The 4 kinds of leadership you need for a successful health system (re)brand

A few years back we were hired by a health system that needed to be renamed. Through a series of mergers the system had grown its service offering from that of a single hospital to that of a fully connected, multi-modal care network.

But through those mergers, the system’s name had been inconsistently applied. As a result, most community members didn’t understand the full scope of connected services they now had access to. Renaming the system in a consistent way was something that both the Smith & Jones team and the system’s marketing and strategy leadership agreed was the best way forward.

But having the support of marketing and strategy leadership wouldn’t be enough to pull off the rename. To be successful, we needed other kinds of leadership. Four kinds, to be precise, without which all of the hard work we had done to develop a great, inspiring new name for the system would be wasted.

Here are the four kinds of leadership we needed to do what was right for the system.

Strategic Leadership

The first kind of leadership we needed was strategic leadership. In simple terms, strategic leadership is ownership of the brand strategy*. To be successful, there must be a person who takes ultimate ownership of the brand strategy and bears responsibility for implementing it across the other areas of the system. 

Strategic leadership is often the precursor to the other kinds of leadership, in that the strategic leader is often the the one who brings the new brand strategy to other execs and board members. Often, the strategic leader is the head of the marketing or strategy department. They are the hub to which all other leaders will connect with in one way or another, and they become in many ways the ‘soul’ of the brand strategy. For that reason, his or her complete buy-in is critical to success.

The strategic leader will need lots of support from the agency that developed the brand strategy, and that agency should be prepared to get deep into the politics of the health system. Often the process of instilling brand strategy throughout an organization has little to do with marketing and much more to do with relationship building and persuasion. This is a place where agencies who don’t have deep experience working with healthcare providers can get in over their heads. Without an understanding of the power dynamics of a health system, it’s easy to make a critical misstep that brings a new brand strategy to a grinding and permanent halt.

Creative Leadership

The second type of leadership is creative leadership. Creative leadership is ownership of the creative elements of a brand. Often these elements look like ads and collateral, complete with words and pictures. Other times they may be more abstract representations of look, tone, feel and mood. Here at Smith & Jones, it’s usually both.

Creative leadership is the responsibility of the agency. While having ownership of creative strategy live within the health system would have some benefits, it often isn’t possible due to organizational politics and the status roles typically assigned to in-house creatives at health systems. Without a high level of influence for in-house creative staff, successfully leading creative change is usually best handled by an outside voice.

Essential collaborators on creative leadership come from all levels of the health system’s marketing department. Creative types must have a voice at the outset of brand development, and should be called upon to evaluate the feasibility of an agency’s creative strategy. Ideally, other departments and leaders should not be involved, beyond the initial buy-in of high level creative elements.

Political Leadership

Unlike strategic and creative leadership, political leadership is not a role owned by one person. It’s a supporting role, but that doesn’t make it any less critical. In fact, political leadership can be the make-it-or-break-it factor in a successful brand.

At its heart, political leadership is the willingness (and ability) to endorse and promote a brand strategy through all levels of the health system. The CEO is a key player, but he or she must have the support of other influential leaders. In most successful re-brand cases, there is a board member who shares the political leadership responsibility. Together, the CEO and board member (with lots of support from the marketing and/or strategy director) secure stakeholder buy-in at the top.

In cases where a successful brand becomes part of the cultural fabric of the organization, many more political leaders are needed. Service line leaders are critical as they take responsibility for translating the brand into the delivery of patient care. Leaders from human resources will make decisions about the people a health system hires, and nursing and financial leaders have great influence over the way the organization conducts itself.

Physician Leadership

Physician leadership is a sub-category of political leadership. I’ve broken it out separately in this article because of the immense power physicians usually wield over the direction of a health system. Like broader political leadership, physician leadership is a supporting role and is largely about a willingness to support a brand strategy.
The responsibility for physician leadership usually begins with the CEO. At systems where an executive position exists for physician relationships, the responsibility may be shared, but it’s important to note that no matter how strong your physician relationships person is, without clear leadership from the CEO, a physician relations executive doesn’t have the backing he or she needs to present a convincing case for change.

As a brand strategy is communicated to physicians, responsibility for physician leadership may shift to leading physicians. Sometimes this takes the form of a Chief Medical Officer, but in many cases a health system will have physician leadership spread among a few key physicians or even a panel. Even in cases where titular physician leadership is consolidated to one person, securing the buy-in of other highly influential physicians is essential to success.

At Smith & Jones, we believe that the agency should be a key support in developing physician leadership. While many health systems are (rightfully) careful about who they bring into contact with their physicians, an agency experienced with health system branding should know how to work with physicians in a way that secures buy-in at the outset.

Building Bridges and Creating Leaders

Rebranding a health system is not for the faint of heart. Nor is the constant work of implementing a brand strategy throughout all levels of a health system. Both require hard work, yes, but maybe even more importantly they require a team that can build bridges and create leaders. It’s meticulous work, but for those who have the will and the vision, it may be the most rewarding work you can do as a marketer.

*Brand strategy is the desired future state of a health system’s brand.