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A Conversation with Ascension's 'Chief Storyteller'

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   January 10, 2022

Nick Ragone, JD, shares how Ascension's marketing strategy is driven by the organization's mission and a strong focus on storytelling.

Everyone has a story worth telling, and healthcare organizations can utilize that tool to connect with their patients and consumers.

One organization that leans into storytelling is Ascension, a large nonprofit healthcare system headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. Nick Ragone, JD, who has served as the executive vice president and chief marketing and communications officer at Ascension since 2014, utilizes the inspiring stories of patients and staff in the organization's marketing.

Ragone recently spoke with HealthLeaders about how Ascension's marketing strategy is driven by the organization's mission statement to advocate "for a compassionate and just society through our actions and our words" and a strong focus on storytelling.

The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HealthLeaders: What role does marketing serve for Ascension?

Nick Ragone: The way I look at it is for marketing and communications, our job is to tell the extraordinary stories of our caregivers who are inspiring, and the patients and the communities that we serve. That's our true north when it comes to marketing and communications.

Ascension has a mission that drives everything we do. When most companies talk about a mission statement, they might change every five years or 10 years with a new leadership team or new strategic direction. But our mission has been with us for over 100 years, and it's pretty simple. It's to provide care for all, especially those in need, and to advocate for a compassionate, just society. From that mission flows our priorities when it comes to marketing.

My title is executive vice president and chief marketing and communications officer, but I do my job as a chief storyteller, and it's a great perch to be on. It's a privilege because I get to tell some of the best stories in healthcare, particularly over the last two years during the pandemic.

HL: What stories have you been sharing over the past almost two years during the pandemic, and how have you've utilized those in your marketing?

Ragone: Over the last few years, marketing has been solely focused on gratitude for our caregivers, and keeping our patients safe.

When the pandemic hit, like most organizations, we had to reorient a lot of what we did, including how we market ourselves. We weren't focused so much on service line marketing or other stuff. We distilled it down to show gratitude for our caregivers and to make sure our patients know what we're doing to keep them safe and healthy.

It's two years into the pandemic and that's still the focus of our marketing. About a year ago, we launched our caregiver gratitude campaign, which has been an extraordinary campaign. We use an original composition from Kelly Lang, who's a singer/songwriter based in Nashville, and she was actually a patient of ours 10 years ago. She had breast cancer and has talked about it publicly. She wrote an inspiring song 10 years ago based on her experience with us called "I'm Not Going Anywhere." Last year, we matched it up with the visuals of our caregivers who, at the height of the pandemic, were truly a lifeline to many patients and inspired this campaign of gratitude.

We just launched the second phase of that recently, called "Hope and Healing." It features the voices of our associates talking about why it's meaningful for them to be at Ascension caring for our patients.

We track our brand awareness and reputation in all of our markets every single day through a brand tracker survey, and over the last 18 months, our reputation and our trust has increased by double digits in almost all of our markets. It has been very affirming that we've had the right approach of focusing our storytelling around caregiver gratitude and patient safety.

On top of that, we're continuing with this idea that patients want to know that they're going to be safe at your site of care, and you're going to make them healthy and well, and focusing on that aspect.

Those two themes are going to extend beyond the pandemic. We're going to continue to find vignettes, personal stories of individual caregivers who have done extraordinary things, and individual patients who have overcome the odds. We are blessed to have many powerful examples and testimonials of extraordinary caregivers and patients, and we're going to continue to use those as the foundation of how we storytell.

HL: What are other ways that you measure ROI and the success of your campaigns?

Ragone: The brand tracker survey is the primary way because it's quantitative data. These are consumer surveys of our brand strength, which is an algorithm of a bunch of things, but mostly it's awareness and positive attributes or reputation. It's powerful because it's a consumer survey, so it's not based on experience, it's based on your understanding of our brand in its specific market.

We also look at social media engagement. It can give you a directional leaning as to whether or not a campaign is landing the right way; with the attributes of the comments, whether they're positive, negative, or neutral, you can get a sense of that as well.

