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Marketing Among Giants

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When leaders at St. Agnes Hospital first considered introducing a new marketing campaign, one formidable obstacle immediately sprang to mind: Johns Hopkins Hospital. Located in Baltimore, 308-staffed-bed St. Agnes faces a competitive market dominated by its famous neighbor. But during the rebranding process, St. Agnes was surprised to discover that having a rock star in town actually has little impact on its marketability.

The first step in defining St. Agnes’ market position was to determine the community’s perception of the hospital, says John Welby, St. Agnes’ marketing and public relations manager. With the help of Owings Mills, Md.-based marketing firm MGH, St. Agnes queried focus groups and arrived at some surprising conclusions.

Feedback suggested that area consumers felt good knowing Johns Hopkins was around the corner if they needed that level of expertise, but they realized it wasn’t the only hospital capable of caring for them. “Although Johns Hopkins towers in the rankings, it doesn’t mean that the other providers in town are perceived as second class—at least that’s what the consumers were telling us,” says Steve Hasler, MGH vice president and account planner.

Baltimore hospitals aren’t forced to compete at the level of Johns Hopkins, but its presence means the bar is set a little higher. “Medicine in the U.S. generally has a trickle-down effect,” says Welby. “The major academic medical centers are usually the pioneers, so techniques and technology trickle down from those places to the community hospitals.”

With the Johns Hopkins question answered, St. Agnes turned its attention to the rest of the competition. Research showed that, because so many hospitals advertise the “best doctors,” the “best technology” or the latest procedures, people assume all hospitals provide the same level of care, Welby says. That revelation gave St. Agnes a niche not claimed by others in the market. “We decided to distinguish ourselves by not focusing exclusively on technology and expertise, but to weight our message to that compassionate side.”

—Kara Olsen