Extinguishing False Marketing Claims

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, March 26, 2008
I hear healthcare marketers complain all the time that the hospital down the street from theirs is playing dirty marketing tricks. Publicizing quality numbers that don't quite tell the whole story. Running ads that make grand statements without backing them up. Paying for placement in spurious "best physicians" lists or advertorials in the local newspaper.

A chant of "liar, liar, pants on fire" is out of the question (c'mon, that's so beneath you). So what's an honest marketer to do?

I have to confess that, although I'm passionate when it comes to writing about marketing, I'm often dispassionate when it comes to our competitor's claims. Why? Because I know that we do a better job of covering the healthcare industry. Of course we keep an eye on what our competitors are doing. But our own marketing team does an excellent job of getting the word out about what we do, differentiating our products from our competitors', and promising our customers an excellent experience. And our editorial staff and our operations teams make sure we deliver on those promises.

As it turns out, that's also a good strategy for hospitals, according to Elizabeth Blevins, account supervisor for Finelight, a Bloomington, IN-based consulting firm. The knee-jerk reaction--responding directly to competitor's claims or starting a war of words in the media--rarely works. "You'll never win. We've seen other clients try it, but you just never win. The best way is to just educate consumers and let them ask the necessary questions," she says in the March issue of HealthLeaders magazine. The story, Marketing--Claims You Can't Ignore describes two cases of hospitals that responded to a competitor's inaccurate or misleading marketing. One took an educational approach, sending out a direct mail piece touting its own strengths without directly mentioning the other hospital. Another took a much more direct approach, calling up the competition and asking them--nicely--to cease and desist.

Candace Quinn, a consultant who represents a Midwestern hospital, watched for months as the competition made unsubstantiated claims about its superiority. "They used every rating and ranking and listing to put themselves in a superlative situation," says Quinn, chief executive officer of Brand=Experience in McLean, VA. "It was as if they looked at their own data and decided that no one could be better."

Quinn could have filed a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. She could have ranted and raved in the local press. She could have tried to fight fire with her own misleading campaign. Instead she wrote to the competitor's marketing director and asked her to stop making the unsubstantiated claims. And guess what? It worked.

No playground chants involved.

Editor's note: Don't forget to submit your entries for the 2008 HealthLeaders Media Top Leadership Teams Conference and Awards. Deadline for entries is March 27.

Gienna Shaw is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at gshaw@healthleadersmedia.com.
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