How to Re-brand a Hospital: Finding the Right Message

By David Kay

There are only two reasons to rebrand a hospital. One is positive, one negative. But regardless of the reason for rebranding, careful work that involves the hospital's various stakeholders must be done before any rebranding project is implemented.

There are two reasons to rebrand a hospital.

    1.   The hospital has changed.

    Perhaps it has expanded and instead of a local community hospital it has evolved into a regional hospital. It has amalgamated with other facilities. It has added services or specialities. It has become a teaching hospital or a research center. It has begun a significant outreach program. Most important, it can no longer be defined by its history.

    2.   The hospital has a poor reputation in the community at large or among specific important sub-communities, for example, potential employees or donors.

    The reaction to the name Hospital X is negative - on a rational basis and on a visceral basis. If the hospital deserves its poor reputation, hopefully it will improve operationally before attempting to rebrand. But it must rebrand. It may also need to be renamed. This too, must be done correctly.

A Brand Definition

A brand is a complex set of images and expectations that a user has concerning a product, service or company. It is defined by an emotional relationship between the consumer and the brand. The brand generates a set of attitudes that is not always articulated or understood by the consumer. Consumers don't always know why the reach for Coke rather than Pepsi, Nike rather Reebok or choose one hospital over another. But they internalize images. They have preferences. A well-branded organization is a trusted organization. It is the one to which the user turns first.

Rebranding a major hospital presents a series of unique challenges because its stakeholders are so varied, its importance to the community dwarfs almost any other branded product or service and the commitment or occasionally the hostility or mistrust toward it is unparalleled. Hospitals save lives. They are unique. Large hospitals are massive, complex organizations whose scope is barely understood by the public, or even by most of its employees. And like any other organization, hospitals rise or sink on a sea of dollars.

Why Rebrand a "Mis-branded" Hospital?

Because the commitment to and the involvement of the hospitals' diverse stakeholders is intense and is vital to the health and well-being of the hospital. A misunderstandingof what the hospital is and whom it serves can lead to a loss of commitment and a loss of commitment is damaging. Staff, volunteers and donors are difficult to recruit. Patients can decide to avoid the hospital. Morale and patient care quality can suffer. A hospital cannot afford to be misbranded.

A successful rebranding typically requires that the message communicated and image projected is believable and consistent through all its communications vehicles, including general and targeted advertising, public relations, all printed and electronic information, the sign over the entrance, the look of the lobby - even the way receptionists answer the telephone. Even the organization name should reflect the hospital's brand. Most important, the new brand message and image must be the correct one. It must be built on the correct platform. And it must resonate with the stakeholders.

Five Steps to Ensure the Rebrand Message is Correct

  • 1.   Know the hospital, its capabilities,history, and plans. The brand must be based on reality.
  • 2.   Determine the views of the different stakeholders, i.e. how do they see the "brand;" how do they use the hospital?
  • 3.   Identify the gaps between the images held by stakeholders. Also, identify the gap between what the hospital really is and how its stakeholders see it.
  • 4.   Determine the hospital's "believability potential," i.e. where the hospital can be realistically positioned in the minds of the different stakeholders. Just declaring that a hospital is like the Mayo Clinic or Johns Hopkins won't make it so.
  • 5.   Determine what image and communications vehicles will be effective in rebranding the hospital.

Know the Hospital

Knowing the hospital requires reading published and private reports, but particularly, it involves interviewing key senior level staff, department heads, planning personnel, etc. This internal information gathering sessions can provide unexpected learning. We conducted an internal focus group among senior members of a major hospital's satellite facility, (a smaller ambulatory care center, located some blocks away from the central facility). A member of the central hospital's planning department was part of the group.

We learned about the true capabilities of the satellite facility. But, to the amazement and chagrin of the planning manager, we also learned that the senior staff knew little about the hospital's plans. The facility was rife with rumor and the staff was suspicious and hostile.

Views of the Stakeholders

At least seven stakeholder groups have to be understood, accommodated and persuaded. They are:

  • 1.   Patients
  • 2.   Potential patients, such as local non-patients who live in the community
  • 3.   Staff
  • 4.   Donors
  • 5.   Volunteers
  • 6.   Board of Directors
  • 7.   Outside stakeholders, such as politicians and media

Each stakeholder group is comprised of different sub-groups with different views and needs, but patients come first. Their needs have to be accommodated. Two of the branding issues that are critical among patients are:

1.   Who does the hospital serve?

The patient population has to be compared with the hospital's catchment-area population in terms of demographics and other characteristics. A significant part of the local population not using the hospital suggests a problem - or an opportunity. Is the hospital seen as welcoming to all people in its catchment area? Do some ethnic groups or some economic groups feel that this in not a hospital for them?

We discovered in one study that a hospital that has an excellent reputation was seen by many as being the hospital to which they go only if they have a very serious medical condition. For simpler non-life-threatening problems, they go elsewhere. This perception was a problem. It is usually positive to be seen as a premium brand - but not so premium that customers stay away. The hospital had to change its brand image.

