Lee Echols shares insights on the Northside Hospital brand, recent successful branding campaigns, and new marketing learnings.
Marketing plays a significant role for Northside Hospital, a nonprofit health system headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. The five-hospital health system has focused on a few marketing campaigns in recent years, with a focus on more than just driving consumers to their locations.
Lee Echols, VP of marketing and communications for Northside, led marketing campaigns including "Healers, Helpers, Heroes," "Look to Northside," and "#TalkAboutIt," which were shaped by the impact of the pandemic, but looked deeper into what messaging the community needed at the time.
Echols, who joined the health system in 2014, heads the organization's advertising, marketing, media relations, social and digital media, employee communications, direct marketing, community partnership, and issues management.
In a recent interview with HealthLeaders, Echols shares insights on the Northside brand, recent successful branding campaigns, and new marketing learnings.
Experiencing Northside's Brand
The Northside brand has a strong reputation, Echols said, and several factors play an important role in its marketing strategy.
"We're proud of how the brand has led Northside to have a strong reputation as a healthcare provider in the Atlanta market. Our definition of the Northside brand is a little different: the brand is the total experience that patients, families, and employees in our communities have with Northside Hospital."
He added, "[We don't look at our brand] so much as a physical object or building, but from an experience, an environment of healthcare. I say that because that grounds us in all of our marketing decisions."
The strong competitive market also influences how the organization executes its marketing strategy.
"If you know anything about the Atlanta market, it is growing like wildfire, and will continue to grow for years and years ahead," he said.
According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, Georgia's population increased by 11% in the past decade, with Atlanta growing by 16%.
"We have a metro population of around seven and a half million people now. That's our primary service area, but within that service area we have several strong health systems [that] are our competitors. We're always interested in how our marketing messages resonate, both with our potential patients and with competing healthcare systems."
Another factor, Echols said, is how the health system is connected to its communities, through the schools, neighborhoods, and towns and cities where the local businesses and government leaders are impacted by the presence of the health system. The health system needs to be in tune with the needs of the community to be successful.
The marketing department plays a significant role for the health system, driving more than branding, something that was not always the case in the marketing industry, Echols said.
"The old notion of getting a seat at the table for marketing leaders has been sometimes a struggle. But I'm proud of what we've been able to do at Northside in both securing a seat at the table and helping drive strategic decisions," he said.
Echols wears many hats and is involved not only in marketing, but also in planning, real estate activities, and government relations. "I like being integrated into other areas of Northside because it only helps us do a better job to tell Northside's story. When we know what's going on, when we know what strategic thinking is for growth and development, that makes our job maybe not easier, but certainly more effective," he said.
Marketing During a Pandemic
The pandemic caused healthcare marketing executives to pivot their marketing strategies to focus on the crisis at hand, including Echols.
"I'm often asked 'how do you successfully do marketing during a pandemic?'" he said. "The answer is you have to understand what the pandemic means to your employees, patients, their families, your own family, and commit yourself to focusing on the pandemic as the single biggest issue at that moment."
At the beginning of 2020, before the pandemic hit, the health system was preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary and developed "grand plans to celebrate throughout the year," Echols said. When March 2020 came, it was obvious that the marketing team couldn't move forward with the celebration and brand campaign they titled "Look to Northside."
"Timing completely influenced our decision. It's a beautiful campaign, but we recognized we could not launch this at the height of a pandemic," he said. "So, we turned our attention to developing programs that celebrated our frontline workers."
Along with other hospitals and health system, Northside developed COVID-19 related messaging to share with the community and praise the frontline staff through a campaign called "Healers, Helpers, Heroes."
The pandemic "not only forced us to pause planned marketing activities, but it also gave us the chance to rethink them," Echols said.
Instead of focusing on business messaging and how to get patients in the door, the health system took another approach with its "#TalkAboutIt" marketing campaign.
During the pandemic, women were disproportionately affected by the crisis, and Northside wanted to create meaningful, public conversations about how the pandemic affected women's health, lifestyles, and family relations.
"#TalkAboutIt was a direct response to COVID. It ran from May through September of 2021, and the campaign was different than anything Northside had ever done in terms of marketing," he said. "The goal of the campaign was not to create business or bring in patients. The goal of the campaign was to create and curate a conversation for women impacted by the pandemic."
The marketing team didn't have expectations for the campaign, but instead "had a feeling that it was the right opportunity from Northside for women to talk about COVID's impact on their physical well-being, their emotional states, their family situations, and their career issues," he said.
