By Ross K. Goldberg
As sure as Disney, Apple and Coca-Cola have brand identities, so too does every physician in practice today. The difference is that many physicians don’t know it. Strong brands approach the market with far more credibility than do their competitors when it comes to name awareness and trust. If computers, cars and coffee (think Starbucks) can make this connection, why not healthcare? Why not physicians and physician groups?
For many physicians, finding and defining their brand and voice is often a journey of business self-discovery. That’s where healthcare marketers come in and why they are today needed more than ever. But to get physicians on board with the need, power and effectiveness of a brand architecture, a few truths must be acknowledged. Here are six to keep in mind.
- Physicians need to begin to think of themselves as a product, as uncomfortable, commercial and counter-intuitive as it might feel. Certainly, physicians are a lot more than that, and the intent is not to depersonalize or dehumanize healthcare. But thinking of a physician that way – and thinking of brands that are most trusted – will help physicians better understand the importance of a brand as well as the qualities that make a brand effective.
- Physicians need to remember that branding starts on the inside. They, their partners and their staff must be fully invested in believing in the brand and delivering on it all of the time. It must become such a part of the texture of a physician’s practice that both employees and patients become ambassadors for that practice or medical group. Others who join that practice must understand and practice it, too- new physicians just out of medical school, physicians new to the community, or well-established practices that have merged or been acquired. And it includes nurses and office staff who, too, are a critical part of the entire patient experience before, during and after the direct patient engagement. It gets back to the promise that physicians are making to their patients, business partners and themselves.
- Physicians need to learn to use size to their advantage. While it is the brands of the mega companies that are most obvious and make headlines, smaller businesses or individuals have an advantage because it’s much easier for them to provide and control consistent a brand experience. People patronize local storekeepers and restaurants not just for the product or service itself, but for the experience of getting it. Individual physicians, or those in smaller physician groups, are beautifully positioned to create a meaningful brand because of their intimate understanding of the communities and patients they serve.
- Physicians need to find a way to use change as an opportunity to enhance their brand. There is a lot of change going on in healthcare, and all too often change threatens to upend an organization’s brand. Rather than letting change erode the equity they have worked hard over time to build, smart physicians (with the assistance of marketing professionals) should use change to reaffirm their role as a leading and trusted healthcare resource in their community. That means having a well-thought-out strategic approach to how they communicate change to their various constituencies and how they candidly discuss – in words everyone can understand – the road that lies ahead as a result of the change. Most important it means remembering that staying true to their brand is just as critical as any of the legal structures, human resource issues, information technology questions and operational design decisions they are being forced to address in their quest to remain competitive and relevant.
- Today more physicians are employed by hospitals than those who work in an independent practice setting. Even physicians not seeking employment are opting to merge with either multi-specialty groups or doctors within the same specialty as a road to financial sustainability. The ACA and its signature payment model, the Accountable Care Organization (ACO), have provided strong motivation for hospitals to seek out physicians who are contemplating alignment, with good reason: while it is possible to become an ACO without a hospital, an ACO can’t exist without physicians. Physicians who already believe they have a strong brand need to carefully consider how their brand will endure as part of a larger organization … or should it?
- There is more noise than ever in the healthcare communications marketplace – yet physicians have the opportunity to rise above it through a branding strategy. Taking a strategic approach to branding allow physicians to break through by speaking not only to their strengths but to what the marketplace needs and wants. To do this physicians should simply ask themselves what do I do well, what do my patients value and what attributes or unique characteristics of me and my practice are “ownable” over time? Think of those questions (and answers) as three linked circles. Find the area where those three overlap, and you will have the foundation to building a strong brand.
Ross K. Goldberg is president of Kevin/Ross Public Relations and former chairman of the board of trustees of Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center.