Mallary McKinney shares her retail-inspired marketing strategy and discusses the importance of creating a strong brand promise.
Mallary McKinney leads UnityPoint Health's enterprise-wide marketing department with a passionate focus on branding and communication strategies. In her role, she taps into her past experience as a marketing leader for Target to successfully roll out system-wide messaging and branding across the system's three-state footprint in Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin.
Prior to her promotion to SVP and chief marketing and communications officer, she served as VP of brand, marketing, and communications for the health system. She's been with UnityPoint Health for eight years.
In a recent interview with HealthLeaders, McKinney shares more about her retail-inspired marketing strategy and talks about the importance of creating a strong brand promise.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HL: What are your marketing/branding strategies for UnityPoint Health? What pain points are you currently addressing through your marketing work?
McKinney: The first decade of my career was more in retail marketing and a lot of that translates, I've learned, to healthcare marketing. When I came to UnityPoint almost eight years ago now, we had a logo, we had an identity from a UnityPoint Health perspective, [and] we were one brand, but when you start to unpack that … identity-wise we didn't really know who we were from a universal perspective.
The first part of that journey was to align on values. The core of any company, to me, is your mission, your vision, and your values. But even values are a little inside baseball. So, what we did in the first two years of my entry into UnityPoint was to go through a brand discovery. That is where you identify your purpose, you take all that makes UnityPoint Health great, and you look at it and you say, 'Who do we really want to be? How do we want to show up both internally [and] also to the world? What's your promise?'
That's where the UnityPoint Health brand journey started. We ended up coming up with—and this was all created internally through stakeholders, interviews, and insight sessions—a brand promise. And that is truly what all of our branding is built upon. Our brand promise is "Know how much you matter to this world." That's the crux of why we came into healthcare.
We had [our foundation] and our brand discovery output and we were having fun with it. We [then] launched a huge campaign [around] people are amazing, we're here to help keep them that way. It wasn't doctors and equipment and technology, it was all about you [the patient]. And we were getting lots of accolades [for that work]. And then COVID hit, and none of it felt appropriate anymore. We were able to do some really cool things through COVID and pivoted like crazy but still rested on those brand principles.
I would say the pain point now is coming out of COVID and just trying to find your way again. We're all changed after COVID. And although it's been an interesting dialogue with people across the organization, people across the industry, you have new crises that you're dealing with, which are staffing and finances. I'd say that is the pain point right now, helping everybody get through that and keeping our brand front and center along the way.
Mallary McKinney, SVP, chief marketing and communications officer, UnityPoint Health. Photo courtesy of UnityPoint Health.
HL: How have you taken your learnings from working as a marketing leader for Target and applied them to healthcare marketing?
McKinney: It was such a fun brand to work for because doors were opened and you never were told 'no.' The ethos of marketing at Target is all about what's the biggest next idea. It's really relentless around getting to the next thing. Coming to healthcare, that was different.
When I came to UnityPoint, I hammered, and I still do this every day, [on] why aren't we the brand to love? UnityPoint and other healthcare companies should be at the top of people's lists when they go around a circle and say my favorite brand is Nike, Apple, and Target. There is no other industry [in which] you're saving lives. Not only is this a place where you're saving lives, but you're having these incredible moments with the brand in your life. You're having your baby, you're ringing the bell with your mom when she [beats] cancer, you're watching somebody pass. These are absolutely life-changing moments. And so that is the biggest transition that I brought from Target to UnityPoint, which is saying 'Why not?' and trying some interesting new things. It took a while for people to get used to, but it's been rewarding because it's not as common in healthcare.
My background in retail transfers much more than I ever anticipated. At the end of the day, we're all trying to do the same thing, right? We're trying to build affinity with some level of persona, some type of consumer. The basic principles of branding translate across any industry. I think we need more people in healthcare that have this passion because healthcare just translates so well. If you have passion in the industry that you're in and you were able to identify those personas and bring those personas to the table, you can translate that right to healthcare and figure out who your audience is. So many of the principles of basic branding can translate industry to industry.
HL: What initiatives are you leading around patient experience, being consumer-centric, bringing in new patients, etc.?
McKinney: There's a lot of disruption in healthcare and that's one of the bigger challenges in making sure that your basic principles are taken care of first. When we're thinking about consumerism and giving people our value proposition work, which came out of the brand discovery, [it's about] making care easier and more personal.
One of the things we're doing is we're launching a new website. We're making it easier to figure out how to navigate a very complicated system. Healthcare is complicated. One of the things when we developed our value proposition, [I said] 'Can we make it easier and more personal?' So being able to launch a website that innately knows your location and gives you the content that you need for the location that you're in, it's basic.
How do we just make access easy? How do we give the right information to our patients to say, 'Where you want to go in this case is here' and then building technology around that. It's not earth-shattering, it's not necessarily a breakthrough, but it's constantly refining to make it easier for your consumer to access you and get the care that they need. We did all kinds of stuff around that, not only the website project but also marketing around that and even after COVID trying to get people to feel safe in our system again.
During COVID I was trying to figure out how to talk to people in not a threatening way. If you think about where headspace was at, and you're getting all this different information in from a million different places and nothing feels trusted, healthcare kind of [was] on a pedestal.
We started saying, 'Should we kind of do some PSA-type work?' And it just didn't feel like us. It was such a hard pivot from the people are amazing campaign and it's all about you. We knew we needed to get some information out and needed to be clearer and more direct, so we ended up doing it through the voice of a child. This little kid would get up on his pedestal and he would say all the things that were hard to say but we needed to hear: 'Get your vaccine,' 'Make sure you're accessing care.' He would do it through this softer side of a PSA. We got so many handwritten letters for that campaign, tons of people saying, 'When is he coming back with a new message?' And 'I just love him.' So it [resonated].
[Now] it doesn't feel appropriate with the various things that are going on in the industry to do a massive campaign again, so why don't we make our whole campaign about what's so great about working here and the culture here? Showing our people how much they matter, being able to create brand ambassadors from our people. What we're doing now in this campaign that's still running is purely talent acquisition done through an interesting breakthrough way that feels like us.
HL: What advice do you have for women and others who want to lead in healthcare, whether it's marketing or just in general?
McKinney: Be authentically you. Thinking through the last eight years of my team and what we've been through together, staying true to that has worked really well. Trust each other and be authentic and work our way through. Don't underestimate yourself. Just get after it, give them all you've got. If you're yourself and you're sharing your why, and you're being true to who you are, you will succeed.
Editor's note: This article was updated on April 11, 2023.
“My background in retail transfers much more than I ever anticipated. At the end of the day, we're all trying to do the same thing … The basic principles of branding translate across any industry.”
— Mallary McKinney, SVP, chief marketing and communications officer, UnityPoint Health
Melanie Blackman is a contributing editor for strategy, marketing, and human resources at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.