“The Sea of Sameness” – Lessons learned from the Northwell / NYU branding lawsuit

In this mini on-demand webinar, Paul Fahey comes in with a story from the Smith & Jones “newsroom.” NYU Langone’s recent lawsuit against Northwell Health for their ‘confusingly similar’ purple ads has caused a lot of folks in the healthcare space to buzz. Watch the full video:

What’s at stake?

The site of this battleground is the New York Metro and Long Island markets–approximately 15 million people. But more importantly, the battleground is in the minds of consumers. What exactly do they think of when they see the color purple? 

Fierce Healthcare wrote that Langone “codified the use of the color purple, along with preferred accent color combinations, typography choice, in an internal advertising style guide developed in 2017, and that was used throughout today.”  

As you can see in the news clip, NYU Langone had deployed tons of brand materials and physical and digital marketing campaigns that generated over 400 million impressions per year and spent $25 million per year purchasing ad space. That’s a lot of brand equity, and that’s certainly something that’s worth protecting. 

Swimming the Sea of Sameness 

Naomi Diaz from Becker’s recently described and used the Sea of Sameness concept, which refers to when healthcare marketing and advertising really look similar across a lot of identities and causes either friction or confusion between hospitals and health systems that are looking to stand out from their competitors. 

Paul Matsen, Chief Marketing Communications Officer at the Cleveland Clinic, recently used that phrase and told the Marketing Brew, “In the healthcare space, a lot of the advertising looks identical. It’s often been referred to as a Sea of Sameness.”

It might be difficult to find an institution with a logo that isn’t using some kind of combination of crosses, heartbeats, or helping hands. Other examples of Sea of Sameness in healthcare could be generic employee team photos, or slapping a doctor’s headshot on a billboard. 

To learn more about differentiating your hospital to create a brand that stands out, check out our webinar, Healthcare Advertising: Branding Beyond the Physician Photo

How to break through 

How can you break through the Sea of Sameness and create a brand that is memorable? It starts with research. Understand what your competition is doing. Where they’re spending (or not spending). What messages are they saying? What colors or brand elements are they using? Once you’ve identified that, you know what not to do. 

Now, dig into your organization. What really sets you apart? And what is it your consumer wants? How do you uniquely fulfill their wants and needs? If you’re struggling trying to find that true point of differentiation, it’s time to bring that conversation to the boardroom and ask the big questions: 

  • What is it we’re doing? 
  • What’s our reason for being?
  • Why would someone choose us over our competitors? 

Push the Boundaries 

Paul recalled, “An old mentor of mine once said, if it’s easy to approve, it’s not memorable.” 

What he meant by that is we want our clients to have just a little bit of healthy agita. Those safe stock photos just won’t cut through the clutter. Another saying goes that a good ad does the work of 10. You don’t need to triple or quadruple your media budgets to reach people, but you do need to push your creative boundaries. 

One great example was our recent recruitment campaign with Ellis Medicine. We led with the bold headline “We don’t hire employees.” But the payoff is that we invest in them, and this strongly resonated with the nurses, lab techs, and staff that were hired as a result of this campaign. The messaging really got to the heart of what was important to candidates and how the culture at Ellis is different than its competitors. 

Healthcare Recruitment Ad Example

What’s Next? 

We’ll be sure to keep an eye on this lawsuit as it unfolds. As of August 2023, Northwell filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, denying they infringed on any rights. What do you think? Let’s keep the conversation going on LinkedIn

Hopefully, we’ll see you soon at this year’s annual SHSMD Conference in Chicago! Stop by our booth to grab a copy of our brand-new Trends Report and other helpful resources.