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Building Iconic Healthcare Brands

images of Sandeep Sinha & Vivek Shukla,
Building a strong brand for your business happens by design and not by accident. Healthcare is no exception.

The biggest names in healthcare at the global or regional level have not attained the spot owing to a stroke of luck. The narrative is engineered and the elements that represent the name are carefully crafted. People who work there take pride in the brand they represent. Patients who use the services have stories to tell about their experiences.

A brand has a distinct positioning and is palpably consistent in displaying it across all communications and visuals year after year. Unfortunately, many potentially great brands in healthcare never go beyond a tagline or a nice logo. Some even fail to reach that far. With not many exemplary brands in healthcare, we see numerous opportunities for building healthcare brands squandered away by the stakeholders.

Brand and communications departments in these organisations is tucked in a corner and given the task of producing advertisements, brochures, some press releases, etc. from time to time. The brand people are seldom in touch with the ground realities their business is facing. They are alienated from the core operational realities and are confined to their own boxes. Communications are created to please the top bosses and not to create a high-performing brand.

Employees in these organisations work for a salary or at the most work for a department and not for the philosophy behind the brand. Patients come for a popular physician or because they have limited options. The facilities are managed on ‘ad-hoc opportunism’ and the focus is usually short term. These players will never reap the benefits of being a brand. Their existence will be consumed by short term fire-fighting until they close shop or are acquired.

Reaching a colossal stature as a brand requires a very different approach. Leaders and managers need to own up brand building and every employee needs to be turned into a brand ambassador. Like Rome, brands are not built in one day. It takes massive perseverance to garner respect of peers and patients.

Over the years, having worked with numerous healthcare players, we are attempting to articulate the best practices that aid in building iconic brands. Here is a short list of what can be done to grow your brand.

Start with Inside-Out
Brands have to be genuine. They cannot pretend. The personality of a brand has to be consistent with the core ideology of the organisation. We have seen the values and principles of the founders and the top management percolate into various aspects of the brand. Hospitals or groups founded by skillful practicing clinicians have a different brand appeal than the hospitals or groups founded by corporate houses. Hospitals where the founders are academically oriented end up as different brands than the ones where the promoters are driven by profits.

Iconic brands start right. They identify their core and build it from there. They articulate what is important for them and carefully pass on the legacy to the internal stakeholders. They make sure that the overall outlook of the brand stays consistent with the internal philosophy.

Then Think Outside-In
What you stand for and who you are has to be relevant to the target audience. A brand about the latest technology cannot just harp about machines. Having the latest robot for surgery is insufficient when it comes to building a brand. Unless the benefit to the end user is not highlighted, the brand story is not born. Too often, a great potential brand fails to take off because it does not connect the inherent features with end benefits.

Differentiate. Differentiate. Differentiate
This is as fundamental as it gets. Differentiation is the foundation for any brand story. As one brand guru once said – ‘Being different is better than being better’.
There are too many ‘also ran’ brands in the healthcare market. This is an area that requires massive improvement. In surveys, when we ask about how one provider is different from others, we find that most healthcare players in the region have not done a great job of differentiating themselves. Point of parity and points of differentiation need to be clearly defined, both for internal use and in the minds of the target audience.

The basis of differentiation can be many. However, differentiation is a moving target. Whatever is unique about you today may not be relevant tomorrow or may get copied by a competitor. Brands need to pre-empt that and calibrate their USPs accordingly.

Differentiation has to be radical rather than incremental. It should be scalable and difficult to replicate. Additionally, the points of difference cannot be based on what people would already expect. For example, empathy can rarely be a differentiating factor in healthcare. People already expect the doctors and nurses to be empathetic. There are no additional brownie points for ticking this box in a brand experience. However, if a provider fails to achieve this, they will draw considerable flak.

Win the Internal Battle
This is where philosophy translates into action. Internal buy-in is paramount to building iconic brands. What is the point of a great creative put on a billboard on the freeway, if the front office in the hospital continues to carry a grumpy face while registering out-patients? The leaders and custodians of the brand have to take the trouble of introducing the brand to the internal constituents. Further still, they have to not only introduce, but also ensure that people imbibe the brand philosophy deeply. After all, in the end, if the brand is not delivered, there will be no brand.

To put it more clearly, it is more important to create the right culture for the brand delivery through people than to create great logos and brochures. This is one mountain that has to be scaled, no matter how treacherous or lofty it is. It is mandatory that one needs to put the house in order before we invite guests.

