4 healthcare marketing best practices from top CMOs

4 healthcare marketing best practices from top CMOs


Philip Guiliano

Sometimes, work really is its own reward.

I had the privilege of organizing and moderating a panel of healthcare CMOs at the recent Society for Health Care Strategy & Market Development (SHSMD)  conference, and the entire experience—from panel preparation to on-stage delivery—was a joy. And that’s due to the insights and the personal warmth of Janell Moerer, CMO of Centura Heath, Kristen Wevers, CMO of UC Health, and David Perry of Perry IQ. They joined me to discuss “Leveraging Consumer Marketing Practices in Healthcare.” Collectively, they have ~90 years of marketing and management experience in healthcare and other industries, including CPG, financial services, technology, and higher education companies.

Given the accumulated wisdom generously shared by these healthcare marketing executives, and the vibrant Q&A, over our 80 minutes together, it’s not easy to boil it all down to just four takeaways, but here’s my take:

1. Healthcare marketing leaders need to be courageous.

As healthcare systems struggle to succeed in times of change, marketers need to contribute more to help their organizations succeed. Providing excellent marcom service is no longer enough—not nearly.

Every CMO I meet has a story about how their ability to make strategic contributions has been underestimated at some point in their careers. And this SHSMD CMO panel was no exception. Over her career, Kristen from UC Health routinely has seized the opportunity to do more than traditional marcom at the organizations she has worked for. But it hasn’t been easy. Early in her tenure at a previous job, an executive asked her to create and launch a new billboard campaign. Instead of taking the executive’s request as an order, Kristin probed to find the underlying need and was able to add value by proposing and delivering a strategic, integrated approach to attracting more patients.

Marketing as an operational leader of change in healthcare is still not ubiquitously there. The truth is, your colleagues may not know what you are capable of contributing. Janell from Centura and Kristen both said they continually teach executives and colleagues how marketing can help advance organizational goals.

Healthcare marketing leadership takes strength and courage to overcome perceptions, misconceived notions, the complexity of organizations, and frankly—egos. Today’s leaders need to set boundaries and talk about the value of new initiatives using healthcare business terms. To build respect, leaders need to have a firm voice and prove their ideas by driving new programs throughout the organization to completion.

Janelle passed along some astute advice she once got from an insurance CEO: “You have to train people how to treat you.”

2. Consumerism is demanding new and different things from healthcare systems and marketers.

Consumerism isn’t going away – people are mobile, smart, informed, and they are demanding more. Skeptics abound no doubt – and legislation is up in the air. But one thing is certain: to achieve success in a consumer-centric world, a strong brand is a pre-requisite.

Unlike consumer products, which are manufactured to precise specifications (I for one love that every Oreo is the same – and yes – I twist before I bite), healthcare services mean everything from a visit to a clinic to a hospital stay to billing to patient technology. It is a multi-touch experience, and an entire team of people influences that it. The sum of the journey is your brand to the patient.

Janell from Centura asserts that consumerism in healthcare won’t work if healthcare is seen as a commodity. A healthcare system needs definable brands that people want to be a part of. Why else was Kaiser’s Thrive campaign so successful? And if the people working at your healthcare system don’t believe in the essence of your brand, no one else will.

The transition to consumer-driven healthcare doesn’t always start with a full understanding of the healthcare patient journey, according to David Perry, who has served as CMO at University of Utah Health and is a senior advisor at Stanford Health. You need to jump-start change by first influencing prominent doctors in your healthcare system, your head of Human Resources, and other internal players in power positions.

3.  Don’t underestimate the importance of organizational structure.

Healthcare systems are complex organizations and being able to navigate them is crucial to the success of a marketing leader. Among the sage advice from the panelists:

  • You absolutely need to report to the CEO if you are the head of marketing.
  • You need to model inter-connectivity. That means avoiding silos and being sure that teams are interconnected. And institute formal efforts for marketing to learn from other departments.
  • Actively seek outside views—they’re valuable. Kristen avoids calling external organizations vendors. Instead, she calls them partners and treats them as such.
  • One of the best antidotes to becoming overwhelmed by healthcare’s complexity and hierarchy is being a self-starter.

4. The leaders of the future need to be lifelong learners—inside and outside their organizations.

Change is coming at healthcare from all sides, including patient expectations, technology, regulations, and more. To navigate it, healthcare marketing leaders need to proactive empowering behaviors and continually update their skills and knowledge. Janelle, Kristin, and Dave provided a wealth of actionable advice during this SHSMD session. . First,  start with being curious, have thick skin, and avoid dead-end organizational silos. And don’t be afraid to ask questions—being a marketing leader doesn’t make you omniscient.

It’s probably time for healthcare marketers need to think about the traditional 4 P’s of marketing (product, price, promotion, place) differently. Instead, pick something (decide where to add value); Pitch it (market it internally); Pilot it (to maximize learnings and minimize risk); and Pivot (if it works in one area or department, adopt it in others.)

Tomorrow’s healthcare marketing leaders have a leg up over today’s leaders because they are digital natives. So, they’re in a better position to partner internally and figure out the data puzzle especially as it relates to consumerism. But that alone won’t be enough. Tomorrow’s leaders will need to be brave inside their organizations. They need to understand analytics, question things, and probe. They need to be leaders of operational change. And they need to continue to push the edges using new ideas and proven methodologies from peer organizations and companies outside the healthcare market.

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