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What's the story? Branding Hurley Medical Center

March 25th, 2014

by Andrea J. Simon

I have had several requests to share my experiences as interim senior vice president of branding, marketing, physician services at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Mich., from 2008-2009, and again from 2010-2012. To help you in your own efforts to brand, market and build your organization, I've segmented the story into four blog posts, each with a specific focus.

This post explains how you find the key essence of an institution and turn it into a real advantage--that brand story that answers the question "Why You." The next two posts focus on online experiences to build the brand story in an inbound marketing world. And the fourth installment is about physician services.

Hurley's then-CEO Patrick Wardell and I had worked together earlier in our careers. He was then leading efforts at Hurley to reverse its financial losses. But he needed a hand.


In a saturated market, Hurley and its two other hospital competitors were going in different directions: Genesys Health System was a member of the Ascension Health System and McLaren Health Care had its own healthcare system. Hurley was a standalone safety-net hospital. Each hospital had a similar number of admissions but a decidedly different payer mix. The commercially insured went to the other two hospitals and the uninsured and Medicaid went to Hurley. That was its role, more or less.

The challenge was how to grow the hospital with a better mix of payers and patients that could sustain it as the healthcare environment and the demographics shifted.

Solid, marketable strengths

Hurley had a devoted following. People who knew the hospital loved it. It did "miracles." What Hurley had that differentiated it from the others was a very strong pediatric program, an excellent high-risk pregnancy program and an exceptional neonatal intensive care unit. "Hurley Babies" were everywhere--even across the country. People we met by chance in Los Angeles and New York, born in Flint, told us they were Hurley Babies.

Hurley also had an excellent trauma center that routinely saved lives, often in extraordinary circumstances and against all odds. From the consumer's point of view, these reflected the powerful role that the medical center played in the life of the region--in individual lives.

This was not about rebranding Hurley; rather, the brand had great value. How could we capture that, leverage the positive feelings and deep affection people had for the hospital, and bring in more patients, perhaps from an even broader geographic area?

Where to begin

Being an anthropologist, I used observational research and culture probes to listen to the stories people told us about each of the three hospitals, the attending doctors and how they differed. Doctors at Hurley were engaged in the process, as were board members.

The doctors felt sure that all we had to do was to tell people Hurley had the best doctors. "Those who know choose Hurley," said one doctor. "Just tell them," said another.

The problem was that most people intrinsically knew they had little choice in where they went for care. "Unless my doctor is admitting there, I can't go there." Additionally, we faced the challenge of stubborn office managers who told us that insured patients were sent to one hospital and the uninsured or Medicaid people were sent to Hurley. Not much was going to change that, they made sure we understood.

A powerhouse brand with strength, depth and heart

We had to leverage Hurley's strengths. Could we transform Hurley into a powerful, highly influential brand that could turn consumer beliefs and physician habits into credible reasons to choose Hurley? Moreover, the marketing focus had to shift to the younger adults in the community who were not as routinized or resistant to change, and make them loyal users as they grew older and needed care as well. Quite a challenge!

Children and families were the way in

The power of Pediatrics, NICU and the emergency department and trauma units opened up the potential to capitalize on the deep affection the local community had for Hurley. Zeroing in on children as a marketing segment, we soon found there were no shortages of stories about how Hurley had saved children's lives. Whether it was the little boy whose father's lawn mower severed his foot or the very premature baby who survived and thrived because of the NICU, or the dozens of adolescents who were screened to identify heart conditions before they became life-threatening, Hurley was indeed "touching lives through better medicine."

What became clear was a "big brand story" that, indeed, just had to be told. The advertising captured the essential power of the hospital through the voices of the children and their parents, and the nurses and doctors who together transformed their lives.

What's next

What happened next? This presented a social media opportunity to tell the brand story. When we arrived, Hurley did not even have a Facebook page or a viable website. Its ability to build a vibrant online presence was critically important to building the brand story.

Andrea J. Simon, Ph.D., is a former Marketing, Branding and Culture Change Senior VP at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Mich. A corporate anthropologist, she also is president and CEO of Simon Associates Management Consultants.


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