Health care strategy leaders share 9 tips for achieving a unified brand

According to research Monigle conducted prior to the recent AAMC-GIA National Professional Development Conference—with 50 attendees in marketing, public affairs, and development roles at academic medical centers—only 23% of respondents stated they were either “very confident” or “extremely confident” that their organizations communicate with a single voice across the enterprise. Clearly, “speaking with one voice” is a challenge many face.

Complexity reigns in health care branding. As a result, health care organizations, and in particular, academic medical centers, often find it difficult to deliver a unified brand message. However, when orchestrated, brand becomes a rallying point and a catalyst for unification that propels an organization forward. The question is how to get clarity and confidence around a unified brand.

This was the overarching theme of one of the conference’s panel discussions, moderated by Monigle’s Managing Director, Justin Wartell. The panel was comprised of three seasoned health care marketing strategy professionals: Vincent Petrini, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs Administration at Yale New Haven Health; Cynthia Schmidt, Chief of Marketing at VCU Health; and Michael Knecht, Senior Vice President, Strategic Marketing and Communications at RJWBarnabas Health. The leaders gathered to offer their war stories, wisdom, guidance and 20/20 hindsight to 100-plus attendees. Each panelist was from an organization that had recently undergone, or was in the midst of rolling out, a comprehensive rebrand. Each spoke from a unique perspective—Petrini was four years into a rebranding process, Schmidt launched a rebrand two years ago that was completed in 15 months, and Knecht’s organization launched its rebrand just a few months prior to the conference. All three adopted modified names and new logos, as well as a new approach to brand architecture, moving away from a “logo soup,” house of brands approach in favor of a master brand approach. These were monumental metamorphoses for organizations with hundreds of years of history, where change of any kind can be fraught with peril.


Through their dynamic 75-minute discussion, the panelists offered sage insights and advice that can save other organizations countless hours, many dollars, and lots of frustration. Here are nine key insights:

1) Start with research

The concept of change is hard, and the natural inclination of most is to start from “no.” It takes a compelling case, often delivered through the voice of the audiences we serve, to change both hearts and minds. This voice is best delivered by insights work – the big ideas illuminated by qualitative and quantitative research. “When people saw the data, it shifted the whole brand narrative,” said Petrini. “The research showed what was most important to the people we treat. We realized we had to move in a direction that was a little out of our comfort zone.”

The panelists agreed that it’s best to start with research to find your baseline, so you can define where you’re going. “You have to determine what are the things you can own,” said Schmidt. “What are the things you can be bold with. You have to dig deep into the emotional context of who you are and how you express yourself and take some risk. And, importantly, you have to empower people to speak in a way that’s compelling.”


2) Culture eats strategy for lunch

In health care more than most industries, decisions are influenced by culture. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of building consensus and buy-in for a brand change. Allow time. Gather input from diverse stakeholders. Build in a process for socialization. “These are tricky waters,” said Petrini. “People self-identify with brand. When you shift that, it’s tough.” A brand decision may be strategically sound, but can get derailed by emotions, politics, and turf issues. Make sure you have defined a clear process for input, buy-in and socialization before you start down the road to rebranding.

3) Just tell us what it is!

When considering naming, nomenclature and branding for an entity, program, or service, the proposed solutions often veer into the overly complex in an attempt to address various stakeholder perspectives. There’s a tendancy, especially in health care, to use naming to communicate the organization’s internal structure to the outside world and to include more information rather than less. But sometimes, less is more. “Consumers are overwhelmed and they want us to keep it as simple as possible,” said Schmidt. “When we did research, the response from consumers was ‘Just tell us what it is!’”

4) Stay flexible

In a process like rebranding, there are often unexpected dynamics that influence the process. While good up-front planning is vital to the success of a branding effort, it’s impossible to predict every condition that will impact the final solution. That’s where flexibility comes in—it  allows you to be nimble and pivot based on unexpected influences. “All the market research and all the great data boils down to what key leaders can support,” said Knecht. Flexibility is important because, in the end, the solution that wins leadership support is the solution that will be adopted.