In the last 18 months to two years, all those metrics have been really positive for us.

HL: What mediums do you find to be the most effective for your marketing initiatives?

Ragone: We take an omnichannel approach and we look at it in two ways.

One is qualitative marketing, which is what I would consider more awareness. That typically tends to be what we consider more "traditional media." We still do quite a bit of television advertising, it's an important medium for us in all of our markets, and particularly during the pandemic, people have been home. We do a lot of what they call pre-roll on YouTube and other video sites, both TV commercials as well as online video. We still do invest in billboards and print. In some of our smaller markets, print is still important and very powerful. And radio, too.

And then the other part is quantitative marketing, which is more data driven and more direct to consumer. We have that great qualitative awareness and, now, underneath that we have this strong CRM-focused (customer relationship management) direct to consumer marketing, where it speaks to using data, and trying to then speak directly to consumers about what type of care they might need from us, whether they're at a certain age and they need a colorectal screening, or we opened up a new urgent care near their house and they should check that out, or we have these different service lines at our local hospital, or did they enroll for a primary care physician. It's taking that brand awareness and then trying to be direct with consumers and patients about how we might be able to serve their care needs.

Over the last year, we've invested heavily in that CRM digital marketing to partner with this qualitative awareness, and it's taken us from good to great when it comes to making sure that we're not just creating awareness for the essential brand, but we're then targeting consumers to a site of care or to help them in some way with their care needs.

HL: Since Ascension has such a wide footprint, what challenges have you faced in marketing across the different communities?

Ragone: We're in 19 states, we have 2,700 sites of care, so we do have a wide footprint, which is great, that means we can touch many lives.

As a marketer, as the chief storyteller, it does present challenges, and so about five years ago we integrated the marketing team. Prior to that, marcomm was spread out and each market had their own approach, their own team, their own partners and vendors. We integrated and consolidated that, so we have one marketing team now. Doing that has made it much easier for us to be consistent in the way we tell our story. It's consistent; it's the story of Ascension. How we tweak it from market to market is on the omnichannel approach in which channels we're going to pay more attention to or less attention to depending on the needs of that particular community.

Having a consolidated, integrated marketing team has made all the difference in the world. We're in a much better place to speak with one voice and act quickly and act nimbly and be effective as storytellers.

HL: How will Ascension execute its marketing vision in 2022?

Ragone: We're going to continue to tell the story of our caregivers through the gratitude campaign, and focus on patient safety and wellness. Those two themes are going to continue to be our primary themes.

As we build out this quantitative side of the marketing, the CRM approach, we're going to continue to lean into that. As we continue to hopefully get past the pandemic, our qualitative marketing themes won't really change.

We're going to become more familiar with how to connect with patients and consumers on that one-on-one level and refine that model.

Great marketing, to me, is like a harmony. You have certain notes like qualitative marketing and quantitative marketing, and when done well, you hear all the notes of that harmony, and when that happens, you feel it. Because of our brand tracker, and other metrics, we'll know when we are clicking on all cylinders on that.

Now, as we have this national brand, we started looking for signature brand moments as part of our marketing to bring our brand to life. From a qualitative marketing standpoint, it's not just about TV commercials, and at-home, and billboard, and radio, and print, but also now leaning into signature brand moments. One of them in September was the Ascension Charity Classic PGA TOUR Champions event, which we did in North St. Louis County, which has been underserved for a long time.  All the proceeds from this event went to charities in North St. Louis County, The Urban League, the Boys and Girls Club, and Mary Grove, which takes care of abused teens. We blew past all of our modeling when it came to attendance and sponsorship, and because of that, we were able to give back a million dollars.

It has opened up our eyes to the possibilities of the power of having these signature brand moments, not just to raise awareness for the Ascension brand, but to lean into our mission to create some energy around social change.

“My title is EVP and chief marketing and communications officer, but I do my job as a chief storyteller. It's a privilege because I get to tell some of the best stories in healthcare.”

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

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