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Marketing: What Resonates Now

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What's good for Wal-Mart might not be good for hospitals. So what marketing messages and tactics do work for healthcare in these tough economic times?

Conventional wisdom says you shouldn't abandon or even cut back on marketing in a recession. The brands that have performed best over time—Wal-Mart and Nike are two frequently cited examples—are those that didn't "go dark" when times got tough. But hospitals aren't large retail chains. And they don't sell $300 sneakers.

"Studies advocate brand-building in downtimes in order to seed the market for economic upturn," observes Rob Rosenberg, president of Springboard Brand & Creative Strategy, Ltd. in Arlington Heights, IL. It's a good theory if you're marketing discretionary purchases, he says. But it doesn't necessarily translate to healthcare. "If you're in a marketplace that's had factory layoffs and closings and your hospital has had to lay people off, probably the last thing you want to do is be out there with a lot of splashy media," he says.

Instead of working to build brand awareness, organizations should look internally to make sure they're delivering on the brand promises they've already made to the community. "Brand building almost has to take a backseat to brand performance," he says.

And if your community has been hard hit by the economy, short-term solutions such as financial counseling, screenings, and education will resonate, Rosenberg says.

Leaders at Lehigh Valley Health Network, a 988-licensed-bed hospital system in Allentown, PA, were troubled about studies showing that healthcare consumers were putting off care for lack of financial resources. In February, they launched a Kaiser Foundation study campaign in English and Spanish that featured photos of its financial counselors—six full-time employees who work with patients to help them find ways to pay for care.

The campaign helped generate a 128% increase in calls from people asking for more information about the program over the same study period last year. Charity applications jumped 17.5%.

"It wasn't without risk. But life's about risk. We felt good about doing the right thing," says Charles G. Lewis, senior vice president of development, marketing, and public affairs at Lehigh.

The campaign got people talking. One of the three-hospital system's specialists was in line at the local WaWa convenience store and overheard one person telling another that without health insurance, she couldn't afford to get the procedure she needed.

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