The Marketing Leader in Transformation Times

By: Jeff Cowart, MAH

[box]Marketing leaders today need to hone their own skills in ways to creatively connect with real people.[/box]

Most seasoned hospital and healthcare marketers today were bred in a world where product marketing was the gold standard, and metrics were based on statistics like impressions, gross rating points, perceptions and sales. We related our array of products like radiation oncology and gamma knives to powerhouse brands like Nike and Starbucks. Our marketing leaders learned to speak Steve Job’s language, and we struggled to perform like Apple.

The problem is: Medical care is not a pumpkin latte or a new iPhone. Healthcare is an essential personal service that most of our audience would rather not use, unless it’s focused on keeping them healthy. However, when consumers need us, they want to trust us completely with their being. Studies show that consumers of medical services today are much more savvy and they’re becoming more skilled at sorting out the differences in the “sea of sameness” offered by healthcare providers in our communities.

In this emerging dynamic, the evolution of the marketer’s role must shift from product positioning to consumer engagement. Our most important metrics must move from sales (volume) and web page hits to measurement of long and strong connections with our audience. As marketers, we need to better engage our audience as they move from consumers of services to partners in care management.

How do we better connect with an audience that’s seeking fee for value (versus fee for service)? How do we effectively explain our value to these more informed consumers? When do we accept that touting medical jargon, like “radiation oncology,” on a billboard may delight our physicians but it discourages our consumer partners?

Backed by decades of experience as a consultant and chief marketing and business development officer for both for-profit and not-for-profit health systems, here are a few principles I advise my clients to build upon:

Trust – Without fluff, why should a consumer trust your hospital or healthcare system with their life and/or the lives of their family members? Everyone in your organization should be able to articulate those elements of trust. And, that message of trust should be delivered consistently  — in both copy and design — across every internal and external communication.

Ease of Access – Consumers today are highly motivated by convenience, especially when it comes to seeking and buying health and wellness. There’s a reason why Walgreens (located at the corner of “happy and healthy”) is commanding a space once owned by hospitals and clinics. Where and how does your organization make it easier for consumers? That message of ease should be front and center.

The Story is People – The story is always about people — our remarkable docs, our dedicated medical support teams, and the experience of our patients and families. Service lines, technology, and even quality are only important in relation to how they fit into a human story. In today’s world of social media and patient reviews, people are exchanging personal experiences. Do your marketing materials showcase real-life people telling remarkable real-life stories about your organization? Remember:  Your brand is only as powerful as people say it is.

Message and Creative – In general, hospital and healthcare marketers need a good dose new energy. A smiling elder on the golf course sells knee surgery. A happy grandmother on the playground sells stroke care.  Marketing leaders today need to find ways to creatively connect with real people — not simply delegate the task to agencies (who, by the way, typically have deep roots in product sales). Mark Twain once wrote, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” It takes time to craft a concise, creative message that resonates in today’s growing competitive environment. Take the time.

You can contact Jeff Cowart at