By Jason Kraus
Some of us remember the days when there was virtually no need for marketing healthcare practices. All that was required was hard work, well-developed skills, and a shingle out front. Word of mouth was the primary method for growing practices, and any overt messaging was considered unethical. In fact, there were regulations specifically preventing physicians from advertising themselves. It was a simpler time with far less competition for patients and referrals.
But like nickel movies, 10-cent loaves of bread, and 30-cent gallons of gas, those days are long gone, and gone for good. Marketing has become an essential business process for medical practices. The effective execution of a marketing plan may have a greater impact on the success or failure of practice development than many other aspects of the enterprise. TV ad man Don Draper never believed those simpler times ever really existed for any business, but most clinicians are well aware they’ve entered a new era.
These changes didn’t happen all at once, but have been evolving over several decades. People and businesses respond to changing trends in different ways. The Rogers Innovation Curve identifies four categories of responses to innovation: early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. The Rogers model may also be applied to the changing needs of medical practice building.
Practitioners who first saw the writing on the wall in the early 1980s and invested in organized, properly funded marketing activities (early adopters) have become well entrenched in their communities and have defendable competitive positions. Those who believed that the new “fad” would soon end are playing catch up (the laggards). Almost everyone else resides somewhere in between.
Brand development is an important component of effective marketing. Many people define a brand as a name or logo that identifies a company. While that’s true, branding goes well beyond that basic definition. A brand conveys a message to its target market that defines what its core values are and what the promised experience will be for consumers who connect to that brand.
Apple, Mercedes Benz, Volvo, and many other companies have developed and invested in successful branding. Effective brands elicit an emotional response from the market that conveys each company’s core values or mission. Apple equals innovation, the Mercedes brand stands for quality, and Volvo represents safety. These successful brand development strategies increase product sales simply by attaching their valuable image and the feelings it evokes to physical products.
Medical practices can accomplish similar results with consistent and effective branding. Large medical organizations have been doing this for some time. Health systems such as the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, and Johns Hopkins Medicine have reaped large benefits from such efforts. Proper brand development also works for individual and group practices. At its core, your brand says who you are, what you are good at, what you promise to deliver to your customers, and how you are different from your competitors. The more thought that you put into brand development, the more value your practice will derive from it.
In order to maximize your branding effort, you must first look inward. You need to determine your practice’s:
• Underlying philosophy (mission statement)
• Scope of services
• Area of greatest expertise
• Competitive strengths and weaknesses
• Desired types of patients
• Qualities and attributes that you want patients to connect with your brand
In the old days, you, the individual practitioner, were your brand. Today it is recommended that even solo practitioners develop branded names for their practices. This name provides practitioners with the opportunity to be descriptive and creative. Many clinicians don’t put as much thought into this as they should because they’re not thinking about themselves as a brand. But your brand represents the promise you make to patients as well as what they can expect from their relationship with your practice. The difference between Footcare Associates, Inc., and The Foot Health Center of Excellence is clear. One of the names conveys a benefit and promise of high quality while the other doesn’t.
Answering the core questions of “who are you?” and “what is your practice’s mission?” might be simpler in a solo practice than in a group or multispecialty practice setting. Nevertheless, it’s necessary to develop this understanding so that all marketing efforts, including branding, are tailored to your practice’s high-level goals. For example, if you have received specialized training and desire to build your practice around this core competency, your marketing messages will need to connect with the patient population and referral base that best support your goals. Alternatively, if you believe your mission is to create an extraordinary patient-centric experience in generalized foot care, your brand and marketing efforts will focus on conveying those competitive advantages.
Once you have established your practice philosophy and assessed the competitive landscape, you are in a position to select a brand name. The name itself should be as memorable and descriptive as possible. Consideration should also be given to local competitors’ brand names—you want to avoid confusion. If you’re going about this process without professional marketing services, it’s helpful to get feedback from friends, family, and patients. Ask them what the proposed name means to them and what images or emotions it evokes. Compare their responses to your original goals.
If you choose to retain professional marketing services for your branding project, use an advertising or marketing agency with an extensive portfolio of corporate identity and brand development clients. Unlike other aspects of marketing, your brand will be with your practice for the long term.
If you already have a brand name that you feel is not adequately descriptive or memorable, you may contemplate a midstream change. Of course, this requires careful thought and planning. Such changes will generate costs, and you should be confident that the potential investment in a new brand identity is worthwhile. While there is no certain way to make this determination, here are a few factors to consider:
• Does your community currently recognize your brand (or do they know you by name instead)?
• How much do you currently use your brand name now?
• All communications
• All advertising
• All signage
• What resources will you have to support your branding initiatives in the future?
If your brand name currently is well recognized and consistently supported, switching to a “better” brand can be risky. Alternatively, if you do not currently have a recognizable brand and are moving forward with a supported initiative, the rebranding itself can become noteworthy and provide a reason to reach out to your community.
Logos: Your visual message
There is a strong connection between your brand and your logo. Very often the practice logo becomes the visual manifestation of the brand, so its selection requires careful consideration. Your practice logo is highly visible and therefore requires the same deliberation as your brand name. If your podiatry practice brand name is the Heel Pain Center of Greater Detroit, and your logo is a runner in motion, you are miscommunicating your brand message and missing out on the leverage that a brand-reinforcing logo can achieve.
One of the greatest changes in healthcare marketing is the proliferation of new media. Where and how to present your message is complicated. In the past, the hard work of marketing involved brand development, proper design and content for advertising messages, appropriate analysis of practice threats and opportunities, and putting all of these elements together to form a cohesive plan. Once that was done, the execution was relatively simple; there were limited methods and outlets for telling your story.
Today, almost all marketing plans include digital, print, and social media strategies with corresponding budgets. Remember, marketing is a business process, and as such it requires both an intellectual and financial investment for the greatest yield. To determine the best mediums for your brand, you must understand your audience and how they seek information. Are your desired patients part of an older community that is less reliant on newer technologies, or are they a digital audience that operates in a paperless world? It may be that your referral sources represent one demographic while your patient populations are part of another.
The key to effective branding is consistency. Maintaining a brand identity is a long-term commitment. There is considerable competition for brand recognition. Achieving consumer awareness, or mind share, is a slow process, and it’s essential to ensure that every communication, both inside and outside of your practice, carries your brand identity and message. Your logo, color scheme, and brand name should be on everything from your front door to your stationery.
This consistency creates a distinct look and feel that patients and referring clinicians will associate with your practice. Every time a patient receives mail or e-mail from you, picks up one of your brochures, visits your website, or receives information from your staff, they should experience and remember a consistent look and feel. The same principle holds true for your communications with referring practitioners. To accomplish this, your staff needs to be conversant with your brand philosophy, be able to articulate it, and deliver on its promises. This is especially true for service businesses such as medical practices where there is no physical product to do the heavy lifting.
A strong brand identity that is built and reinforced over time can create a consistent, long-term image of quality. Once you’ve achieved this, however, you’ll need to regularly update marketing efforts and support to stay current and memorable. Ongoing support can take many forms and be delivered through the mediums that best match the demographics of your current audience. These factors may evolve over time and should be reviewed regularly.
What shouldn’t change is your commitment to deliver consistently on what your brand promises and to support its ongoing dissemination. Your brand is the sum total of the experiences and perceptions of your practice on the part of
your patients and referral sources. It lives within their hearts and minds and therefore deserves careful attention and thoughtful development.
Jason Kraus is executive vice president of Langer Biomechanics and a former partner in the practice consulting firm SOS Healthcare Management Solutions.