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Why Caduceus Doesn’t Belong in Your Branding

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

CaduceusHere’s a slightly obscure—but marketing-useful—tidbit of healthcare history that many doctors don’t know. You can amaze your friends with the story of Caduceus vs. Asclepius…but they probably don't belong in your healthcare branding. Stick with me on this.

Amid the dynamic changes in healthcare, hospitals and medical practices throughout the US often find themselves in need of a new identity and branding. Rollups, buyouts, mergers and the like mean they need a new practice name and likely, fresh graphics and branding package.

Well-meaning (do-it-yourself) branding and design efforts are less than satisfactory, and folks frequently ask for our professional help. Often, the legacy logo or the DIY “upgrade” is something involving a staff and one or two snakes.

Here’s are just a few reasons to rethink using the “stick and snake” approach:

Caduceus may not be what you think it is. The symbol—two snakes, wings and staff—is widely (but erroneously) associated with the practice of medicine. In fact, the Greek god Hermes (assuming he’s still in business these days) is the messenger for the gods, and since the 1800s, printers have used the symbol to represent printers and the printing industry as “messengers of the printed word.”

Printers included Caduceus (as their symbol) in medical textbooks and that sparked the mix-up. About 1902 a US Army officer mistook the printer’s mark as a reference to medical practice and successfully proposed the indicia to represent the Army Medical Corp. It was an honest mistake, but the widespread use in military medicine perpetuated a popular misinterpretation ever since.

Rod of AsclepiusPerhaps you’re thinking of the Staff of Asclepius. This guy—also Greek, with one snake, a stick and no wings—doesn’t get the recognition it should. Around 1200 BC, as you may not recall, Asclepius was considered the most skilled physician in Greece, and was deified as a Greco-Roman god of healing. Thus it is Asclepius, and not Caduceus, that is more correctly the symbol associated with healthcare and the healing arts.

Caduceus vs. Asclepius is a common mistake. According to Wikipedia (the digital god of online info), about 76 percent of healthcare organizations get it wrong and use Caduceus, while 62 percent of professional associations (who obviously know the difference and get it right) use the rod of Asclepius.

If you currently have, or are thinking about using, either Caduceus or Asclepius in your logo or branded material, you might want to turn up the creative juices. A better choice of imagery might be a more effective solution.

  • How do snakes—your choice of one or two serpents—relate to state-of-the-art healthcare?
  • Does either Greek symbol communicate contemporary medicine?
  • After several thousand years of use, the snake thing isn’t unique or differentiating.
  • Healthcare branding is more likely to be benefit-driven and consumer-centered. Snakes...not so much.

So if your communicative image—name, logo, tagline, colors, etc.—needs an update or replacement, you may want to ask for professional help and stretch your creativity beyond Caduceus, Asclepius, snakes and sticks. (Wings are optional.)

For help with hospital or healthcare branding service, give us a call, and click through to these related articles:

Lonnie Hirsch

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