Lessons from a High-Profile Healthcare Rebrand: Northwell Health's Story

by Hannah Stuart, Copywriter - 12/07/16

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Looking for healthcare rebranding inspiration? 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 rebrand strategy. 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 advertising agency experts 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 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?

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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Topics: Healthcare Case Studies, Content Strategy

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