With people being on board, the brand needs to be profoundly delivered at each point of contact [POC] during the patient journey. Needless to say, the delivery has to be consistent across each POC and for each visit in each of the facilities that the brand represents. The consistency must be maintained over a long time, even spanning to years and decades. We have divided the journey into over 120 contact points starting from the website or the call centre. Miss out on one or more of these touch points and you end up compromising your most valuable asset – Brand.

Doctors are the most important people when it comes to internal brand onboarding. The maximum value for a patient is unleashed upon meeting the doctor. This is one encounter the patient will replay in the mind many times over even after leaving the facility.

Marketing as a Core Function
Brand aspirants miss a point if they treat marketing as a support function. Marketing is as much a core function as operations or sales. Brand is the most valuable asset of a company, besides its people. It is everyone’s responsibility to nurture and grow the brand. The marketing department needs to be at the forefront of driving the all-important mission of creating and sustaining the brand. It must not be relegated to making leaflets and releasing adverts for quick revenue.

Bring marketing and sales into the thick of action. The teams must be a part of day-to-day decision making as well as strategic planning. In fact, the marketing team should be involved even in hiring doctors, training staff and customer relationship management. This would give the team access to building a brand.

Consistency in Communication
Iconic brands are almost fanatical about what they say and how they are portrayed in the outside world. They keep the words, imagery and messages consistent. They even attempt at evoking the same emotion each time they put something for the world to see. Needless to say, they are also equally meticulous when it comes to delivering patient experience. They map the expectations well and getting past those is a norm rather than an expectation.

Choosing the Agencies Carefully
A very important element in building a brand is the partner agencies hired to represent the brand at various platforms. It will be a fallacy to dream of creating a great brand and then hiring agencies based only on the lowest quote in the request for proposal [RFP]. Most agencies do not fully understand healthcare, and therefore, are unable to deliver good communication. In addition, management of these healthcare companies is unable to extract maximum output from the agencies due to lack of awareness.

Long-Term Horizon
Creating brands that can stand the test of time is a huge investment in terms of time and resources. Organisations perpetually fighting short-time fires and having a ‘this month’ or ‘this quarter’ horizon, cannot make it big. The idea is to balance the focus between issues that require urgent attention with the important endeavour of building a sustainable mega brand. Always have more than an eye on the mid-to-long-term trends and what people want.

Frequent House Keeping
Brands need to be groomed. They need to be pampered with attention from time to time. Some edges need to be re-sharpened and redundant elements need to be weeded out. There has to be an open debate on how the brand is being perceived, the competition, successes and failures, etc. among the internal stakeholders. The open debate must allow everyone to question every aspect of the brand, including the sacred and untouchable areas. Many brands do a systematic ‘brand audit’ every three to five years. This throws forth useful insights about where the tweaks are required in the overall brand story. Changes must be agreed upon and carried out in the pre-decided timeframe.

Discounts and Deals
One sure way of eroding a brand is to put discounts and deals every now and then. Consumers today know that the 20% discount offered on teeth whitening is because that department is not doing well. They also know that there will be attempts to up-sell once they walk through the door. Additionally, people attracted to discounts are ‘price shoppers’ and not ‘brand shoppers’ and will shift their loyalties as soon as the next deal is announced by someone else.

In short, when you give a deal for no particular reason, you also give away a part of the brand.

Measure
The popular adage, ‘you cannot manage what you do not measure’, is equally relevant in brand building. Numerous metrics must be tracked when it comes to brand building. From brand loyalty to awareness to preference to perception, many areas need to be taken care of. The in-house brand team or the trusted agencies must be mandated to carry out frequent surveys on various aspects of the brand.

Besides surveys, focus groups, observation, in-house data mining, benchmarking, etc. also help in measuring the performance of a brand.

Saying NO
When brands try to be everything for everyone, they end up being no one. As a brand evolves, many opportunities come its way. An astute understanding of the brand and its boundaries is required at this stage. Many growing brands wither away because the decisions are taken only with short-term revenue or profit in mind. This does great harm. Brands need to be guarded from being diluted. The purity of the basic values cannot be compromised for any short-term gain.

Healthcare can and will see more iconic brands in the years to come, both at the global and regional levels. Whether it will be your brand, this will hinge upon how much time and effort is invested in this all-important asset.

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