Rebranding in Healthcare Today: Lessons Learned from Northwell Health

by | Dec 7, 2016 | Healthcare Industry Insights

Looking for inspiration on rebranding in healthcare today? Look no further! Northwell Health Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Ramon Soto shares his unique perspective.

In the lat­est issue of Health­care Insight, Ramon Soto offers an insid­er’s view of a suc­cess­ful strat­e­gy on rebrand­ing in health­care today. This is one of many health­care rebrand­ing exam­ples that uti­lized a com­pre­hen­sive strat­e­gy for suc­cess. Hear the inter­view and read the full tran­scripts below.

Music cred­it: Cut, looped ver­sion of Yel­low Taxi under a Blue Sky by Mind­s­Eye © Cre­ative Com­mon Attri­bu­tion-Share­Alike License

Insight: Describe Northwell Health’s reasons for the rebrand and the overall goal of the rebrand itself.

Soto: Our for­mer name was the North Shore Long Island Jew­ish Health Sys­tem, and that was an arti­fact of a 1997 acqui­si­tion impor­tant for the sys­tem at the time but was prin­ci­pal­ly Long Island based, have grown to 21 hos­pi­tals ser­vic­ing the greater New York City area, so the name did not real­ly ser­vice the needs of the sys­tem in any par­tic­u­lar­ly mean­ing­ful way. In addi­tion, we had a whole host of issues with North Shore Long Island Jew­ish. It’s five words—a bit of a mouthful—and we had trun­cat­ed it down to North Shore LIJ, and con­sumers were con­fused about what enti­ty was pro­vid­ing actu­al care. We want­ed to sim­pli­fy this for consumers.

Insight: What was your strategy for promoting this rebrand? What did you find worked? Was there anything you found didn’t work?

Soto: First of all it’s incred­i­bly com­plex: We’ve been try­ing to change for eight years. Most issues sur­round­ing the name change/rebranding were inter­nal­ly based. The sys­tem had grown to 21 hos­pi­tals, 61,000 employ­ees, 15,000 nurs­es, 13,000 doc­tors, 2000 prin­ci­pal researchers, launched the first new med­ical school in New York in 40 years, real­ly redefin­ing how doc­tors are trained for the future of health care. There was a tremen­dous amount of pride on that growth tra­jec­to­ry, so at the board lev­el, there were a num­ber of con­cerns about chang­ing the name—not real­ly under­stand­ing the need to move in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion and then the asso­ci­at­ed expense, so we real­ly had to do our con­sumer research, our mar­ket research, under­stand­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty cost.

And because we’d been try­ing to change the name for eight years we nev­er got around to telling our sto­ry, so as the mar­ket­place was mar­ket­ing our ser­vices much more aggres­sive­ly we were silent and thus being left to the def­i­n­i­tions our com­peti­tors placed on us.

We are the largest health sys­tem in the New York met­ro­pol­i­tan region. We have 26 per­cent mar­ket share—twice as much as our next near­est competitor—but the mar­ket didn’t real­ly know the depth and breadth of our offer­ings. Because we touch 4 mil­lion patients each year, we were known as large, but that brand con­no­ta­tion was nei­ther pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive— it was some­what ambiguous—and we believed that was cost­ing us mar­ket share and oppor­tu­ni­ty costs.

For me, prin­ci­pal­ly, the key was to be half mar­keter and half change agent, to real­ly under­stand the bar­ri­ers peo­ple had to change: Who were the block­ers, who were the sup­port­ers, how to build the right coali­tion to get this over the fin­ish line, and then to build con­fi­dence that this would be done on a world-class basis, real­ly kind of elim­i­nat­ing the exe­cu­tion risk con­cerns that they had.

Also there was such fatigue at chang­ing the name that I had to kind of re-engi­neer this air of inevitability—that this thing was going to hap­pen, and it was going to be done well.

Every time we pre­sent­ed that work, we pre­sent­ed it as incred­i­bly com­pelling work. I hired a team of exter­nal experts that could real­ly help us push this through the fin­ish line. One of the keys to suc­cess involved help­ing a cat­e­go­ry tell its sto­ry much bet­ter than it has his­tor­i­cal­ly told its story.

I don’t come from the provider side, I’ve been exposed to health­care, spent the last 10+ years before com­ing to this posi­tion, and health­care sto­ry­tellers are, par­tic­u­lar­ly on the provider side, not very good storytellers—somewhat for­mu­la­ic, and the for­mu­la, sad­ly, is a lit­tle bit of sell­ing hope through fear. Some­body gets ill, comes to an insti­tu­tion, seeks ser­vices, and mirac­u­lous­ly recov­ers. This tries to tap into emo­tion to tell the sto­ry, and I saw a won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty to not look at our peers in the cat­e­go­ry but real­ly look out­side the cat­e­go­ry for inspi­ra­tion on sto­ry­telling on a world-class basis, and real­ly get at what are the things that are unique and dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing about North­well Health, what we do, how we go to mar­ket, and putting togeth­er our own mod­el on turn­ing North­well Health into a des­ti­na­tion health­care brand that could allow us to gain mar­ket share in the marketplace.

