding model for consumer services a dead end for healthcare services.  Many types of healthcare services exist. There are hospitals and other point-of-care practices such as walk-in clinics, practice management groups, medication distribution services, and health insurance companies.  Let’s use hospital service brands as a surrogate for them all as these are perhaps the most typical examples of what’s true about all healthcare service brands.  Here are three reasons healthcare service branding differs significantly from branding for consumer services.

  1. Nobody wants to jump on the bandwagon.  Service brands—brands that perform a task or deliver things like care and access rather than tangible goods one can hold in one’s hand—have a unique opportunity to engage customers on many sensory levels.  Think of a hotel chain such as Ritz Carlton.  The brand identity promises to make you feel like you “have arrived” both psychically and physically.  They situate their hotels in the most picturesque locales (in New York City, there is one with a front row seat to the Statue of Liberty and New York harbor, and one on Central Park South).  When you look out the window of your room, you behold a view reserved primarily for millionaires.  But the brand let’s anyone feel well off if only for a night.  The lobbies are appointed in the same privileged fashion, with luxurious fabrics to the touch, colorful and soaring floral arrangements to reward sight and smell, and a hushed atmosphere that suggests they’ve been waiting for you and you only.  Brilliantly rendered service brands are brands you want to join.  You can literally steep yourself in a world that reflects the person you wish to be.  You can visit and revisit this world knowing that the brand experience starts with a rush of anticipation, submerges you in a 360º flattery bath, and endures long after you leave.  Now think of a hospital.  You will only go if you absolutely must or are carried there in a screaming ambulance.  The lights are harsh.  The smell is inorganic.  You are surrounded either by sick people who, like you, don’t wish to be there; or by a staff that is overworked and primarily concerned with filling out the correct paperwork so that you are effectively logged into the system.  Despite the brave efforts that hospitals make to put forth a brand identity that is caring, competent and up to the challenge of making you feel like yourself again, the reality—the brand behavior—can never create a brand experience that people want to join.  Quite the opposite: the brands are successful if they become a place that comfortably keeps you there for the absolute minimum amount of time necessary.  It’s no wonder that alternative centers for care are becoming an increasingly popular option.  Walk-in clinics, outpatient service centers and even certain chain pharmacies are creating a service experience that truly leverages what people feel about themselves when thinking about health and wellness.  That is, a) fit into my life; be located near the same places where I grocery shop or pick up the dry cleaning; b) respect my time; I want to get in without an appointment, get seen and then get out without feeling like I’m being detained in a gulag; and c) don’t make me sicker than when I came in.  The goal of branding a healthcare service follows the same primary principle of medicine itself: first, do no harm.  Rather than trying to buck the notion that healthcare service brands can become an idealized experience of modern medicine, the most successful service brand identities in healthcare embrace the idea that you won’t be any more worse off for engaging with them than not.  A low bar, indeed, but a reality that most consumer agencies fail to accept.  Take the scenario I just laid out, and then recall the identities resulting from a consumer branding model.  Patients—or actors playing patients—appeal to you as a “person” who put themselves and their woes into the hands of a hospital brand.  Cue the harp or soft piano music.  The tales unfold of lives regained, knees rejuvenated or daughter’s weddings attended.  Does anybody who has ever been to a hospital buy these fantasies? You can’t always get what you want, a successful healthcare brand would sing.  But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.
  2. The service can never be good enough.  You’ve all witnessed hospitals trying to differentiate themselves.  The best doctors.  The best department of oncology or cardiology or maternity, etc.  The best, most advanced equipment.  While such aspirations are commendable from both a branding and care-giving discipline, they are doomed to fail over time because of the nature of delivering a healthcare service.  That is, by nature, things go wrong, even under the best of circumstances.  Sickness and disease are unpredictable.  Doctors are only human, and as such, fallible.  People will die unexpectedly.  Even if 99% of the time the healthcare service brand succeeds in fulfilling its identity as, say, having the best maternity ward, it will be that 1% wild card variable—that inexplicable stillborn delivery—that will threaten to bring down the brand.  No consumer service has such a high bar of perceptual success.  Even FedEx, arguably one of the premier package delivery services, loses track of a package once in a while.  But because it is not a life or death matter, people accept that these things happen to the best of us.  Not so with healthcare service brands. There is no forgiving.  In addition to placing all their eggs in one rickety basket, healthcare service brands that try to build the brand from the inside out create an echo chamber that prohibits much needed differentiation.  People believe that most hospitals have decent doctors, decent departments and basically the same level of care as every other brand.  At the beginning of the second decade of this century, I was brought in as part of a team to help a very fine hospital build a better identity.  The hospital is Maimonides Medical Center, one of the top facilities in the nation, yet struggling to win hearts and minds in New York City, where four of the other best hospitals in the nation compete.  Here are some properties of the Maimonides brand: it is a center of excellence for cardiology, oncology and surgery; it delivers more healthy babies each year than any other hospital in New York State; it is an academic teaching center, which means that it trains many of the medical students who are in the process of becoming doctors; and it is situated in Borough Park, Brooklyn.  Of all the good things about Maimonides, this last item has caused the majority of the brand’s difficulties in getting recognized as a top New York City hospital.  Branding research showed that the most esteemed hospital brands in New York City are in the flagship borough of Manhattan, not the outer boroughs, regardless of the hard statistics about good care.  One patient in the research reported having a heart attack, and then taking a 40-minute taxi ride into Manhattan for treatment at Columbia-Presbyterian even though he lived minutes from Maimonides.  So great was the equity of Columbia-Presbyterian—an Ivy-League affiliated teaching hospital in Manhattan—that this man literally risked his life to be treated at an institution on a parity with a hospital in his own back yard.  The good people at Maimonides had tried to build their brand identity on the “best” properties of which every other institution availed itself.  Yet there was no overcoming the fact that Maimonides was in Brooklyn, and that Brooklyn was considered second best to Manhattan in all things.  Our advice was to build the brand from the outside in: find out what people prize most about being a Brooklynite, and then transfer that equity to the Maimonides brand.  Forget Manhattan.  There are 40% more people in Brooklyn than in Manhattan. That’s 40% more lives for which to care. (Hospitals and insurance companies often express their value by “lives” in their care.) And if you ask people in New York City where they come from, they don’t say New York City, they say the specific borough.  We discovered a pride in being a Brooklynite that was unique.  The values of tough under pressure, no nonsense, a fighting spirit and a melting pot unequalled in New York resonated with potential Brooklyn patients.  These were also the values that were credible and relevant for the Maimonides staff and brand of service.  Manhattan hospitals, by contrast, were seen by Brooklynites as bureaucratic, elitist and disingenuous, promising medical experts at the top of their field, but making them available to only select patients. We wanted to make Maimonides Brooklyn’s brand of hospital.  That year, the New Jersey Nets basketball franchise moved to Downtown Brooklyn and became the Brooklyn Nets.  Maimonides signed up as the Official Hospital of the Brooklyn Nets.  The branding in the promotional campaign appealed to what Brooklynites wanted in their hospital: a pride of place.  (It even used the colloquial spelling for the borough, Bklyn, which all locals use.)
    Bklyn ThrivesBKLYN BornBKLYN Heals
    Over the past decade, Brooklyn has taken on vital positive equity in the arts, dining and housing industries, and Maimonides was among the first brand to tap into the electricity.  They still have excellent doctors and facilities, but for a healthcare service brand, which can never be good enough because of the life or death dynamic inherent in the practice, Maimonides accepted that reality and found a way to thrive by faithfully reflecting the values of customers.
  3. The service does not have the luxury of refined customer targeting.  Unlike Ritz Carlton, which can afford to focus on only those key customer segments that seek out its brand of luxury, healthcare service brands must take on all comers.  No matter if you are a lawyer, a plumber, an atheist or an Orthodox Jew, a descendant of the Mayflower or a newly arrived immigrant, when you become sick and in need of a healthcare service, you join the grumpy fraternity of the unwell and require the same assistance as everyone else.  Consumer service brands have the luxury of deciding if they wish to target a specific gender (the spa for women), a specific income range (the tennis club for the upper class), or a specific nationality (the Irish Bar Association).  Any such segregation for a healthcare service is not tolerated and seen as an attempt to restrict a basic human right.  It is an inalienable property of a healthcare service brand that it be egalitarian.  Admittedly, this is a generalization with some exceptions, such as those private rooms for the wealthy one hears about in certain hospitals, or the Platinum-grade insurance plans available to those with greater discretionary lucre than most others.  Usually, these aspects do not make it into the brand identity, but rather exist as an unadvertised secret.  For the most part, though, universal appeal is a reality that must be accounted for when branding healthcare services.  This creates a unique challenge.  When targeting a particular segment of the population as do consumer service brands, it is much easier to create a homogenized set of values that are held dear by a specific group of people. For example, a spa that targets women only will create a brand identity based on values that only women esteem, excluding men, which translate into a brand promise, branding hallmarks (logo, color, tag line) and other aspects of the brand experience that reflect women’s sense of self. But healthcare brands must try to be all things to all people, and this is a formula that fails more often than it succeeds.  A brand identity is most successful when it stands for one thing.  Revisiting the consumer package delivery business, FedEx owns the idea of certainty—the best odds that your package will be delivered when they promise it will.  DHL owns the idea of global access—there are many different rules in many different countries, and DHL knows how to navigate those circumstances.  The United States Postal Service (USPS) owns the idea of frugality—it will deliver your package for less than the other carriers.  For healthcare services, trying to be all things to all people often results in a fractured identity.  Forced to be egalitarian by the dynamic in which it exists, a healthcare service brand all too often will perform opportunistic plastic surgeries to its brand identity that may attract buyers in the short term, but lose traction with everyone over the long term.

