Good hospital, no brand…bad strategy

 

Don’t pity Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) as it waits for Dr. Wilbert Keon to decide whether to dismantle the national capital region’s pediatric health service.

CHEO has always played second fiddle to Toronto’s Sick Children’s Hospital (Sick Kids) and the provincial government wants to save money by cutting CHEO’s cardiac surgery service and consolidating its efforts at Sick Kids. Eastern Ontario’s citizens are upset at the thought of being second-class: they thought they belonged to a community that could provide locally for the full range of health care needs of their children.

The provincial government makes an easy target – it is responsible for decisions about health care – but is it really to blame? Pointing the finger at politicians and bureaucrats only obscures the real source of the problem: CHEO’s management team.

CHEO managers didn’t have the good sense to be like Avis, where number two tries harder. Their lack of marketing vision isn’t unique among non-profit organizations, but it has created a unique problem. They failed to create an image that ensured the provincial government recognized the hospital’s outstanding contributions to pediatric medicine. Effective branding – the art of demonstrating value – should have been a crucial part of its business strategy. CHEO managers clearly failed to make it a priority and their carelessness opened the door for the government to make its decision.

One reason it is hard for Eastern Ontario to accept this threat is because CHEO has done a great job promoting itself locally; its fundraising ventures have become major regional events, important and necessary. But the hospital has been preaching to the converted and has forgotten it isn’t good enough for the region to be happy with CHEO’s good work.

By not promoting their strengths to the world beyond Eastern Ontario, CHEO management committed business’s cardinal sin: they made the hospital seem irrelevant to its key stakeholder, the politicians holding the purse string.

When your business is 450 kilometres away from the decision-making centre, you’re out of sight. You have to work harder at managing perceptions about your brand than the competition – which is, in this case, only one block away from where the decision makers wield their power. The politicians only made a choice that, to them, seemed obvious: CHEO’s lack of brand awareness makes it seem unimportant and dispensable.

Eastern Ontario’s battle to demonstrate CHEO’s relevance and value is unenviable: they’re fighting with lawn signs instead of the tools that should have been developed long ago as part of a strategic marketing and public relations campaign. Better communication tools would have improved the hospital’s ability to manage the perceptions of government decision-makers and enhanced their understanding of CHEO’s brand value.

And by tools I don’t mean press releases and advertising. Branding is about the entire set of associations people make: from how the phone is answered, to the efficiency with which services are delivered, to how expertise is promoted.

To extend its image beyond Eastern Ontario, CHEO should have told the story about its specialized knowledge: the true attribute of a hospital brand. Getting what it knows in front of the public – everything from guide books and magazines to public seminars and workshops to websites and television shows – might have countered the attention lavished on Sick Kids.

If these seem like extravagant suggestions, it is already being done.

CHEO might have learned from the Mayo Clinic whose approach to branding has cemented a public image that clearly evokes associations of confidence and innovation – and which, not so incidentally, supports its fundraising goals and the retention of talented employees. A core component of the Mayo mission is educating the community beyond its walls, providing what it calls a “sharing of trusted answers.” To deepen its brand the Mayo Clinic has created a wide range of high-quality products, thereby giving the general public access to the experience and knowledge of 2,000 Mayo physicians and scientists. No wonder the Mayo Clinic is the best-known hospital in the world.

CHEO might also have learned from Sick Kids itself, which sponsored two of its dietitians to produce a book for parents. That guide, Better Baby Food, became a bestseller and spawned a just-published sequel, Better Food for Kids. If you’re a parent, you crave advice, but who to trust? Probably “the world-renowned Hospital for Sick Children, so you can be sure that it provides the most expert, up-to-date information available.” It’s a diabolically alluring claim for parents. And from the hospital’s perspective it’s especially tempting to make such claims when you know the politicians are watching.

Branding CHEO should have been a top priority in the battle to connect with all stakeholders, from politicians to bureaucrats to the media to the general public. CHEO managers probably thought such tactics would be too expensive and time-consuming. Doing nothing has proved even more costly.

 

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, July 2002)

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