Our sto­ry­line cen­ters on inno­va­tion at its core because it’s authen­tic to what we do. We see health care very dif­fer­ent­ly, and that’s real­ly inspired from our lead­er­ship on down, chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo. Michael Dowl­ing [North­well CEO] is a big believ­er that you’re either at the fore­front of change or you’re the vic­tim of it, and he espous­es that at every turn and in every­thing he does

It’s why we invest so sig­nif­i­cant­ly in research, it’s why a jan­i­tor in our orga­ni­za­tion can be an inno­va­tor, and it’s why can­di­dates for the Nobel Prize for med­i­cine can real­ly dri­ve and build new cat­e­gories of med­i­cine. And we want­ed to exe­cute that on a world-class basis. We hired great tal­ent to help us sto­ry-tell, and we built a team of brand experts and focused on the role of  agency experts in the rebrand­ing to take that sto­ry to a very dif­fer­ent lev­el and push it out into the marketplace.

So when we launched, we launched with two ads—one was an ad on the first birth in our sys­tem, incred­i­bly opti­mistic and emo­tion­al cel­e­brat­ing the birth of the child and the new birth of our sys­tem, this won­der­ful­ly opti­mistic way of talk­ing about health care, say­ing that we were going to take the health­care jour­ney with this lit­tle one. It received tremen­dous acco­lades from the marketplace.

The sec­ond was a lit­tle bit more rational—it was a kind of a head-and-heart approach to telling our sto­ry, talk­ing about the inno­va­tions, what they meant to con­sumers, how we’re not just rais­ing our stan­dard of health care but rais­ing the stan­dard of health care kind of a mar­ket lead­er­ship positioning.

And the data sug­gests we’re on a very strong path with con­sumers, our mar­ket aware­ness num­bers are well ahead of where we hoped they would be at this point in time.

Insight: What overall message did you want to communicate through the rebrand?

Soto: The val­ue propo­si­tion cen­ters on one of inno­va­tion, but we’re not the pure sci­ence health­care orga­ni­za­tion, this is about those changes in health care that are impor­tant to con­sumers and how they expe­ri­ence health care—from the rou­tine to the extreme—so the small­est inno­va­tions are just as impor­tant as build­ing new cat­e­gories of medicine.

For exam­ple, we have a gen­tle­man who used to be a jan­i­tor. He invent­ed a new cur­tain in our insti­tu­tions. One day he was observ­ing that chang­ing and clean­ing cur­tains in a room set­ting are dif­fi­cult, time-con­sum­ing, cost­ly tasks. Lit­er­al­ly, it takes about an hour to get the cur­tain down, takes the room out of cir­cu­la­tion, you have to clean it, then you have to put it back up. Then he thought­ful­ly observed that when clin­i­cians open and close those cur­tains they typ­i­cal­ly grab the cur­tain by a com­mon 6 x 6 inch area and actu­al­ly pull the cur­tain down and they ana­lyzed the cur­tain for poten­tial pathogens to infec­tion and in fact val­i­dat­ed the hypoth­e­sis so lit­er­al­ly he invent­ed a remov­able pan­el that you could put on the cur­tain so that you wouldn’t have to clean the entire cur­tain, you can take down this pan­el, there are actu­al­ly sev­er­al ver­sions, some the pan­el is actu­al­ly a throw­away pan­el, in oth­ers you can clean the pan­el. It keeps the room in cir­cu­la­tion, reduces the spread of infec­tion in hos­pi­tal set­ting, and it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing inno­va­tion all by the obser­va­tion of a jan­i­tor, and what is more rou­tine than open­ing and clos­ing a cur­tain in the hos­pi­tal set­ting? We actu­al­ly turned that into a com­pa­ny, and we sell cur­tains to oth­er health sys­tems across the U.S.

And that’s just a small exam­ple of the type of inno­va­tion that hap­pens in this place. We’re always try­ing to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo because we don’t believe the answers to healthcare’s chal­lenges and needs are based in the past or based in what our com­peti­tors are doing. We believe that we have to con­tin­u­al­ly forge new ground.

Insight: What marketing methods did you find were most effective at communicating that message?

Soto: So we had to build a plan we called Launch­ing With Author­i­ty. The biggest risk that I saw was that the mar­ket­place was con­fused about our brand intro­duc­tion, so we need­ed strong sto­ry­telling plat­forms about who we are, and thus our launch plan had a very heavy bias for broad­cast media, prin­ci­pal­ly TV, adver­tis­ing, and digital.

And the dig­i­tal medi­um is actu­al­ly well suit­ed to sto­ry-tell. And then we had a mar­ket­ing mix that was a bit more dig­i­tal­ly focused in telling the mes­sage but we did quite a bit of out of home, so that at every turn you could see this new brand in the marketplace.

