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Dartmouth Health Marketing Exec on Building a Brand and a Career

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   July 06, 2023

Jennifer Gilkie shares the evolution of her role and how she helped lead the rebranding efforts of New Hampshire's only academic health system.

Editor's note: This conversation is a transcript from an episode of the HealthLeaders Podcast. Audio of the full interview can be found here and below.

Jennifer Gilkie joined what was then Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center to serve as VP of communications and marketing in 2017. As the system grew and became an integrated academic health system, so did Gilkie's marketing and communications responsibilities. Gilkie became system VP of communications and marketing in 2021, and then most recently was promoted to serve as chief communications and marketing officer for the system, now known as Dartmouth Health, this past February.

In a recent podcast interview, Gilkie shares the evolution of her role and how she helped lead the rebranding efforts of New Hampshire's only academic health system.

She also shares her unique career journey and learnings taken from her experience in marketing and communications for NewYork Presbyterian, and outside of the healthcare sector with American Express and the New York/New Jersey 2014 Super Bowl Host Committee.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HealthLeaders: What initially drew you to work in marketing and how did you become a marketing leader for Dartmouth Health?

Jennifer Gilkie: I think of myself not as just a marketing leader, but as a communications and marketing leader. I arrived in marketing more from a communications journey than a marketing background. I was drawn to the role because I often consider myself more of a generalist than a specialist because I've had a very circuitous career path. I had worked in healthcare previous to Dartmouth Health, but a lot of my experience came from outside the healthcare realm.

When we moved here to New Hampshire, it was about seven years ago, I wanted to stay in healthcare, and I wasn't sure where I would land. As luck had it, about a year and a half into our journey here, there was a position [with Dartmouth Health, and] this was one of the organizations that I had identified when we lived in New York that I thought I would really connect with; I thought 'that's an organization where I would really like to work.' [A] position became available, and I was so grateful that I could be interim vice president of communications and marketing. Then I ultimately became a permanent member of the team at a pivotal time in the organization.

I was drawn to Joanne Conroy as our CEO; I'd heard great things about her, and working for female leader, I was super excited to have that opportunity. She was beginning to carve out her vision for building a stronger integrated academic health system and I felt like the organization was full of communications and marketing opportunities.

One of the first things I did was identify that we needed a strong marketing leader on my team. I hired a fantastic senior director of marketing to help me and to partner with me in reshaping what we were doing around marketing.

HealthLeaders: What are some of the biggest learnings you've taken into healthcare marketing and communications from outside sectors?

Gilkie: I worked for the New York/New Jersey 2014 Super Bowl Host Committee, which is an organization so opposite of healthcare. A lot of people aren't aware, but it's similar to when a city is awarded an Olympics. The city that's awarded the Super Bowl by the NFL creates a host committee to host the Super Bowl, and it was a three and a half year position. I often say it was a once in a lifetime experience.

Part of what we did, and this is something I learned, was how to build an external facing brand. Nobody knew about the host committee or the Super Bowl, and we had to build an identity for it. We built it from the ground up: we had to have a logo built, we created a mission, we created a sub-organization that was called the Snowflake Foundation. We knew that we wanted to leave a mark on the region that would be long lasting, so we did a lot of charitable work. We partnered with the Boys and Girls Club to renovate swimming pools and we did a lot of work with nonprofits, as well as messaging to the community.

It was the first time [the Super Bowl] had ever been hosted in the cold weather climate—we had all of these firsts—so that was something that we really grabbed on to with our messaging. It was the first time two teams had hosted. It was the first time two states had had been part of the Super Bowl. Building that brand and the importance of creating a strong identity was something that I feel that I brought to Dartmouth Health, and understanding the importance of a positive association with a brand and what it can do for an organization.

When I worked at American Express, one of the things that I learned was the importance of events. That events work carried into my time at NewYork Presbyterian, because as we were building out their regional health system, one of the things that we went after to start to build the brand around NYP and the messaging around the expertise, was to go into the community. We sponsored a lot of community events or we partnered with community organizations to support their existing initiatives. In that way we were trying to drive the importance of community. We think of ourselves as a world class organization, but at the same time, we want to have a voice in the community and an identity in the community. So that was something else that I wanted to bring into my job at Dartmouth Health.

