When you consider all the positions available to a hospital or health system in search of a viable brand platform, there really are only eight ways one can go. In no particular order those eight are:
Quality, Service, Access, Technology, Facilities, Reputation, Stewardship, and Teaching/Research.
As you might guess, these platforms are by no means created equal; some are inherently more powerful in their ability to resonate with consumers. And none of them are guarantees for success when it comes to building a powerful brand. Each has its strengths and each has weaknesses.
But, when it’s all said and done, there is one platform that more than any other represents a great foundation to develop a formidable, sustainable, and almost unfair advantage over the marketplace. That platform is Teaching and Research, a position that is almost the exclusive domain of the academic medical center. Here’s why it’s powerful:
• Permission to Believe
An academic medical center is, by its very DNA, a center of knowledge. It requires no stretch in the belief system of consumers to accept the idea that “this is where breakthroughs, innovation and discovery take place.” And that’s a powerful idea to own.
• Impossible to Disrupt
Community hospitals and even large health systems that don’t have an academic connection cannot, with any credibility, pre-empt this message or derail it. It is the very definition of a sustainable advantage.
• Halo Effect
By owning the position of knowledge, an academic medical center is almost always afforded additional attributes like having the best doctors, best technology, and the best service lines, meaning cancer, heart, neuro, etc. In fact, the only service line that isn’t by default an academic medical center’s property for the taking is…well…baby maternity. And maybe ortho. Everything else is theirs if they choose.
The Achilles Heel
As powerful as it is, an academic medical center brand can still miss the opportunity to be all that it can be if you’re not careful. And that usually happens in one of two ways. The first way comes from the Too Much Of A Good Thing category. This is where you become so intent on promoting your academic-ness (and if that’s not a word it should be) that you end up talking only to yourself. If your physicians are going to be your primary audience, that’s fine as long as you recognize that what they want and what others want from your brand are very different.
The second way we get off track is something we call The Baby and The Bathwater. This is where you become so intent on focusing on the softer side of medicine that your message turns to mush and you begin to sound like everybody else. Both scenarios happen way too often. And both are big mistakes that cost real dollars.
Our team learned a long time ago that when we were branding a hospital in a market dominated by an AMC, our strategy, and ultimately our success, was going to depend on how consumers answered one particular research question:
If you had to be hospitalized overnight, where would you prefer to be admitted?
Many times, even when the AMC was the 800 lb. gorilla of its region, the answer to this question marked the place where we saw the gorilla’s stranglehold on the marketplace begin to loosen. Brand preference would suddenly shift in favor of the competition.
The reason why? In order to answer the question, consumers were forced to envision themselves as patients in an academic institution geared toward curing really sick people, but not necessarily geared for providing a pleasant experience in a nurturing, respectful environment. When this happens, consumers oftentimes don’t like what they see.
As a result, folks adopt a rationale that goes something like this:
Unless I’m really, really sick with something so serious that it can ONLY be treated by the AMC, then I can get by with another hospital, where the clinical care might not be as good, but will be good enough. And I’ll be treated with compassion, dignity and respect.
To this day, if we are working on the community hospital side and see this scenario, we know there are weaknesses in the AMC’s brand we can exploit. And we know we can disrupt the marketplace by presenting our client as offering a balance of clinical competence and human experience excellence.
Balance is the Answer.
More and more, those running academic medical centers today understand that being known as the smartest doesn’t always make you the most attractive to consumers in search of help. Unfortunately, in an effort to present the other, more experiential side of medicine, some academic medical centers are over-correcting and portraying themselves in ways that look and sound like their community hospital competitors. By doing so, they’re vacating their sustainable advantage and making it easier for every community hospital with a cancer program to compete.
The holy grail is found in building a brand program that embraces the power of being an academic healthcare system, but uses knowledge, research and innovation as proof points to support a message that assures consumers they’ll receive great care that is also convenient, safe, respectful and committed to maintaining their dignity.
When an academic medical center finds this balance, they also find that the combination of being the smartest and being patient focused is practically unbeatable.