From almost the first days of the pandemic, the big question has been: When will we get to the “new normal”? But more than a year later, the real question for hospitals and healthcare systems is how to thrive in the “no normal”—this moment when the old paradigms are gone but the new have not yet arrived. The truth is healthcare delivery as we know it won’t be recognizable tomorrow and will be even less so a decade from now. But we can’t wait for the post-pandemic dust to settle. It is critical for brands to find their voice, define their purpose and connect with core audiences, because even as we face uncertainty, the industry is transforming.

In fact, the winds of change were blowing for the industry long before we ever heard of COVID-19. Ever-shifting dynamics between health systems, health plans, insurers, employers and consumers were transforming competitive sets and consumer expectations alike. Expanded competition from new players, ongoing M&A movement and new partnerships, plus industry changes driven by the Affordable Care Act, all further blurred lines between providers, retailers and insurance companies. Layer on top of all that perennial blame-shifting between payers and providers, and you have an industry where consumers have no idea who plays what role in the healthcare ecosystem or brings benefit to their individual lives.

Then the pandemic hit, and what had been a threat on the horizon became a Category 5 hurricane overnight. Hospitals were overwhelmed with patients no one was sure how to treat. Insurers scrambled to communicate the degree to which they would cover everything from virtual mental health visits to oxygen. Healthcare inequities that implicated the whole industry were laid bare for all to see.

But over the past year, enormous opportunity has also opened up for hospitals and healthcare systems to crystalize the role they play in the healthcare ecosystem, redefine their purpose and forge a new relationship with consumers that can drive unprecedented growth.

·  For the first time in living memory, hospitals are at the forefront of the public consciousness as lifesaving institutions. Compared with institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that saw trust drop from 90% to 30%, trust in doctors and nurses—and the institutions where they work—grew consumer trust. That has created a unique opportunity for hospitals and health systems to redefine their brands in a way people can intuitively understand.

·  Patient stories about succumbing or surviving now have an unprecedented relevance, and hospitals can tell these stories in a way that will stick in people’s minds.

·  In a world where people’s lives have depended on finding accurate medical information and where misinformation proliferates, hospitals and health systems have the opportunity to leverage their authority and become the go-to source of online information.  

·  Millennials have been clamoring for the convenience of virtual medical visits for years. Now the convenience of virtual care during the pandemic has made us all millennials. Hospitals and health systems have the opportunity to become true consumer marketers and deliver medical care with the same end-to-end ease of use with which Amazon delivers paper towels.

The pandemic is far from over, and no one knows what the “new normal” will be or when it will come, but this interim period of the “no normal” has opened up a window of opportunity to drive a transformation of marketing as we know it that will fuel expansion growth, extension growth and organic growth—in other words, transformative growth. Here are vital steps that must be taken to get there:

1. Define your purpose with precision—and do it today. We have people’s attention in a way we never have before and are unlikely to ever have again. But keeping it is not guaranteed. With the lines between providers, retailers and insurance companies more blurred than ever, this is the time to drive clarity about your unique purpose in the healthcare ecosystem and crystalize why you are vital to people’s lives. You can bring your story directly to people because you now have the right to be there. You can authentically promote your institution through the powerful stories of patients, doctors and nurses, but be aware that the equity of Healthcare Heroes is transient. That’s why you must leverage the power of data to monitor public sentiment, then deploy the right mix of science and patient storytellers, social media communicators and earned and paid experts to make your brand come to life in people’s minds—and stay there.

2. Forge an integrated and invaluable one-on-one online relationship with consumers. This is the moment for digital to finally show up in healthcare the way it has done in other industries, as the foundation of deep, one-on-one interactions with patients that drive loyalty. The pandemic has delivered a unique opportunity for hospitals and health systems to become a bookmarked presence in people’s lives. You can provide them with the reliable medical information they crave with the ease of virtual care they demand, creating a gateway to bring in patients and drive growth. Our consumer counterparts have spent years creating an infrastructure to deliver this kind of seamless integrated consumer experience. So now we must undertake a radical integration of internal marketing functions, mirrored by equally radical integration of the best agency talent across disciplines, functions and areas of expertise. Nothing less will deliver a digital presence that speaks with one seamless brand voice and connects with consumers at every digital touch point, from our social presence to the corporate website. 

3. The opportunity for the CMO to drive growth is finally here. Of all C-suite executives, CMOs have the right to take the learnings of the past year and remake the industry. They can start by rebranding themselves—not as order-takers whose focus is generating communications assets like brochures, informational websites and promotions—but instead as leaders who play a vital role in upstream business strategy and revenue generation by attracting patients, creating loyalty and driving growth. The marketing function can uniquely represent the outside-in perspective by leveraging data about your consumers and their needs and using that vital information to create the personalized engagement with consumers that is table stakes in almost any other industry.

The truly integrated direct-to-consumer marketing that will enable all of this demands integration of branding, digital, social, data science, earned media, public affairs and creative at the highest level, with experts from diverse backgrounds thinking and working together from conception to execution. This is a time of immense uncertainty, where looking ahead is daunting, but we have a window of opportunity. The successful hospital and health system brands of the future will seize it now.

About Dxtra Health Integrated Solutions

Dxtra Health Integrated Solutions is a global collective of 27 marketing specialty brands and more than 7,000 employees, anchored across Weber Shandwick, Golin, Octagon, Jack Morton and FutureBrand. Dxtra Health Integrated Solutions companies bring together unique combinations of in-demand skills and expertise for clients, including experiential, public relations, sponsorships, innovation, brand, influencer, digital, social and analytics.