One of the many things a brand is not

A few years back my team was hired by a mid-sized health system to help them market some key service lines. I was excited about the work (as every professional is when a new challenge comes in the door), but I was a little disappointed, too. We’re really good at helping our clients define meaningful brand strategies, and I was bummed that we weren’t working on that first.

But hey, not a big deal. We do service lines all the time. We’ll just make sure our service line strategy matches up with the client’s existing brand strategy. I got busy looking for an insight we could base our service line strategy on, and asked the client to email me all the documentation he had on his brand strategy.

The client’s response triggered my spidey-sense. There was no attachment to the email, which surprised me. Usually a brand strategy is codified in a powerpoint or word document, so when no attachment came through I knew something was up. When I opened the email, I found that he had instead sent me a link to :30 second ad. His email said “As promised, here is the brand strategy you requested.” I watched it, and while it was a perfectly fine piece of advertising, it wasn’t a brand strategy. That’s the moment I found out that my new client didn’t actually have a brand strategy.


Of course, this is partially my fault. I could have done more to clarify the client’s situation earlier in our conversations, and shame on me for that. But this confusion isn’t unique to this situation. In fact, it’s endemic to the world of healthcare marketing. In our world, “brand” is used as a stand-in for dozens of related-yet-distinct concepts. One of these concepts is especially confusing, and it’s time for a refresher.

Brands and brand strategies

A brand is a gut feeling that a person has about your organization. Since it exists only in the hearts and minds of other people, you cannot control it. It’s no more within your control than the way you feel about your favorite people. As such, a statement like “we’re working on our brand” is nonsense, unless you mean that you’re actively doing something to affect the way customers feel about your organization. For healthcare marketers, working on your brand is done in an exam room, not a conference room.

What people really mean is that they are working on their brand strategy. A good brand strategy sounds a lot like a brand, but there is a critical difference. A brand is how people feel about your organization today. A brand strategy is how you want people to feel about your organization in the future. Sometimes you want people to feel the same way about your brand in the future as they do now, but this is rarely the case when someone hires my team. Usually our clients want us to solve some kind of brand problem. A brand problem, almost by definition, is a mismatch between brand and brand strategy.

In reality, what my client had sent me was brand advertising. In this case, that just means an ad that isn’t about a particular service line, but about the organization as a whole. These are important, and most health systems should be doing them, but they aren’t a replacement for brand strategy and they certainly shouldn’t be executed without one.

Who cares?

I know that this article sounds, to many readers, like the armchair ranting of an old-fogey marketing professor. But I’d wager that most of those readers haven’t read this far anyway, so that’s fine. Those who are still reading know that most people (even most people who work in marketing) don’t care to understand the nuanced difference between brand and brand strategy.

But those who do care are the ones setting the pace for our industry. Because they know that great brands aren’t built without a strategy. They also understand just how powerful a great brand strategy is in the customer-unfriendly healthcare provider industry.