Thursday, December 2, 2010

"All Together Now" - Unified Branding Taking the Stage

In both the spirit of the holiday's and the celebration of the Beatles now available on iTunes, the title of this post seems right. It also seems to fit what we're hearing and seeing more of these days from hospital systems - the "Unified" approach to brand strategy and architecture.

There are two models that have been most prominent over the last decade; the endorsed model and the unified model. The endorsed model keeps the equity of each individual entity and provides a "seal of approval" in the form of a master brand that serves to connect all the pieces. BJC in St. Louis is a good example of this approach - and illustrates the pivotal decision point when evaluating both strategies - when you have the power of individual brands such as Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Missouri Baptist Medical Center, or St. Louis Children's Hospital, chances are you're not going to lose them in favor of a master brand. The "BJC" seal shows the connectivity and integration of facilities. Other organizations such as Clarian in Indianapolis have gone back and forth on whether the unified or endorsed strategy makes the most sense and recently announced it was changing its name altogether to emphasize the equity in its teaching institution.

For most health systems, where a marquee name might not exist, the unified approach is making a comeback. Across the country, we're reading about health systems that are creating master brands and making them more prominent than their individual entities. Lehigh Valley Health Network (Allentown, PA), Advocate (Chicago, IL), Franciscan (a brand new brand in Indiana) have all taken stock of their individual brands and determined that a unified approach is a more effective and cost-efficient marketing strategy.

From a brand management perspective, both approaches have unique implications. With a unified approach, you're creating a standard promise that should prevail among all entities associated with the brand. McDonald's made a pretty good name for itself in this regard. This, of course, is not easy and makes it quite a challenge from a brand management standpoint. We refer to this as "horizontal" brand management (cuts across the enterprise) and typically is focused more on operational and promotional components than a cultural (service-oriented) element. McDonald's promises fast, quality food products and that's how we judge the brand. Not necessarily on the way we're treated or their level of customer service. In contrast, the endorsed approach is more of a "vertical" brand management model that tends to focus more on the cultural, or customer-service experience. This is made possible due to the limited size and cohesiveness of a single enterprise versus several coming together under one brand.

From a cost efficiency standpoint, the unified approach offers the most economies of scale and is the model of choice for most healthcare providers. Rather than support many individual brands with promotional messages under the endorsed model, followers of the unified approach can put their dollars behind one message strategy.

How to determine if a unified or endorsed model is best for your organization:

. Research to determine the equity of your brand(s) - The best (and only) way to determine the strength and equity of your brand(s) is to conduct market research. This will help you best decide whether a unified or endorsed model is most appropriate for your organization and marketplace.
. Research to determine receptivity to a unified approach - If you're going to employ a unified approach to your brand strategy, test this with key audiences to make sure the name and approach make sense and is not confusing to the consumer marketplace.
. Competition - Don't be a "me too" brand. Take a look at what your competition is doing and if it makes sense to go the other way, do it. Just because the guys down the street have a new, unified name doesn't mean you should as well.
. Capabilities in brand management - Assess your capabilities in both "vertical" and "horizontal" brand management. A "vertical" approach aligns better with an endorsed model and a "horizontal" brand management approach tends to fit with a unified model.

These are just a few of the determinants of deciding which approach to branding best suits your organization. More than likely, the unified model is the best fit and brings everyone and everything in your system together. Just like the music of the Beatles.

"All Together Now." Best wishes for peace and joy this holiday season.

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