How do you differentiate your medical brand?
You hear the word “brand” thrown around so much these days that it’s easy to wonder if it has any meaning anymore. You also ponder whether it has much to do with growing a medical practice.
Branding is a matter of new curiosity to medical practices. For those schooled in marketing basics, you know that brands clearly apply to consumer goods such as cars, clothes and food. Brands seep into our lives from birth. Typically, by the time a child enters third or fourth grade, she knows what makes a Corvette different from a Dodge Caravan, what Calvin Klein does for a living, and where in the grocery store to find Ben & Jerry’s products.
But can a medical practice have a brand? If so, what is a doctor or a practice administrator supposed to do with it?
Excellent questions. Let us begin to answer them with a definition. A brand is simply a claim of distinction, and the reason any organization needs one is for business health. Every organization exists to provide products or services or both, even if the organization is a professional-services group or of not-for-profit status.
Those products and services must be relevant to the organization’s customers or constituents – they must be meaningful to both heads and hearts. You can’t merely say or even prove your product or service is better than most. You have to make consumers believe and feel it.
Size doesn’t matter. Distinctions do.
The most successful organizations usually have a strong brand that clearly differentiates them from all others that provide similar products and services.
Brands are not a function of organizational size or market dominance. Chevrolet is one of the world’s largest automakers, yet Volvo and Rolls Royce are stronger brands (for different reasons), more easily associated with clear distinctions.
Similarly, Apple computers and electronics, Ikea furnishings and Swiss Army Knives don’t outsell all competitors but nonetheless cultivate legions of till-death-do-us-part loyal customers. A seller can’t buy such loyalty; he or she must earn it by staking out clear distinctions.
The first impression is the most important, and it must make the choice clear. Specifically, what can be said about a private medical practice that is not true about others? In the free market, every health care provider faces three essential questions:
- Are you really different?
- Who else knows it?
Often – perhaps even most of the time – the smallest of distinctions will build a strong brand. Volvo originally made the branding claim of safety because in the 1980s they were the first European automaker to include seat belts as standard equipment. Does Volvo make the safest car?
In late 2011, Subaru was the first car maker able to say that all its models were awarded Top Safety Pick winners by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Barely half of Volvo’s nine models got the same designation for 2012.
Yet after three decades of branding itself as the safe car, Volvo still owns that category in the minds of car buyers.
The insurmountable train brand
One distinction is all it takes. In a recent issue of AdWeek magazine, columnist Robert Klara pointed out Amtrak’s singular competitive distinction against airlines: scenery.
Flying to a distant destination certainly takes less time and often costs less than taking a train. So why does passenger train travel still exist outside of commuter trains?
“Like many of the western railroads,” Klara writes, “the Northern Pacific had purchased a fleet of new ‘Vista Dome’ cars after the war, and, as a 1955 [magazine] ad shows in Norman Rockwell-like splendor, passengers of all ages could marvel at a 360-degree view from inside the dome of the North Coast Limited.”
Today Amtrak carefully times its train schedules so that passengers can see the best western vistas at the prime sunlight of the day. You can’t see the same scenery from an airplane. No way. Now that’s good branding that no multi-billion-dollar airline can top.
In health care, often a medical practice will possess a unique distinction in its marketplace. An example might be a particularly advanced radiation technology that has been licensed exclusively to one oncology practice in a city for a limited period of, say, three years.
Such a clear distinction could make for strong branding for as long as the exclusivity lasts – or until the practice can find another technological distinction when the three years are up.
Be first, be clear
However, the good news is that a medical practice doesn’t need an entirely unique distinction. It isn’t a requirement for effective branding. Sometimes you just have to be first to make the claim, just as Volvo has done.
In our experience in specialty medicine, examples have included:
- An orthopedics practice with the largest staff of physical and occupational therapists within 100 miles.
- A neurosurgery group that was the first in its home state to offer artificial disc replacements for degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine.
- A fertility practice with a special arrangement with far-flung OB/GYNs willing to monitor induced ovulation procedures so that female patients wouldn’t have to travel far for daily sonograms.
One warning: It’s dangerous to build a brand around a single physician or surgical procedure. What if the physician leaves the group? What if your competitors learn the same procedure?
The key is broad and durable simplicity. Ideally, you want to say something your practice was the first or is the oldest or has the most of something. Don’t try to build a brand around multiple strengths. Yes, Starbucks sells sandwiches and salads, but it’s brand is associated with special coffee.
Pick your strongest, most lasting distinction and make that the flag at the top of your mighty ship. And fly the flag everywhere you can…repeat the message on your office door, your business cards, your website, even on your lab coats. Wear it with pride. Above all, make it stick in the minds of health care consumers.