5 Steps to Creating a Breakthrough Healthcare Brand with Low Consumer Awareness

By Stewart Gandolf
Chief Executive Officer

Imagine being a health system marketing executive from a world in which your brand is highly recognized. Now, imagine transitioning into a world where people have low awareness of your brand and the type of care you provide.

Headshot of Johnny Smith, Vice President of Marketing Services at Encompass Health

Johnny Smith, Vice President of Marketing Services at Encompass Health

How do you build brand awareness for a “low-interest category service” without resorting to gimmicks or desperation?

You’ll need to throw out much of what you know about healthcare marketing.

To learn how healthcare organizations successfully rise to the top of consumers’ hearts and minds, I asked Johnny Smith, Vice President of Marketing Services at Encompass Health, to join me on a recent podcast. Encompass Health is the largest U.S. health care provider for rehabilitation hospitals.

In the podcast, Johnny discusses a recently launched and wildly successful brand campaign. Titled My Turn, the campaign tells the Encompass Health story from the caregiver’s perspective, one of the five key branding steps I highlight in this post.

For more insights into this successful initiative, you can listen to the full podcast or read the summary below.

Listen to the podcast: This 5 Steps to Creating a Breakthrough Healthcare Brand with Low Consumer Awareness podcast can be accessed through the graphic below, or via any of the following podcast apps… | iTunes | Spotify | iHeartRadio | Google Podcasts | Pod Bean | Tunein | Radio Public | Stitcher |

5 Steps to Creating Standout Healthcare Brands

While all healthcare brands would love to be top-of-mind with targeted consumers, the reality is, consumers are not taking the time in their daily lives to search for healthcare companies.  But we know they have many options, so we want them to think of the brand when they need these services.

As Johnny explains it best, “We know when they’re looking, they need us right now. We need to make it easy, we need to have name recognition, and they need to fully understand the level of care that we provide.”

Here are a few of the imperative approaches we uncovered in our discussion.

1. Do the Research

One of the key areas of focus for any healthcare system is understanding what makes the brand unique among alternative providers. Surprisingly, this is an area in which many organizations miss the mark when building their brand.

For Johnny, he realized early on that there was low awareness of their unique value proposition and basic offerings, e.g., the overall level of care and the type of rehabilitation treatment they provided among patients, caregivers, and referral sources.

Johnny suggests embarking on an extensive discovery process to understand the customer experience. He says this makes all the difference between a mediocre brand and a successful one.

“[Encompass Health recently identified the need] to start with research because, with any true rebrand effort, you need to start with what your key stakeholders are looking at,”  he says.

2. Start with your Employees

Start with researching your employees—what challenges are they having? If they were asked who they worked for, how would they describe the organization and how it’s different?

Ask your employees what the experience is like to work at your organization. From nurses and physicians to receptionists and administrative staff, employees represent your brand and are the ones telling you the story every day.

“What we wanted to do is create an emotional and human connection with our employees. They’re truly the brand. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive response because we engaged them upfront. Our employees were enthused because we motivated them. We brought them along this journey by conducting interviews for them and then rolling out the campaign with them as well,” Johnny explains.

3. Know your Audience

Typically, you are trying to reach more than one audience, so each message needs to resonate.

For example, Encompass Health examined the perspective of the consumers and caregivers in their space carefully.

Firstly, the patient. For Encompass Health, these are often individuals in the senior population who suffered a stroke or brain injury; they are likely overwhelmed, and getting back to their independence is their utmost importance.

The caregiver, likely the decision-maker and loved one, advocates for the patient’s level of care. They are probably more tech-savvy and looking for answers to tough questions.

Another key audience is the acute care partners and referral sources. The materials provided to support the sales team need to have a clear and concise message that resonates with the referral sources, so the referring providers know the brand is the best choice for their patients.

“Everyone’s a consumer of something, and we know that our providers, partners, and acute care hospitals are all consumers of information as well. In some cases, you’ve got to determine the branding strategy for each of them,” says Johnny.

4. Keep it Simple

While there is nothing simple about going through a national branding effort for a large healthcare company like Encompass Health, it starts with developing a simple message to the right audience. The rebrand happened years before Johnny came on. What made recent efforts a game-changer for the healthcare giant was going back to the lab and breaking it down to the basics.

“As you know, healthcare can be very, very complicated,” Johnny says. “So, the more you can truly simplify your messaging, get to the core message of who you are and be able to target those key audiences, it makes a significant difference.”

5. Tell Your Story

Encompass Health, from Johnny’s perspective, was the best-kept secret. They have a tremendous brand and great healthcare providers committed to positive outcomes for their patient population. The problem was this unique value proposition was not well understood or articulated among internal and external stakeholders. 

Through their research, Johnny learned that their patients and caregivers needed to be empowered to advocate for their care, and their own 40,000 plus employees across the country needed a simple message. And they wanted that message to truly explain who they are and what they do. 

“This truly created the opportunity for us to not only revisit our brand standards on how we tell our story in a more visual and verbal engaging way, [but] we also wanted to take a look at how we tell our overall story to our key stakeholder groups,” Johnny explains.

The Bottom Line

As an agency partner for healthcare brands and the businesses that market to them, we have a unique perspective on effective branding strategies.

Amplifying the brand in low-interest category services can be challenging for healthcare marketers. However, we’ve learned that when brands focus on internal and external stakeholders and develop targeted messaging that resonates with their audience, they can increase brand awareness and grow.


Stewart Gandolf
Chief Executive Officer at Healthcare Success
Stewart Gandolf, MBA, is Chief Executive Officer of Healthcare Success, one of the nation's leading healthcare and digital marketing agencies. Over the past 20 years, Stewart has marketed and consulted for over 1,000 healthcare clients, ranging from practices and hospitals to multi-billion dollar corporations. A frequent speaker, Stewart has shared his expertise at over 200 venues nationwide. As an author and expert resource, Stewart has also written for many leading industry publications, including the 21,000 subscriber Healthcare Success Insight blog. Stewart also co-authored, "Cash-Pay Healthcare: Start, Grow & Perfect Your Cash-Pay Healthcare Business." Stewart began his career with leading advertising agencies, including J. Walter Thompson, where he marketed Fortune 500 clients such as Wells Fargo and Bally's Total Fitness.

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