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What's Your Brand?

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Magazine, November 14, 2008
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That's what your patients want to know. But hospitals are discovering the same old differentiators aren't good enough anymore. Is YOUR organization ready to deliver on its brand promise?

Your brand is how the world sees your organization. Hospitals and health systems typically fall into one of a handful of brand archetypes: The medical center that's famous for its top academic staff and cutting-edge research. The regional hospital known for its specialties—the best place to go for cancer treatment or to deliver a baby. A small community hospital that's beloved among locals for its caring nurses and personal attention.

Each is a valid differentiator. But are those differentiators enough? A convergence of market trends has hospitals across the nation asking that question. For starters, rising competition means your claim to be the best-quality hospital won't differentiate your organization if every other hospital in your market is saying the same thing. Then there's the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' recent focus on patient satisfaction; a new survey tied to reimbursement focuses not on quality measures such as mortality rates, but asks patients about their experience at the hospital. The Joint Commission has also tied patient experience and employee behavior to safety with its recent directive on disruptive physicians.

Finally, there's the new breed of informed patient-consumers. They no longer think doctors are infallible and will turn on a dime to go to another hospital. They'll scold a nurse who doesn't wash his or her hands upon entering the room. They talk about their healthcare experiences to anyone who'll listen. And people listen.

Those trends are prompting more hospitals to improve the patient experience. Private rooms with picture windows, gourmet meals, high-speed Internet access—these are no longer novelties, but a standard blueprint for renovations and new construction. Suddenly patients have a choice between the same hospital they've always known and a shiny new facility with spa-like amenities and a soaring atrium. Parents can choose to go to a children's hospital that is known for its quality care, or they can go to a children's hospital that has the latest equipment and their kids' favorite Disney characters roaming the hallways.

All other things being equal, which hospital would you choose?

If you want to grow market share—or, for that matter, keep from losing market share—you had better figure out a way to make sure it's your organization that today's patient-consumers prefer. To do that, senior leaders must reach beyond platitudes to create a genuinely unique identity—and put systems in place to make sure their customers actually experience what their brand promises.

Through others' eyes
Delivering on the brand promise starts with a clear understanding not only of how you want to be known or how you promote your organization, but also how your employees and customers actually perceive your brand.

Start by asking employees what the organization is about, says Kent Seltman, senior marketing consultant at Mayo Clinic and coauthor of Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic: Inside one of the world's most admired service organizations. If the answer isn't clear and positive, you have work to do.

Before they become patients, people connect to a brand based on what others have told them, including the hospital in its advertising and branding, says Leonard Berry, professor of marketing at the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University in College Station and Seltman's coauthor. That information might come from their referring physician, friends and family who are former patients, or information gathered online. But once a person becomes a patient, once they enter the front doors of the hospital, the personal experience "starts to overwhelm what you came into the facility with," Berry says. "In other words, the real experience quickly overwhelms the anecdotal experience."

True brand meaning, then, comes from direct contact.

So how do you influence the way patients and others perceive your brand? There are three categories of clues that influence those perceptions, Berry says:

  • Functional clues include the technical quality of the hospital's service, such as the appropriateness of procedures and accuracy of test interpretations.
  • Mechanic clues include the conditions of facility, such as whether the hospital is clean, modern, and quiet.
  • Humanic clues include how people act, such as their body language, their tone of voice, their enthusiasm, and how they interact with others.

"So when a patient enters a hospital, the patient enters into what becomes a cascade of clues—hundreds of them. It's just a torrent of clues," Berry says. All those clues add up to the total patient experience and affect how people view an organization.

"A lot of people think customer service is training people to be very nice. But you really need to have systems that enable people to deliver good service. You just can't get by with smile training," Seltman says.

The patient experience
Cleveland Clinic's brand strategy has been to position itself as a household name that's synonymous with quality clinical care—and it's done a pretty good job at that. But even an established brand can benefit from self-reflection and improvement. When the clinic fell down on some patient satisfaction measures on its Press Ganey surveys, the board of directors made improving the patient experience one of the clinic's top strategic directives—in fact, they put it on par with quality clinical care.

"The board said, ‘If you don't do this one, you have no brand. This is who you are, this is what you do. If you don't provide a great experience and quality clinical outcomes, you have nothing,'" says Bridget Duffy, MD, Cleveland Clinic's chief experience officer. Duffy is the first CXO of the Cleveland Clinic Health System, made up of nine community hospitals and three affiliate hospitals.

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