There was an instant positive reaction to the campaign from 15 prominent women physicians in the health system who participated and shared their stories. Additionally, nine radio stations in the Atlanta market helped hold conversations on-air and on social media.
The campaign ran from May to September, Echols said, and resulted in the highest levels of social media engagement Northside has ever had. "We worked with a podcast producer to do a three-part series on #TalkAboutIt and had 23,000 downloads in the first month of the campaign," he said.
"If you look at the metrics of #TalkAboutIt, they're overwhelming engagement rates, impressions, and media pick up from traditional media. We partnered with a radio company called Radio One, to do some programming focused specifically on Black women. We also had a Hispanic component, and the campaign just blew our minds with how successful it was."
Look to Northside
Following the peak of the pandemic, Northside is ready to launch its tabled campaign. But it looks a little bit different than it did before the pandemic.
"Coming out of the real hard periods of the pandemic, to where we are now, the timing for our launch seems to make sense," Echols said. "The message of our brand campaign was specifically developed as a reaction to how people are really feeling about healthcare right now."
The "Look to Northside" campaign is special due to several reasons.
"This sounds simple," Echols said, "but having the hospital name in our tagline means a lot because it makes the whole campaign very clear that it's about Northside, and that we want people as a call to action to look to Northside," he said.
"We also know that it's a very progressive message. The idea that not only can people look to Northside you can also look ahead to your own life coming out of COVID. You can look around to all the things that you've missed or did not experience during COVID. You can look forward to a healthier lifestyle. And Northside can help you achieve that."
The campaign is a step away from hospitals, disease, hospitalizations, and restrictions, Echols said. By understanding the consumers' needs, the marketing team took a different approach to create an embracing, warm, and comforting message.
"We've seen just in the first week that the images and the messages are eliciting some real, strong emotional response from our stakeholders, and I think that's a beautiful result. We're very proud of the initial reaction because we think it's what people want to hear and want to see right now when it comes to healthcare marketing."
"Two years ago, when we were initially planning out the brand campaign, it didn't look like this," he added. "We've been listening to the consumers and how they feel about the pandemic and moving beyond. And this campaign, we hope, is sensitive to that thought.
The "Look to Northside" campaign has a focus on digital and broadcast, much like the "#TalkAboutIt" campaign, and the success is measured in a multitude of ways, including social media engagement metrics, website traffic, as well as metrics shared from their media partners.
"The metrics associated with those avenues are strong and easily tracked. What we always want to do is check those metrics on a regular basis and match them up against our own revenue and volume metrics and see how those look," he said. "And while we can never say that a marketing effort fully drives business for any organization, the way we're tracking metrics gives us a pretty good idea of how the campaign will be working."
Echols also looks to another KPI that is just as equally important as data to him: what Northside's people are saying about the campaign.
"What are we hearing from our own employees about the campaign? To me, that's a very important metric," he said. "We want them to be proud of this campaign and see the campaign is another reason for them to be proud of working at Northside. We'll listen to employees and archive their sentiment as well."
Additionally, Echols keeps an eye on the competitors and how they respond.
"I pay attention to what our competitors may or may not be doing in response," he said. "We know this campaign at launch is quite different from what is currently in the Atlanta market. And that's what we wanted to achieve. Will that be a successful strategy? We'll see, but I'm confident that it will be."
The Lesson is in Listening
The health system's marketing takeaways from the pandemic are simple, Echols said.
"You have to pay attention to how people are feeling at any given time. That's the idea of Look to Northside. [Consumers are] not getting a 'hit you over the head' clinical marketing campaign," he said. "Our initial launch doesn't show doctors, or nurses, or operating rooms, or radiology labs. There are just people like us resuming their lives after two years of pain, suffering, and uncertainty."
Moving forward from the pandemic with new marketing campaigns may continue in that direction.
"I think that's going to be the marketing shift going forward out of COVID; an increasing need to understand how people are feeling, and not just through consumer surveys or focus groups. But pay attention to the news, talk to your friends," he said. "To me, that's just as important as an expensive market research study."
“The message of our brand campaign was specifically developed as a reaction to how people are really feeling about healthcare right now.”
— Lee Echols, VP of Marketing and Communications, Northside Hospital
Melanie Blackman is a contributing editor for strategy, marketing, and human resources at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.
Photo credit: Northside Hospital, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Northside Hospital.