The Unending, Intractable Challenge of Hospital Branding

By Steve McKee

It’s fun for most people to preview the latest fashions or go virtual shoe shopping. Consumers don’t mind being enticed by the makers of potato chips, pizza and beer. And if carmakers or vacation destinations want to tantalize us with the possibilities, hey, go crazy. But nobody wants to hear from a hospital—at least not before they need one.

That’s the unending, intractable challenge hospital brands face. Prior to the moment of need it’s not a low-interest category, it’s a no-interest category—people just don’t want to think about their own mortality (or worse: the mortality of their loved ones).

So what’s a hospital to do? How can it build the brand equity it needs among disinterested consumers, so that when the inevitable happens they’ll make the right choice?

Some hospitals ignore the question, either not realizing that those they need to reach aren’t interested or simply not knowing what to do about it. For them it’s easy to turn to industry conventions, creating lookalike advertising based on what they’ve seen other hospitals do. For others, external audiences don’t seem to matter – at least not as much as internal ones – and their campaigns are designed (overtly or not) to satisfy the staff’s squeakiest wheels. Rare is the case where a hospital breaks through with an idea that fills both those inside with pride and those outside with joy.

That was the case with The Space Between, an initiative supporting the Children’s Heart Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Nobody knows ahead of time that their child will have a heart problem, so we were targeting parents (and parents-to-be) of healthy kids. The last thing they want to think about is a child whose heart stops beating. So we focused instead on a child for whom the beat goes on.

Brands are built on relationships, and relationships are based on trust.  By demonstrating its understanding of a universal human truth rather than leading with claims about its capabilities, St. Louis Children’s Hospital was able to break through the natural defenses of those it was trying to reach. And the trust and affection it created in doing so will pay off for years to come.

The challenges hospitals face in creating effective branding are indeed intractable. But as The Space Between demonstrates, they’re never impossible.

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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