There are plenty of struggling hospitals in the United States. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen hospitals close their doors across the country. The latest is Care New England’s Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It is heartbreaking for these communities when their local hospital shuts down for good. We’ve all heard the expression, “You don’t appreciate what you have until you’ve lost it.” We assume that when we need something, it will be there for us. It’s my experience that communities often take their local hospitals for granted until rumors of a closure surface. It’s then that supporters come out of the woodwork to lament the loss of their local hospital. Rightly so, they talk about how important the hospital is to their community and how much harm will be caused by the closing. However, at that point in time, the decision has already been made. It’s too late.
Somehow, over the years, my company has developed a reputation for helping struggling hospitals. We call them challenger brands because they are usually facing a dominant competitor or set of competitors within the region. Challenger hospitals can be big or small, academic medical centers or critical access hospitals. What they have in common is that their existence is threatened by better-funded, better-known and more highly regarded competition.
One of the things we’ve discovered is that these challenger hospitals are often found in some of the most economically depressed communities in America – communities with a large under-served population with significant health challenges. These towns or municipalities develop a reputation for being rundown, crime-ridden and as a haven for drug dealers. Unfortunately, once a community develops a negative reputation, it is very hard to change people’s minds, even if positive change does occur. Jennings (my firm) has worked for hospitals and medical centers in some of the most challenged communities in America: Camden, NJ, Lawrence, MA, Brockton, MA and now, a new hospital client in rural Arkansas. Each of these communities is working on a renaissance and the hospital is an essential element in the revitalization effort. In fact, in each case, the hospital has become a partner in the community redevelopment initiative.
I’ve lived through hospital closings, and I’ve had to stand in front of a crowded community center full of citizens who were angry and confused by the closing of their local hospital. I’ll never forget those experiences; for some communities, the closing of their community hospital feels like the final nail in their coffin. The hospital is often the largest employer and the community’s economic development engine. So, it means a great deal to me when we are able to work with a hospital’s leadership team and restore their organization’s reputation, elevating the brand within the market.
Changing long-standing perceptions is incredibly difficult. As human beings, we like to think we’ve got our world figured out. That means having neatly formed perceptions. In this manner, we structure the world around us. And, unfortunately, social media and news outlets tend to feed us information that reinforces our worldview. So, it is a big job to take people with negative perceptions of a hospital and reshape those perceptions.
What I always look for is the gap between the widely held perceptions of the hospital and the reality. Opinions of the hospital may well be grounded in old information; sometimes very old information. And the truth may well be that the hospital has improved and people simply don’t know how much it has changed over the years. So there’s a gap between long-standing perception and reality. Where there’s a gap, there’s an opportunity! Typically, the job of changing perceptions involves closing that gap by finding compelling ways to tell your story.
One note of caution: If the negative perceptions of the hospital are accurate, then change has to occur before you can successfully alter brand perceptions. Be cautious about marketing the organization in a manner that is too aspirational. An element of aspiration is fine, but it needs to be grounded in reality – perhaps the organization has been going through a positive transformation process and has established a track record of operational improvements. In the end, brand building is not about putting window dressing on an organization with a well deserved bad reputation; it’s about putting your brand’s best foot forward in a manner that is credible and honest. That’s what people will respond to and find believable. And then it is up to your team to live the brand every moment of every day so that patients’, family members’ and employees’ experience will match the brand marketing.