Department Focus: Marketing--Claims You Can't Ignore

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Hospital marketers often resist responding to a competitor's ads. But sometimes there's no choice.

Building market share in your community is hard enough without a competitor down the street using fuzzy numbers or making questionable claims in its newest advertising campaign. When your competitor unveils a flashy new campaign that claims it provides "the best heart care" in your city, and you know it's not true, it's likely to strike ire in any marketer's heart. But think before you respond, experts say.

"I think a lot of the dirty marketing is a function of ignorance versus arrogance," says Robert Fay, principal of Beacon Fey, a marketing and communications consulting firm based in Baltimore. "It may appear dirty, but it is really ignorance or a lack of understanding. It's a rare case where it is truly an effort to do dirty marketing."

That doesn't mean that marketers should just ignore inaccurate or unsubstantiated claims, Fey says. "It depends on what is said and how it's said," he says. With all of the different hospital-rating organizations that exist today, two competing hospitals might have the same top-rated service lines, making it difficult for marketers to challenge claims. But if the claims are truly unsubstantiated, Fey says, do something about it.

Covenant Children's Hospital did. The 73-licensed-bed facility in Lubbock, TX, launched its own campaign to counteract claims by a competing hospital. But instead of making its own boastful claims, Covenant instead chose to educate consumers and encourage them to ask the right questions to determine the right healthcare facility for their families.

"We did a direct mail postcard for Covenant. On the front it said, 'Why Should You Choose Covenant Children's Hospital?' and on the back it compared other regional providers and hospitals," says Elizabeth Blevins, account supervisor for the Bloomington, IN-based consultant Finelight. The card compared the size of each facility's pediatrics staff, the availability of a neonatal intensive care unit, and other factors, she says.

The remainder of its campaign focused on what it considered the most important points: Covenant is the only licensed children's hospital in the area, and the only accredited children's emergency center in West Texas.

The campaign worked for Covenant Children's, she says, because the campaign didn't appear as though it was a knee-jerk response to the competitor's claims. The public can sense when an argument is being played out in your marketing, she says.

"You'll never win. We've seen other clients try it, but you just never win. The best way is to just educate consumers and let them ask the necessary questions," she says.

Peer to peer

After months of hearing unsubstantiated claims about a competitor being "better," "most preferred," or "highest ranked," Candace Quinn fired off a letter to the competitor's marketing director, asking her to stop the unsubstantiated claims. "They used every rating and ranking and listing to put themselves in a superlative situation," says Quinn, chief executive officer of Brand=Experience, a consulting firm based in Mclean, VA, that is working with a rural Midwestern hospital. "There was an ad that talked about how they were clearly the best choice for wound care, but there is no external rating source for wound care. It was as if they looked at their own data and decided that no one could be better."

The Federal Trade Commission has policies about deceptive advertising and misrepresentation, Quinn says, as does the American Marketing Association. She cited these policies in her letter to the competing hospital.

"I wrote it peer-to-peer and demanded that this hospital stop its unsubstantiated claims. You can't claim to be the best in the community for this service or that service and not substantiate it," she says.

The competing hospital didn't admit wrongdoing, but in its response assured Quinn the advertisement's life had run out and she would not be seeing or hearing it again. "I could have gone to the FTC, but in a professional environment, you want to start with the professionals," Quinn says. "You don't want to draw your weapon before you ask them if you want to just sit and talk about this . there may be a chance to redirect some of that energy."

-Maureen Larkin

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