Department Focus: Marketing--Beware of Monkeys

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When it comes to marketing your hospital, it often pays to take the road less traveled.

In the world of hospital advertising, it's easy to slip into a pattern of "monkey see, monkey do." When a competitor's flashy new billboard or eye-catching newspaper ad debuts, physicians, trustees and other members of the hospital community often bang on the marketing department's door to ask, "Why don't we have one of those?"

But in an industry of rapid change, healthcare marketers are realizing that the key to winning your community's business is to prove not that you're "better" than the competition, but different.

1. Stay the course

If you want to differentiate your organization from the field, developing a clear marketing plan at the beginning of each year is important. Even more important? Actually sticking with it. "The second you take your eye off the ball to play with the crowd, you lose the game," says Lisa Wyatt, senior vice president of public affairs and marketing at the 926-licensed-bed Washington (DC) Hospital Center. "It's not about the superlatives--it's about differentiation."

Providing consistent quality care will help your hospital weather any period of stiff competition, Wyatt says--and making sure your advertising follows a plan that's aligned with your organization's strategic goals will help ensure success. With more than 160 departments at WHC, Wyatt says only two or three are selected to be the subject of big-buck advertising. Most often, these are the areas the hospital has targeted for growth, along with 10 smaller niche campaigns.

"We rely heavily on the strategic and operating plans," Wyatt says. "We've built our brand based on our heart program. It's one of the biggest and best in the country, and the decision was made quite a while ago that it's where we were going to put our emphasis."

An advertising plan that goes hand-in-hand with the entire hospital's strategic plan can help marketers explain to inquiring minds how or why reactionary advertising is or isn't appropriate. "When I'm approached by someone and they're talking about what our competition is doing . we circle back and remind people about our initial strategy and what messages we've used and why they work best for us as an organization," says Susan Stewart, director of marketing and public relations for Humility of Mary Health Partners, a three-hospital, 880-licensed-bed system in Youngstown, OH. "I often ask the individual that I'm talking to if their idea is the most strategic way for us to continue to tell our story."

2. Make the money count

Copycat campaigns are not only a bad idea strategically, but also financially. When you simply react to a competitor's marketing, you're more likely to make rash decisions that are a poor use of your hospital's budget, says Carol McCarthy, president of Remedy, a Chicago-based brand strategy and communications firm. "It's very likely that you've had little time to deliberate about the message that you're putting out there," McCarthy says.

Another thing to consider is that although it may seem like everyone is asking, "Where's our billboard?" it's very unlikely that your prospective patients are among them. "Physicians, CEOs and stakeholders often assume that the consumer will be as interested as they are, but if you believe that your consumer market is waiting for a billboard to appear, the reality is that often they just don't care," she says. "Going to a hospital is not something that they want to be thinking about."

3. Know your options

Just because you have to say no to a billboard, however, doesn't mean your department can't help spread the word about a program that's not included in your marketing plan, says Susan Dubuque, president of Neathawk Dubuque & Packett, a Richmond, VA-based marketing and advertising agency. Marketing can write articles in hospital newsletters, convince the media to cover the topic, or even plan a class or educational session on the topic.

"Develop a menu of marketing support options," says Dubuque. "So when Joe Blow from the hangnail clinic comes banging on your door, you can say, 'Here's what I can do for you.'"

-Maureen Larkin

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