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How SSM Health Is Unifying Its Internal and External Identity

By Steven Porter  
   September 19, 2019

With care delivery sites across four states, the system's regions often acted independently. That changed as the system reconfigured itself.

Driving around the St. Louis area, it's increasingly tough to miss SSM Health's physical presence.

The number of facilities prominently featuring the Catholic health system's name and logo has risen in the past few years, as part of a coordinated rebranding effort to make the organization's footprint in the community more consistent and apparent.

The patchwork of brands belonging to SSM Health has grown as a result of merger and acquisition activity, but most of them came from the way the ministry was founded, says John Nguyen, chief marketing officer for the St. Louis–based organization. The Franciscan Sisters of Mary were itinerants who traveled wherever they saw a need, opened a new healthcare facility, and named it after significant historical figures, such as St. Francis or St. Mary, he says.

With care delivery sites scattered across four states, SSM Health's various regions often acted independently of one another. That was the case until about five years ago, anyway, when the system's leaders decided to reconfigure it from a holding company to an operating company and realign each of the regions to report directly to SSM Health's centralized office as part of an effort to increase effectiveness and reduce waste, variation, and unnecessary duplication, Nguyen says.

"That was a very big change for the organization," he says, "and I'd be lying if I didn't say we're still on that path today."

The marketing and communications team consolidated its market research functions, condensed 70 separate websites into two, and brought about 300 distinct brands under the single SSM Health umbrella, Nguyen says. As the system linked its disparate components together in the minds of consumers, the public's unaided awareness of SSM Health's brand rose 34%, he says, citing custom research conducted by a third party.

This metric of unaided or "raw" awareness—in which respondents are presented with an open-ended prompt to name a health system and researchers count the number of times SSM Health is mentioned—is a good starting point for the system to track its progress. The next step, Nguyen says, is tracking how well that brand resonates with the public.

Missional alignment: a two-sided endeavor

Consistency in external brand identity clearly isn't the only type of alignment CEOs need. Internal consistency of process and mission are just as important. These external and internal initiatives can be two sides of the same coin, Nguyen says.

"A brand, more than just a campaign, is how we galvanize ourselves to that [mission] internally as well as externally and make sure that the experience is hardwired into the services we provide and to how our employees are positioned to do the work," he says.

As SSM Health conducted market research with the public, it asked its own employees what sets the system apart from others. Nguyen says researchers tested a variety of positioning statements both externally and internally and found one sentence, in particular, was positively received all around: "We get to know you better as a person, so we can treat you better as a patient."

That research, combined with a reflection on SSM Health's heritage and mission statement, led Nguyen's team to develop "The Healing Power of Presence," a unifying campaign designed to articulate and reinforce SSM Health's identity for employees and the public alike.

At its core, this type of messaging is about talking to people, understanding their lives and what they are trying to achieve, then boiling that down in a way that resonates with individuals, Nguyen says. If it doesn't reflect the reality of the health system, then it's meaningless, he notes.

"I can make a great campaign and put it out there, but unless there's some passion around that as an organization, that really doesn't mean anything," he says.

If you hope to align a large or complex organization with senior leadership's strategic vision, then you must communicate in a way that empowers managers to act as surrogates for the message. That's why SSM Health published a booklet by CEO Laura Kaiser outlining her vision, then followed it up with weekly communications from her reinforcing that strategy, Nguyen says.

SSM Health also rolled out a formal communications training module for all managers in 2017. The training teaches how communications flow through the health system, what the manager's role is in relaying messages to his or her team, and how to facilitate discussion and feedback, Nguyen says. The training includes a practicum component, so all managers know not only what tools are available but also how to use them.

There will always be some level of variation in a health system as big as SSM Health. The goal in communicating and reinforcing strategy throughout an organization is to get the big things right, so all team members can orient themselves around those priorities, Nguyen says.

"When it comes to communications, it's not the same as clinical practice," he says. "If there's a little gray area in the details, that's OK. We have to make sure the core messaging is right: How is this attached to our mission? Why are we doing this? Why is this better for people? Why is this better for the communities we serve? Why is this better for our organization?"

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This article is an excerpt from the cover story of the July/August 2019 edition of HealthLeaders magazine: "Staying Power: How CEOs Can Lead Through Uncertainty."

“A brand, more than just a campaign, is how we galvanize ourselves to that [mission] internally as well as externally and make sure that the experience is hardwired into the services we provide and to how our employees are positioned to do the work.”

Steven Porter is an associate content manager and Strategy editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

Photo credit: SSM Health Chief Marketing Officer John Nguyen (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)


The marketing and communications team brought 300 distinct brands under the single SSM Health umbrella.

Branding efforts to constituencies inside and outside the organization can be two sides of the same coin.

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