In spite of the growth of healthcare marketing in the past decade, it is still a Third World function in many health systems.
That marketing in healthcare should lag behind marketing in other industries is not surprising, given its relative youth in the provider industry. It was not until the advent of the prospective payment system in 1984 that the community relations function was propelled into full-scale marketing. Hospitals learned to prosper under DRGs by promoting profitable product lines. Advertising was the engine of this promotion, but public relations and other tools of marketing grew in sophistication as well.
The evolution of integrated delivery systems, brought on by managed care, is another sweeping industry change that demands innovation on the marketing front. Yet many marketers are like generals who are fighting the last war, hurling product-line bombs but not hitting strategic targets. While the marketplace is flooded with healthcare promotions, most consumers would be hard pressed to identify the institutions sponsoring these promotions. That's because health systems are defining themselves in the same generic, one-size-fits-all terms as their competitors are.
If you took the positioning statements and marketing messages of many systems and blocked out the names, they would be interchangeable. If a "vertically integrated health system that provides a comprehensive range of high-quality, cost-effective services" describes your system, it also describes everybody else's. How then is a payer or consumer to choose from systems that have nearly the same attributes?
The answer lies in differentiation, an idea that has been finely honed in the product world but is just coming of age in the healthcare industry. The heart of differentiation is creating a distinct marketplace niche for a product by distinguishing it from its competitors. Saying a health system is a fully integrated delivery system describes how it is organized but tells little about its distinct attributes. It's a bit like a person describing himself as a human being with limbs and a central nervous system. How much better our picture is if he tells us he is an architect who likes to hike, restore old houses and travel in Italy.
Effective differentiation sets a product or organization apart from its competitors by creating a "personality" in the marketplace. This is the part of institutional positioning that requires a heady mix of creativity and good market analysis. The fiercely competitive product world provides many examples of creative positioning.
Picture the dilemma of Neutrogena, a personal-care-product company that wanted to introduce a new shampoo. It's difficult to imagine what new spin Neutrogena could possibly create in this glutted market. Neutrogena more than rose to the challenge by positioning its shampoo as the one to use periodically to strip hair of residue from all the other shampoos you have been using. The company turned a negative (all the other shampoos on the market) into a strength for its product and secured its own turf in the market.
While marketing a health system is arguably more complex than marketing a consumer product, the principles of effective differentiation remain the same. This begins with a thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the competition. If your competitor is known for excellence in cardiac care and has an image lock on that market, you cannot differentiate your organization by touting its cardiac program, no matter how good it is. A positioning program must be built around core strengths of the organization, yet these strengths should be ones that cannot easily be claimed by competitors. This doesn't mean you should ignore your cardiac program. It means you should sharpen the focus of promotion on programs that truly set you apart.
Center-of-excellence marketing has long been a staple of marketers, for good reason. Recognition of clinical programs enhances the overall institutional image by conferring a halo on the organization and its other programs. Cleveland Clinic used cardiology marketing brilliantly in promoting its image in the U.S. and abroad. The implication to consumers is if you are great in one program you must be good in everything.
This idea, while always an effective differentiation strategy, takes on added luster in the new environment of health systems. There is growing evidence that consumers will "boutique shop" for specialty services, even if that means paying more. A recent American Medical Association survey said 77% of consumers would pay more for their doctor of choice and 72% would pay more for the hospital they prefer.
In addition to creating a market personality for an institution, center-of-excellence marketing underscores the quality positioning all marketers seek, which can seldom be achieved by overtly positioning quality itself. A Prudential HealthCare survey found less than a third of women looked at how a plan ranks in quality when selecting coverage. Costs and selection of physicians ranked far higher. Quality must be communicated within the context of specific programs.
Center-of-excellence marketing has obvious appeal for academic medical centers, but what if you don't have a world-renowned research program? The idea works equally well for promoting community-based programs or nontertiary clinical care. If your system has a superb wellness program with resources unmatched in the community, this could be an extremely effective positioning plank to distinguish you from the specialized medical center uptown that likes to play clinical superstar by transplanting livers in Siamese twins.
Once you have selected a program to build your marketing plan around, it's important to keep the following guidelines in mind:
Stay the course. You must make a long-term commitment. Image-building is a process marked in years, not months.
Think national. As you are building awareness of programs, think beyond the local media. If a program is truly cutting edge, it merits national news attention. Recognition in national news outlets sets you apart from your regional competitors.
Brand it. The program being marketed should have consistent brand identification with the institution. This ensures marketing resources will reinforce the system's name equity among consumers and payers.
Differentiation may be the greatest challenge for health systems today, but successfully creating an identifiable market personality will yield the biggest bottom-line returns.