When thinking about healthcare branding, it must be appreciated and understood as a separate and distinct discipline from consumer branding models.  Healthcare branding agencies understand that their task is to play tennis with a higher net than their consumer counterparts. A healthcare brand experience must account for—and even overcome—the forces at work to undermine all the good a healthcare brand can do for customers on all sides of the buying transaction.  A healthcare brand experience must find the silver lining that lies somewhere in the dark cloud between illness and wellness, where no matter how good it gets, it can never be good enough.   Choose your branding partner wisely.

Updated for 2018 5 ways service branding differs from product branding


4 Responses to “How to think about branding healthcare services”

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  1. guy mastrion says:

    I really like what you’ve captured Vince. This is the essence of the challenge for healthcare brands. At the emotional, cultural level these brands are in a perpetual no-win situation that, in my humble opinion is exasperated by chasing the industry that has spawned up around healthcare.

    The Maimonides work is a great example of a brand truth — the essence of what makes the brand relevant at the emotional level, beyond all the stats and great work they do for people like you and me, is the pride and recognition that Maimonides is Brooklyn.

    It’s a really nice piece of work that gets to the heart — pun intended.

    • Vince Parry says:

      Thanks, Guy. “Perpetual no-win situation” is a cogent way to put it. We rarely get great branding in healthcare, but when we do, it is a miracle on the order of the fishes and the loaves. All the planets must align.


  2. lisa mattison says:

    I think the name of the Bklyn hospital is difficult ot pronounce and hard to remember
    the name should be changed as well

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