Hospital Branding: 7 Deadly Words of Healthcare Marketing

From Paul Szablowski and Rob Rosenberg’s recent presentation at Forum for Healthcare Strategists.

Being descriptive in healthcare marketing can be a challenge when you stop using these seven words that no longer have the power to distinguish your organization or its services from those of your competitors.

In the early 1970s, stand-up comedian George Carlin delivered what would become the bit he was best known for, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.” Google it and you’ll be treated to a filthy and hilarious not-safe-for-work rant.

Hoping that a portion of that phrase stands the test of time, Paul Szablowski, vice president of public relations, marketing, and communications for Dignity Health, and Rob Rosenberg, president and brand strategy director for Springboard Brand & Creative Strategy, have developed their own list of words to avoid in healthcare marketing.

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This “seven deadlies” list was part of their presentation on brand building with internal communications at the 18th National Healthcare Marketing Strategies Summit in Arizona held in early May by the Forum for Healthcare Strategists. According Szablowski and Rosenberg, healthcare marketers should avoid using the following words in marketing messages, both internally and externally:

  1. Comprehensive
  2. Integrated
  3. Continuum
  4. Advanced
  5. Care
  6. Close
  7. Multi-disciplinary

“These [words] are not distinguishing characteristics,” says Szablowski. “This is what people expect you to be. We need to find words and use words in ways that families understand what we’re doing. Put an experience around each of these words.”

Being more descriptive in healthcare marketing can be a challenge because, as Szablowski rightly notes, hospitals want patients to know that the care they are receiving is comprehensive. So, how do you communicate that? At Dignity Health, one of the country’s largest healthcare systems, Szablowski started by making sure that employees were engaged and that internal stakeholders were included in meetings to determine strategic marketing platforms.

“For example, physicians didn’t know the other specialties we offered,” he says. Employees, too, were unaware of all the services available and couldn’t refer friends and family, or take part in themselves, thereby causing leakage, which according to Szablowski and Rosenberg, ranges from 30%–40% at some organizations.

Rosenberg, who works with clients in Chicago, where mergers and acquisitions are high, says he always does internal stakeholder interviews and is astonished by what they don’t know. “Hospitals need to talk to employees about their services,” he says.

Having engaged employees will not only lead to less leakage, they argue, but it also builds on the foundation of delivering a positive patient experience, which we know from the HealthLeaders Media 2013 Industry Survey, is a top priority at healthcare organizations across the country.

Getting every employee to “live the mission” or “live the brand” is a frequent theme in patient experience strategies. Szablowski believes what is working at Dignity is something they started at least four years ago.

“We’d get letters from patients, and we’d take one of those letters once a month, invite that patient and their family, the caregivers, and the leadership from the hospital and have that person read the letter in from of everyone,” he says.

The emotional connection was so powerful that Szablowski says Dignity is now working on videotaping the patients reading the letters and storing them in a video library to use for motivational purposes before leadership meetings.

“Each story is really different. Some are about little things, big things. There is an unbelievable range,” he says. “The value of it is people come in and talk about what led up to the [hospital visit], the care, and afterwards. You recognize that it’s the totality of the experience. All those little things matter.” At the end of the letter reading, everyone who was involved in the patient’s care gets a certificate of appreciation from the CEO.

“It’s the fundamental articulation of the brand, and the brand isn’t the logo or the architecture. It’s a living thing and everyone plays a role in it,” he says.

So far, Szablowski says he feels like Dignity has done a good job focusing its internal communication to raise employee engagement. It’s measured by the participation rate of Dignity’s annual employee survey, which Szablowski says has been between 80%–90% for the last five years.

“It’s gone from a survey to an engagement strategy,” he says. Before each employee survey, posters are put up around Dignity’s hospitals pointing out results from last year’s survey and how the hospital responded. There are also multiple ways employees can return the survey to increase participation.

“We set laptops all over [the hospitals] in kiosks,” says Szablowski. “We also [provide it] on paper, in Spanish—whatever we have to do.” Dignity’s focus on communicating effectively and precisely to its employees reflects its commitment to talk the same way to its patients.

Szablowski says he tries to avoid using the seven deadly words at all cost because while “comprehensive,” as an example, means something to healthcare marketing professionals, it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to patients, or consumers. A better description of “comprehensive,” according to Szablowski is, “[having] the ability to successfully track all the points of care so we can make sure you’re getting the right care, at the right time, and at the right place.”

“The real key is that they’re our words,” he says of the list. Now it’s up to other healthcare marketing professionals to stop using them.

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