We’re Number Two!

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Is a bigger, more famous competitor gobbling up your market? Here are some strategies to stand out.

With more than 5,000 hospitals in the United States, not all of them can be first in their markets. But if your facility finds itself looking up at a larger competitor, you can still position your organization for success, whether by identifying one service line to emphasize and throwing all of your resources behind it or carving out a reputation as the alternative to larger, more impersonal hospitals.

Just ask Don Simon, vice president of marketing and advertising at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, headquartered in Great Neck, NY. Remember that iconic advertising slogan for the Avis car rental company, "We're number two, but we try harder"? Simon was the vice president of marketing at Avis for 12 years before making the move to healthcare.

Although Avis acknowledged its bigger competitor in that famous campaign, it's not necessary to compare your hospital to the market leader, Simon says. "Hospitals have to communicate their particular points of strength and attributes. Focus on your strengths and leverage that to create a brand." What worked for Avis can work for hospitals, he adds. But if you're number two (or three, or four), finding your strengths and executing the right market strategy requires a little bit of work.

Find your focus
"Very often the marketing issue or needs of the day tend to pull us in the wrong direction, or the loudest voices tend to pull us away from what we do that is very best for our service area," says John Sowell, chief strategy officer of Finelight, a Bloomington, IN–based marketing firm. "Maintaining a focus that is properly balanced between emotion and rationale is really important."

Hospitals should take a hard look not only at why they are not number one, but why someone else is, Sowell says. This is especially true if the competition is a well-known brand.

"If one of those major national hospital brands is encroaching on your market … it's important that you really look at why these leading national system, clinics, and organizations are looking at your market," says Sowell. Such analysis could help identify your own weaknesses and a market opportunity that you've been missing.

Turn size into strength
Your more famous competitor may have greater name recognition, but your organization can do something many larger organizations can't: Focus on what you do best. "One weakness inherent in a great big national brand is that there's a lack of focus—they do so many things," says Bill Ott, a senior consult for the St. Louis, MO-based consulting firm Numerof & Associates.

Another benefit of focus is the ability to pour all of your resources into that service. Start by recruiting and retaining the best physician experts, says Lydia Hammer, a principal with Kurt Salmon Associates, a healthcare management consulting firm in Plymouth Meeting, PA. Consumers don't choose hospitals, she notes—they choose doctors. "Strategy one is invest in your physician who brings the clinical capability."

Another way to create focus is to expand the continuum of care, says Ott. Provide osteoarthritis patients with personal fitness coaches, massage therapy, walking groups, or pain management—before they need surgical intervention. This not only increases the revenue stream, but also creates a higher-quality revenue stream, says Ott, because many patients pay out of pocket for such services. What's more, your hospital develops a long-term relationship with the patients and their primary-care physicians.

Get the word out
After deciding on a focus, all that's left to do is communicate that focus to referring physicians and consumers. "You have to keep a keen eye on how you market those differences," says Sowell. One message that usually resonates with both patients and referring physicians: You don't have to go beyond your own backyard to get great care.

Though LIJ's 15 hospitals have a healthy 32% market share, the system, which has more than 6,000 beds and a total operating budget of $4 billion, still faces outmigration to larger hospitals in Manhattan. "That puts more pressure on us to demonstrate the high level of care that can be received at our hospitals" he says.

Being small has other advantages to promote, as well—namely more personal care and specialized services. Marketing messages should "focus on the unique qualities of the smaller hospital," says Simon. "Smaller hospitals can sometimes pay greater attention to the details of care."

Gienna Shaw

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