In this fast-paced, high-speed world of cell phones, e-mail, the Internet and personal digital assistants, people are looking for meaning in places they haven’t in the past. They want to connect with the products they use in a real and meaningful way. And, be assured, that includes the healthcare consumer.
For many of today’s consumers, the products and services they select represent opportunities to express their individual style and values. This is the notion of echo-branding—the brand takes on a reflective quality for the end user, echoing their values and priorities. And this extends far beyond the cars people drive and the clothes they wear, and includes the hospitals they choose and the health plans they join.
Today, many of these brand relationships take the form of indulgences. Products that we use every day, like coffee, shampoo, and body lotion, have taken on a new level of importance. They are no longer simply functional; now they are expressions of our personal brand and serve as rewards for a fast-paced life.
The consumer’s mindset is: “With such a hectic life, I deserve to ‘treat myself’ and my family in some of the everyday choices I make.” Instead of a cup of coffee at the office, many consumers are opting to pick up a $4 latte from Starbucks on the way into work. Significantly, a cup of coffee has now been replaced with a relationship. Not only do the consumers indulge themselves, but they derive a sense of belonging and identity based on the choice of Starbucks, and what that choice or brand affiliation represents. After all, Starbucks is a company with a well-publicized social mission. The company actively advocates on behalf of clean water, fair trade, and generally strives to contribute positively to communities and the environment. That connection with the brand and its values makes the relationship even more meaningful and rewarding.
Echo-Branding in Healthcare
What consumer values and priorities should we reflect in healthcare marketing? It all begins with understanding that effective marketing puts the consumer first. Building upon that, what is important to the healthcare consumer?
Tufts-New England Medical Center, in a recent advertising campaign for its new suburban pediatric specialty centers, put forth a message of “convenience without compromise.” Consumers were promised the exceptional care they could expect at Tufts’ downtown Boston facility, but with the convenience of having the center in their suburban community. And Tufts communicated this through a campaign that mimicked a child’s activity book. The look was colorful, engaging and familiar, and the messaging reflected an understanding of the pressure suburban parents face trying to juggle careers, chauffeuring kids to after-school activities, and caring for a sick child. It was very human and relatable of Tufts-New England Medical Center to say: We understand that a drive into downtown Boston is a hassle, and we want to make it easier for you to access great healthcare. That is an excellent instance of echo-branding in a healthcare context.
Another example is the UNC Health Care Heart Campaign. This campaign, targeting Baby Boomers, spoke directly to Boomers’ desire to live life to the fullest during the second half of their lives. Values such as questing, desiring to travel, spending more time with family, and seeking out adventure (even second careers), were all communicated through the campaign. The messaging was simple: “At the UNC Heart Center, we work to get you back to your life.” One headline from the campaign read: “You’ve spent your entire life getting to the point where you can start living it.” The messaging was reinforced by the campaign tag line: “We treat heart disease so you can live your life. Your way.” Finally, the imagery used in the campaign showed Boomers living active lives, once again reinforcing the values of self-actualization and re-connecting with family.
In his book, The Culting of Brands, Douglas Atkin states that “brands function as complete meaning systems. They are venues for the consumer (and employee) to publicly enact a distinctive set of beliefs and values.” Hence the evolution of meaning-based brands like The Body Shop, Burt’s Bees, and Ben & Jerry’s, where an ice cream bar becomes a Peace Pop! According to Atkin, cult brands’ values are often aspirational—pointing toward how the world ought to be. These brands are self-consciously different from their competitors because of the meaning and significance they bring to the consumer. That is echo-branding.
The Benefit of Echo-Branding
The benefit to the brand, product or healthcare organization is that the consumer forms a more significant brand loyalty grounded in a sense of shared values and identity. These brands foster a sense of shared experience and belonging. Echo-branding helps to take the marketer out of the realm of simply selling services, and allows them to enter into a relationship with potential patients.
The first step is to identify the services and amenities your hospital has adopted that accommodate the needs and values of your potential patients. These are marketable attributes that have a high likelihood of resonating with the healthcare consumer. Examples could include steps you’ve taken to make care more accessible; extended family visiting hours; larger patient rooms with sleeping areas for family members; seemingly small things like free parking or valet service; or the ability to schedule appointments online.
Whatever you decide to feature in your marketing, it needs to be relevant to the consumer’s life. When you travel this path with your marketing, you put your institution in the preferred position of becoming the hospital that understands the needs of patients and their families, and that cares enough to develop services that meet those needs. Soon you will begin to see consumers being transformed into brand advocates, while your preference numbers gradually increase. And couldn’t we all benefit from an increase in the number of advocates for our institutions? These are the people who will go out and tell your story to others and sing your praises. That’s the best marketing money can buy.