When a two-hospital system was created in west Cleveland in 1986, it took the name Health Cleveland.
But a recent survey showed that just 3% to 4% of consumers in the system's service area knew its name. The vast majority were unaware of any health system in the area. In June it was renamed Fairview Health System, using the name of its well-known Fairview Hospital.
Merging hospitals can waste recognizable "brand" equity by creating an entirely new name to satisfy internal politics, marketing experts say. In some cases, the better strategy might be to build on the name of the strongest hospital.
Shell Oil, Morton Salt and Cadillac have known the value of a strong brand name for decades. In healthcare, branding is just catching on.
Health systems are in a branding frenzy as they try to market formerly unrelated entities under one name. Branding hospitals, physician groups and outpatient centers creates marketing efficiencies and gives the image of integrated, accessible care.
A strong brand name also commands consumer loyalty and sometimes a higher price. But building brand equity is a slow, difficult process that healthcare providers are still learning.
Often, systems pick a name and a logo and never make it stand for anything. Or, they take a good name and diminish it.
"Healthcare management does not look on the names of their various entities with the same degree of esteem as occurs in the consumer world," said Arthur S. Katz, a strategic planning and marketing consultant in Kansas City, Mo.
Several systems such as Health Cleveland have scrapped contrived names because research found consumers didn't recognize them.
Instead, they renamed themselves after their most recognized hospital.
A survey by Rocky Mountain Adventist Healthcare in Denver, for example, demonstrated that "no real `system' of healthcare delivery is perceived to exist in the Denver area," said Terry White, chief executive officer. In June the system became PorterCare Adventist, taking the name of its flagship, Porter Memorial Hospital.
And last year Health Dimensions in San Jose, Calif., became Good Samaritan Health System.
But not all systems have rejected the new-name strategy.
In the Chicago area, Advocate Health Care is sinking millions of dollars-it won't give an exact figure-into a campaign to promote its new name, picked with the help of consultants. Advocate resulted from a recent merger of the Lutheran General and EHS health systems.
Some marketers have questioned the wisdom of throwing away Lutheran General's strong name. But Wendi Taylor Nations, Advocate's director of marketing, planning and advertising, said the new name is an opportunity to create a new image.
"You always lose when you get rid of a name. You lose a great amount of equity. But we felt the upside was portraying us as `no more business as usual' and creating a culture focused on the customer," she said.
The ads, which run on radio, print and television, tie Advocate to the names of its eight hospitals, 3,500 doctors and other care sites.
Advocate will follow up by promoting consumer-friendly programs, such as home visits for new mothers and their babies, Nations said.
In general, healthcare organizations are still learning brand management. That might mean keeping a system's name off a newly acquired rural practice to maintain the local identity. or, hiospitals might name a new wing or a cancer center after the system, rather than that of a generous donor.
"The smarter strategy is to try to identify where your name has value and use it," said Eric Berkowitz, a professor and chair of the marketing department at the University of massachusetts at Amherst.
Healthcare also has yet to explore creating new brands for new products, Berkowitz said. For example, Kaiser Permanente -- the HMO famous for offering no choice outside its provider panel -- might benefit by using a different name for its choice-oriented point-of-service plans.