Again the data sug­gests that we have very good aware­ness num­bers. In the Long Island mar­ket, which is our home market—as of, I believe these are May [2016] numbers—we have 68 per­cent mar­ket aware­ness. In our core mar­kets, which are any mar­ket where we have an insti­tu­tion, we have 42 per­cent mar­ket aware­ness and in the greater NY mar­ket, includ­ing parts of Jer­sey and Con­necti­cut where we don’t have facil­i­ties, our aware­ness is at 25 per­cent. Aware­ness lev­els of the new brand are actu­al­ly high­er than the aware­ness lev­els of our old brand—in less than a year. I’ve been mar­ket­ing a long time, and I’ve nev­er seen that hap­pen. So we’ve got a tremen­dous amount of momentum.

We think, prin­ci­pal­ly. It was because the name tran­si­tion was very smooth from a con­sumer stand­point. This wasn’t a made up word; it wasn’t a coined word—Northwell Health was a won­der­ful nod to our past but sig­nals to what we think the future of health­care is all about. It was a very sim­ple sto­ry to tell, and we told it aggres­sive­ly, and it played well from our old con­no­ta­tion, which was North Shore-Long Island Jewish.

Insight: How did you work with True North Custom to convey this message through your publications?

Soto: I think you guys helped us with a mar­ket­ing mix that was very com­ple­men­tary to our core-mar­ket­ing mod­el. You’ve got to explain to con­sumers what is this new brand, and you need to do that via mech­a­nisms that allow you to explain exam­ples, and True North’s pub­li­ca­tions real­ly gave us these vehi­cles to allow us to com­ple­ment that broad-based broad­cast mes­sag­ing with the tan­gi­ble sto­ry in the mar­ket­place, so I think it was a nice ele­ment to com­ple­ment our mar­ket­ing mix.

Insight: If you had to name a few standout best practices for promoting a hospital branding or health system rebrand, what would they be?

Soto: I’d prob­a­bly break that into the devel­op­ment phase and the exe­cu­tion phase. On the devel­op­ment side, I think if you treat it from a change man­age­ment standpoint—it’s not just a brand­ing exer­cise. You’re chang­ing how peo­ple have lived, in our case for the last 20 years, with an insti­tu­tion in the mar­ket­place, with tremen­dous pride, you need to under­stand that and build a path to suc­cess. I treat­ed it almost as a polit­i­cal cam­paign, under­stand­ing our con­stituents, what their needs were, per­son­al­ly sell­ing to them and giv­ing them con­fi­dence that this was going to be done well.

And then on the exe­cu­tion side, for us you get one time to do it and you don’t want to screw it up, so the sell­ing process to make sure we received that fund­ing was incred­i­bly impor­tant. Leav­ing no stone unturned to real­ly set the bar high and launch the brand in a way that the mar­ket­place hasn’t real­ly experienced.

What’s nice about what we’ve done is our com­peti­tors are real­ly react­ing to our work, which is fab­u­lous. And I think we’ve just start­ed. We are com­plete­ly revamp­ing how we’re mar­ket­ing on an ongo­ing basis to posi­tion us as a des­ti­na­tion health­care orga­ni­za­tion well before the health event, because if I’m try­ing to tell you my mes­sage while you’re injured or ill or there’s a health issue that you or your fam­i­ly are going through, it’s real­ly too late in the conversation.

So we have to devel­op this dia­log and rela­tion­ship well before the need aris­es, like any good brand. Last thing in terms of exe­cu­tion was that we didn’t want to use the same old play­book that every­body else did—I didn’t want to sell hope through fear. I real­ly want­ed to have this opti­mistic approach to health care, and there are so many ways to tap into emo­tion. Why fol­low when you can actu­al­ly lead in the mar­ket­place and do things very dif­fer­ent­ly? And that for­mu­la worked incred­i­bly well for us.

Insight: What is the most important take-away message you’d like to leave with readers about rebranding in healthcare today?

Soto: I would leave a chal­lenge to all of our marketers—the cat­e­go­ry does well when we all chal­lenge our­selves to exceed how mar­ket­ing is con­strued in health care right now. I think we have a very long way to go—I actu­al­ly think we’re prob­a­bly 10 years behind the times in terms of our sophis­ti­ca­tion and approach, and I don’t think any­body ben­e­fits from that.

Health care as a cat­e­go­ry is a $3 tril­lion indus­try, 21 per­cent of the U.S. econ­o­my, and if you think about it, what type of prod­uct or solu­tion deserves to have a rela­tion­ship with con­sumers? Clear­ly, it’s not a can­dy man­u­fac­tur­er or a phone man­u­fac­tur­er or a copi­er man­u­fac­tur­er: It’s health care. What is more pre­cious than health?

So we have a lot of work to real­ly rethink how we go to mar­ket, how we tell our sto­ry, how we engage with con­sumers, well beyond what his­tor­i­cal­ly has been an episodic—I get sick, I go to a place, I get bet­ter. We’ve got to break that down—that ben­e­fits no one.

We have to get to a very dif­fer­ent place. It’s a call to arms.

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