5) Wouldn’t you rather be on the ship?

Communicating the benefits of being part of the system can help overcome natural resistance to change and the perceived loss of giving up a legacy brand to adopt a stronger system brand. “We were a house of brands,” said Schmidt. “This can be a very effective brand architecture—it’s the strategy that Proctor & Gamble uses—but it takes a lot of money to support, and we don’t have the kind of marketing money that P&G does. So we adopted a master brand strategy. When people resisted, we asked ‘Wouldn’t you rather be on the ship rather than out in a small boat by yourself without an oar?’ Once we gave them the solution, they were happy with it.” When people understand the role they play in the bigger picture, they are often more willing to adapt and change.


6) There’s no easy answer

The panelists agreed that branding a health care organization, and, in particular, getting agreement to a brand architecture strategy, is a complicated endeavor that requires a nuanced approach. Petrini said that Yale New Haven Health had adopted an approach with three different tiers to address particular circumstances. Schmidt described how one entity is just not ready to adopt the new branding. “It will take time,” she said. While a one-size-fits all strategy is appealing in its simplicity, it’s often not possible in a health care organization where there are many intricate relationships. Adapting to this reality with a multi-dimensional solution is usually necessary.

7) Deliver on it

Unraveling individual brands and replacing them with a strong master brand often faces resistance from key stakeholders. Part of the resistance comes from a sense of loss. “Replacing the former brand with something that gets better results can help alleviate some of the ‘loss’ people feel about losing their individual brand,” said Knecht. People are amenable to giving up a little control when they get value back. So, deliver on the promise of the new brand and the tangible positive results can soften resistance to a rebrand and contribute to a shared spirit of growth.

8) Be guardians of the brand

The work isn’t over when the brand is launched. Many brands dissipate at 18 months after launch as a result of weak brand governance. What happens on “Day 2” to sustain and manage the brand over time is key. According to Petrini, it’s critical to ensure the brand doesn’t disipate in value over time. “You have to be that voice at the table with the business reasons behind decisions,” he said. “You have to remind people that form follows function.” Having the proper people, processes and tools in place to sustain the brand will ensure it continues to grow over time.

9) Give people tools, not rules

Schmidt noted that governance is a big part of a rebrand and that there is a monumental shift happening in the way brands are managed. “You don’t always want to be the one to say no,” she said. “You don’t want to be the logo cop. Find out who the champions of the brand are, and then give them the right tools to get the job done.” At VCU Health, administrative assistants were an untapped resource. “Because they are the gatekeepers, they do a lot,” she said. “And we found they were grateful to be included and have access to the brand tools.”

Few employees aspire to go rogue; they just need to be equipped with the right resources to be on-brand. “Most people want to do the right thing,” said Schmidt. “We built a robust brand site with Monigle that has all kinds of tools.” Ultimately, a brand leader needs to be a source of empowerment, rather than permission. “Our job is to be stewards of the brand and empower people to engage with and build the brand.”  


When done right, it’s transformative

People often learn the most from others’ mistakes. At the end of the session, the panelists were asked what they would have done differently, given 20/20 hindsight. “It’s a journey,” said Schmidt. “If I could have done it differently, I would have had more time and would have brought more people along on the journey. We ripped the bandaid off quickly, but we still have scars.”

Knecht shared that rebranding is a time-intensive process, and that if you wait until you consider every single detail, you may never get started. “Don’t wait for every structure to be defined,” he said. “Sometimes you can’t wait for permission to proceed.” He added that he would have pushed harder to start earlier with branding for the merger. “Don’t save it to last.”

Petrini summed up the session with this kernel of wisdom: “It will take you longer than you think. It will cost you a bit more than you think. But in the end it’s worth every penny. When done right, it’s transformative.”

Kim Hofland is Monigle’s Senior Marketing Director and one of our health care branding experts.

Kim Hofland
April 28, 2017 By Kim Hofland