Another hospital was seen as unwelcoming by a number of ethnic groups who did not speak English as their first language. After learning about the problem, the hospital had to change how it dealt with these populations. Then it had to change its image. It had to rebrand itself among those "rejecter" populations.

2.   How aware are patients and the community at large of the hospital and its offerings? - How do they rate the hospital in practical-rational terms as well as in emotional-image terms. How is the hospital viewed in terms of:

  • Service/Medical quality
  • Program offerings (areas of excellence)
  • Responsiveness
  • Attitudes toward patients
  • Efficiency/waiting time
  • Leading-edge equipment
  • Knowledge and professionalism of staff
  • Reputation, brand-name leaders
  • Cleanliness of surroundings
  • Quality of food, etc.

These are a few of the elements that make up the hospital's reputation. They are the building blocks of the hospital's brand. These perceptions have to be explored. If perceptions are out of line, then they have to altered.

One hospital with which we worked had developed a dozen areas of excellence, in addition to its general community hospital range of services. It had become a teaching and research hospital with deep resources, technology and staff in areas such as cardiovascular conditions, genetic screening, and neurological disorders. But we learned that many of its patients and potential patients thought of it is as a hospital to go to set a broken leg, but not for serious problems. This was a branding problem that had to be overcome.

These same issues apply to non-patients who live in the community but go elsewhere for treatment. It is imperative to understand why before rebranding.


Staff includes:

  • Medical staff, including doctors, nurses and others
  • Non-medical staff, for example social workers, administration, assistants, catering, maintenance
  • Part-time as well as full-time staff.

Each of these groups has its own views and interests. In our experience, these different staff groups often have different ideas about what the hospital is and what it can and should be. These disparate views have to be understood and brought into line.

How staff sees the hospital is critical. Attitudes toward the hospital influences morale, which in turn significantly affect quality. It is difficult to imagine another line of work where quality is so crucial.

As well, the contact level between staff and patients is very high. It is also difficult to imagine any other organization where the patient (or the customer) comes into contact with so many different staff members and where the interaction is so important. Additionally, staff attitudes affect the hospital's ability to recruit.

To simplify, a hospital wants its staff to feel proud of the organization. Pride must be part of the brand. The hospital wants all potential staff to want to work there.


In many ways, volunteers are the backbone of the hospital. Most of the comments made about staff also apply to volunteers. Volunteers, however, while appreciated, are sometimes ignored except with a one-day-a-year Volunteer Appreciation Day. This gesture is not enough. High morale among volunteers is very important. They save the hospital salaries. And they are a direct link to the community. Resentment among volunteers can be a problem. Their view of the hospital must be understood and become part of the rebranding exercise.

Donors and the Board of Directors

The importance of donors to hospitals is self-evident. But there are different types of donors who often have totally different perceptions of the same hospital.

Community donors, that is, the local population who are also the hospital's patients and volunteers, tend to give $10, $50 or $250 to show their support. Their involvement is personal. It is their hospital. The better they feel about their hospital, the more support they will provide.

So-called large donors generally also view the hospital as the one they use. They are motivated by loyalty. But they need special treatment and their views may be influenced by how they are treated as a donor. The hospital had better understand how these donors view the hospital before they rebrand.

Then there are the so-called mega-donors, who are typically the economic and social leaders of the region. They donate MRI machines or build hospital wings. They are also the supporters of the local opera and the ballet. They are on the board of major charitable organizations. They count in the community. And they contribute significantly to the charitable organizations that they support. They may never use the hospital themselves, but they believe that supporting it is part of their responsibility, especially because other community leaders also support it. Status and networking is part of their motivation for supporting the hospital. The hospital, however, has to be seen to be worthy of this type of support.

These same issues apply to the Board of Directors, many of whom also are donors.

Outside Stakeholders

Finally, there are the outside stakeholders, such as politicians and the media. Their views are critical because they can assist or obstruct the process of rebranding. As with the other groups, their views must be heard.

Gaps and the Hospital's "Believability Potential"

In various hospital branding projects, we inevitably find gaps between what the hospital is and how it is viewed by many of its stakeholders. And we inevitably find major differences between the different stakeholder groups' views. These have to be brought into line so that consistent, believable and believed communications can be carried out.

When talking with these groups, it is also important to determine what they will believe and what they will accept. Previously, I mentioned a hospital that outgrew its origins. We learned that many in the community were barely aware of its new services and improved levels of excellence. More important, many didn't want their hospital to be "improved." They wanted their hospital to remain a "small" local community hospital (despite its occupying six buildings). They equated local community with being friendly and responsive. They associated large, world-famous teaching hospitals with being unfriendly, unresponsive and distant. These are places to go to if you need a heart transplant, but not if you are merely ill.

These views must also be taken into account. When speaking with these groups, one must determine what they will accept and what they will believe. Only then can the branding strategy and - if necessary - the renaming strategy be written.

*This article was published on May 19, 2003 in HealthLeaders News.