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Branding the identity of your practice

By Rebecca Anwar, Ph.D.

Letting people know who you are and what you are all about is critical to strengthening and expanding your position in the marketing place. Branding strategies have long been used in large industry but can be easily modified to meet the needs of today’s medical practices and organizations.

Branding is developing and delivering on a perception that you create. A great analogy is the hotel industry. What is your immediate perception and expectation when you think of The Ritz Carlton, as compared to your view of Motel 6, and what makes each of them attractive and thrive in the marketplace? Both are brand names but have very different public perceptions and expectations attached to them. Besides this, they attract different markets.

For practices that are involved in a merger, branding will help establish the new identity, increase market penetration and strengthen market recognition. For practices that want to specialize in a particular area of expertise, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, or pain management, branding as “the Alzheimer’s specialist” or “the pain management specialist” will let the public know where to go to get the best. The question is, will you be the best based on expanded skills, new skills, greatest value, or perhaps managed care friendliness? You become the practice brand of choice based on this attraction. By doing so, you can secure a particular market and outsmart your competition.

Branding is a marketing strategy that works if you follow these basic principles.

Focus on where you excel. The first step to creating a brand is to identify who you are and what you do best. This means determining what to capitalize on. Reach beyond the image of the “generalist” and take an in-depth look at who you are and what you have to offer. Analyze the scope of services and explore your options. What is it that this practice does best and who you want to attract?

During this process you may discover that it is the younger, health-conscious population that you want to attract because you have a personal dedication to health and fitness. Or maybe it’s a senior population that seeks your services because you and your staff are dedicated to the elderly and their needs. On the other hand, a blue-collar community may be the impetus to attract more workers compensation cases. Some practices consider themselves non-traditionalists and may want to explore options such as adding alternative medicine.

After you conduct this initial analysis, it will be important to determine what appeals to you and what the practice wants to commit to over the long haul. Once a brand identity is set in motion it must remain consistent, so be sure the services and image you portray are in line with your values and philosophy.

Understand the existing markets. When you have clearly identified the service and image you want to focus on, it is time to get a better understanding of the market. At this point it is advantageous to bring in a marketing consultant to assess the market. He or she will be in a position to provide critical, objective analysis of competitive factors and how to respond to them. It is essential to know who they are and how they differ from you. For example, as an ENT surgeon you and your competition may both want to focus on head and neck cancer. If they are providing standard surgical techniques to remove and treat the cancer patient, then your practice may want to focus on specialized reconstructive surgical techniques. By doing this you have taken the first step in defining your type of brand identity. Or, if you are a primary care physician and care for a large number of patients with addictive disorders, this may be your brand venue, whereas another primary care practice may focus on obese patients and nutrition and diet.

Be consistent. Creating a branding strategy and maintaining brand identify require an enormous long-term commitment. This is not a one-shot deal or a flavor-of-the-month. Once you imprint your brand on the public you must endorse and support it consistently. It needs to become the overriding philosophy of your practice. Up front, it is important to recognize that, even though you envision your identity and its value to building the practice, it will take considerable time to penetrate the market and create brand recognition. Once this is accomplished, it must be continually reinforced.

Branding is the big picture view that a practice presents. It’s who you are and how you look to the community, your professional colleagues, employees, patients and future patients. No one does it better than the nationally renowned medical centers, such as Mayo, Johns Hopkins and the Cleveland Clinic. But in reality, you don’t have to be a large center to create a brand identity that sustains the practice over time. Practices that develop and commit to supporting a singular identity through branding have an edge on the competition.

If you are working with a consultant, they will introduce powerful strategies and recommendations to guide you. They will be sensitive to your vision and your goals. They will establish methods to meet your immediate and long term objectives. Just as important, they understand the difficulties of accepting change and introducing new concepts. Though branding has been used for large health systems and corporate America, it is a new concept for private practice physicians. It is a powerful tool that will be commonplace in the future.

A strong brand identity that is built and protected over time can create a long-term, consistent image of quality and value. Inevitably, you will attract more patients, or in some cases managed care plans will seek your services, based on how you have influenced them with your branding strategies. Those that take branding action now will be tomorrow’s leaders.

Rebecca Anwar, Ph.D., is based in Philadelphia, PA. She is a senior consultant with The Sage Group, Inc., a national consulting firm specializing in marketing, strategic planning, quality improvement and practice management for physicians.

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