HealthLeaders: Can you share more about leading Dartmouth Health's recent rebrand journey?

Gilkie: It started before COVID and I really think of it as a journey. We were down the path of taking the time to reach out to the community; we did deep dive research, we talked to the community, patients, all of our organization members. We wanted everyone to have a voice at the table on what our new identity would be. We spent a lot of time talking to agencies. We had selected our agency [and] they had come up to start to do initial interviews with some of our leaders and then COVID hit. I will not say that we stopped the rebrand, but we certainly slowed it down. We had fits and starts just as the pandemic had fits and starts; there were times where it just had to sit and wait and then we could get back to it. It took a total of three years, which is quite a lengthy time for a rebrand. We did it almost entirely by Webex and Zoom calls because we had to. That was certainly a unique aspect.

The piece that was most important for us from a marketing perspective was around market research, and we're continuing to use that to understand what the perception and the awareness of the existing brand was, what we needed to change, and then are we being effective. We tested our tagline, the best where it matters most. We spent a lot of time with focus groups and formally testing it. And then we were lucky enough that it resonated and we are continuing to work with that.

We also joined Monigle in a national research study, The Human Brand Experience, because one of our goals with the rebrand was to build recognition and awareness of Dartmouth Health on a national level. We do some amazing and innovative work at Dartmouth Health in collaboration with Dartmouth and Geisel, and our clinical trials. So, we took a step back and we said we want to make sure that the region and the local community understands what a gem they have here. We really consider it a responsibility and a privilege to care for our local community, but we also want to make sure that we have an identity on the national landscape.

HealthLeaders: Earlier this year, the system announced your promotion to chief marketing and communications officer. How have your roles changed from when you first joined the system in 2017?

Gilkie: I would say that the role evolved and grew because we took on more work as we became a more integrated academic health system. It's really important for our health system that every system member has its own unique nuances and characteristics for their community. Each of our member organizations has its own unique conversation that they bring to the table, their own unique patient community, but at the same time, we're one organization and we want to figure out how we support one another. That's what led to the evolution of my role in building that bridge between the members, and the medical center, and the clinics.

HealthLeaders: What advice do you have for women and others who aspire to either be leaders in healthcare or marketing and communications?

Gilkie: One of my greatest influences and supporters was a male, Al Kelly, who was the president of American Express, and who I worked for. He was without a doubt the most amazing leader I worked for. At the same time, he was an incredible supporter and mentor for me as a woman and growing my career. In fact, he also worked for the Super Bowl, and I followed him. He was the one who pointed me toward healthcare and said 'maybe, you want to explore this area,' when we were winding down the Super Bowl Committee. He taught me a really important lesson, which is as a leader, you want to have people around you who are better than you in the areas that they specialize in. That's my example about hiring a really amazing [marketer], because I knew marketing, but I need somebody who would be a deep expert in this area to help us be effective. And he said to me many times, 'don't ever be afraid of having somebody who knows more than you do work on your team. That's what you want, to be successful.'

As a female, I would say I've learned along the way from a lot of really amazing women. Be visible in your organization and own your accomplishments. So often, I think women are a little hesitant. Early on in my career, I learned this was a common feeling, that you could feel a little bit like an impostor. Don't ever feel like an impostor. You should own your accomplishments. You should own your role. You should be visible.

As a leader, be transparent and vulnerable. It's okay to have emotion. It's okay to feel that you can relate on an emotional level. There's nothing wrong with that. I am honest and transparent with my team about how I'm feeling. I think that's important.

I would also say humor. Humor is to me, something that's very important, not just for leaders, but for all women, to be able to laugh a little bit at your foibles.

“We want to make sure that the region and the local community understands what a gem they have here. We consider it a responsibility and a privilege to care for our local community, but we also want to make sure that we have an identity on the national landscape.”

Melanie Blackman is a contributing editor for strategy, marketing, and human resources at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

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