Extreme Brand Makeover –2013 Hospital Edition: Five Guiding Principles for Hospital Renaming

Once upon a time, healthcare included physician offices and hospitals. As the healthcare delivery system evolved, non-university based hospitals began including “medical center” or “regional” in their name to reflect advanced equipment and programs and expansion of services to include both acute and non-acute care services. And somewhere along the way, we ended up with a few called Memorial Hospital Regional Medical Center…..really. Google it!

Enter the health reform era of the 2010’s, where unprecedented mergers, acquisitions, and new care models have prompted hospitals and health systems to redefine themselves— whether they want to or not. And, as a natural extension of this redefinition, many hospitals have engaged in rebranding efforts to better reflect who they are and what they do, and several have pursued a formal name change.

A recent Becker’s article featured 10 hospitals and health systems undergoing brand and name changes in 2013.  While some, like Greenville Health System, simplified its name, others created an entirely new name, like UnityPoint Health, formerly known as Iowa Health.

So, what’s in a name, anyway? Hopefully a brand. At its core, the brand is about the experience people have with your hospital or health system. The name on the building only has meaning when it’s associated with that experience. Simply changing the name on your website, letterhead and facility signage is not sufficient or advised. Plus, it’s expensive! But it can be worth the investment, since the life and benefit of your brand name should last for years.

Take Dignity Health, for example. Formerly Catholic Healthcare West, the fifth largest healthcare system in the nation decided that a name change was necessary to reflect a new governance structure and a broader scope of services and affiliated hospitals, including both Catholic and non-Catholic facilities. The name change also reflected its “corporate severance” from the Catholic Church (though its Catholic hospital affiliates will still adhere to the church’s ethical and religious directives). And lastly, the name change dropped the geographical moniker that may no longer align with Dignity’s future growth strategy beyond the western United States.

While a name change for hospitals is not a requirement for succeeding in the era of health reform, a brand refresh probably is. When it comes to determining whether or not your brand refresh should include a name change, here are five guiding principles to consider:

  1. Don’t be a lemming. Just because a well-respected health system or the one across town changes its name doesn’t mean you should change yours. And just because you’ve acquired a new hospital doesn’t mean that you should pull the trigger on an immediate name change. Naming and renaming organizations needs to be thoughtful and strategic and a true reflection of your brand.
  2. Identify the strategic reason for a name change. If there isn’t one, then don’t go down this road. Is the core identity of who you are, how you do it and what you offer different than it used to be? Have you already done the difficult inside work of nurturing and building your brand such that it is now time to unveil a new brand name to punctuate your efforts and raise awareness externally? Does your hospital name have a negative legacy? Whatever it is, have a strategic reason to pursue a name change. It will require an investment and does not have a direct 1:1 return on investment –it may be more, or it may be less, depending on your ability to deliver on your brand promise.
  3. Consult the experts.  Full disclosure, I happen to work with one of the premier brand gurus in the country. But that’s not why I’m advocating this. I’ve been in your chair, and I’ve experienced some of the pitfalls and nuances of creating and implementing a name change, and there is more to making a meaningful, brand-building name change than most people –including your boss and Board Chair –generally appreciate. When you partner with people who do this for a living, you get objectivity, research, education, a thoughtful process, and a depth of experience and insight that you probably don’t have. In addition to these specialized knowledge and skills, partnering with experts will help you rise above some of the internal politics, emotions and opinions associated with identifying and selecting a new name, as well as ensure that you don’t decide on a name only to discover that you’ve infringed on an existing business trademark.
  4. Develop an implementation plan with a budget and a timeline. It sounds basic, I know. But many people don’t realize the ripple effect and real cost of a name change. There is both an art and a science to launching a name change, and for it to be successful, you need to have identified all of the people, places and things that will be impacted. It is also important to consider that the roll-out is not purely linear, and that a multi-channel strategy is necessary for both internal and external audiences. Without a solid, well-articulated, budgeted roll-out plan, a name change can put brands at risk of losing equity, consumer loyalty and even market share –none of which hospitals can afford to lose…right now, more than ever.
  5. Communicate the name change to internal audiences first. Most people think of a name change as something external. Employees like nothing less than to read about major changes in their workplace on the front page of the Sunday paper. And since your employees should be some of your best brand advocates, they should be equipped to explain the name change to those outside the organization. Whether you have 10 employees or 10,000 employees, communicating the change to them will help to ensure that it is more than just new ink on a business card or a signature line in emails.

What lessons, questions or stories do you have about naming (or renaming) hospitals?

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