healthcare advertising

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I’ve written tons of briefs.  Mostly for ads. The last quarter ton have been mostly brand strategy briefs which create “the organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” My first healthcare brand brief was for the North Shore-LIJ Health System, now Northwell Health.  Fifteen years and 3 agencies later, I’m still excited to hear my strategy every time it pops up on radio, TV or community newspaper. But my head wasn’t into it when I first put paper to pen – I mean how exciting could a healthcare brand be?


Healthcare, even back in the day, was a crazy fertile space to develop strategy. We’re not just talking whiter teeth here (done that), we’re talking life. Death sometimes. Family. And powerful emotions.

Since North Shore, I’ve done hospice work, nutrition, obesity, accountable care, senior care, acute rehab and global care. The insights have been some of the most exciting I’ve ever encountered. Healthcare is even more exciting today, if you make it so.

To health.



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NYU Langone.

There’s no question the best advertising in NY for a health system or hospital is that of NYU Langone Medical Center. Creators Munn Rabot have been doing quality, no, expert healthcare ad craft for years and years.  The NYU TV ads are the kind that you have to stop and watch. Visually they’re cinematic. Musically they’re awakening. Copy-wise, quite strong.   All of this work, and the work Munn Rabot did for previous client NY Presbyterian, have led the category for years.

One thing they might do better, however, is tighten their brand idea. The line/strategy is “Made in New York.”  This presumes patient care and patients are different in NY. It poses the question “How does healthcare made in NY distinguish itself?”  I get the idea, but offer up the narrative is hard to deliver. They do get points for unique though (in healthcare, that is).  

Most consumers won’t cling to the need for a powerful brand idea served up daily, as I do; they just like the ads. And that should be enough. NYU Langone is back on big map. Well done.



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NY Pres heather

A couple of friends in the ad business, Peter Rabot and Orson Munn, used to do some of the best hospital TV ads in the country.  Their campaign for NY Presbyterian anchored to the line “Amazing things are happening here ” are Spielberg-esque…probably better.  If you were in the business and saw one of these black and white, close-up first person stories of NY patients, including one with Mayor Ed Koch, you stopped talking and watched. If you were not in the business you did the same.

It was advertising that made you feel something then do something.

I understanding NY Pres. was not perfect client to work with (Who is?) and Munn Rabot has taken its craft and moved on.  They now work with NYU Langone.  NYU likes print ads which are harder to do well, especially in this category.  And especially without an idea.  I haven’t seen the idea from NYU yet, but it’s coming.  

Having Munn Rabot do a generic awards ad or clinical practice ad in print sans idea is like asking a goldfish to “sit.”  That’s what’s happening now. The agency and client have only worked together for a month or so; they are in that getting to know one another stage.  Let’s hope they land on a brand idea and that the hospital allows the agency to do what it does better than anyone else. These guys are specialists. Artists. Patients don’t argue with their surgeons.  

The work will tell the story. Peace.  

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Bob Gilbreath, chief strategy officer at Possible Worldwide, wrote a book a year ago called Marketing With Meaning. It’s a counterpoint to Woody Allen’s quote about “90% of life is just showing up.”  Bob suggests embedding your message (and offer) with something of value.  Not mere boast and claim — something meaningful and fulfilling. The book is a must read.

I created a brand plan for a health system a number of years ago designed to move the dial on about 9 attributes that make for a successful hospital experience; things like: “best doctors,” “leading edge treatments,” “improved patient outcomes.”  If you can answer yes to these hospital qualities, it is likely you will want your procedure done there.

When I see work in this category today, sometimes I wonder if marketers are trying to be meaningful at all.  One NYC hospital spending a lot of money is doing it the Woody Allen way, just showing up. Doing “we’re here” ads. One word headlines and pretty pictures.  And the system that once had the nine meaningful measures?  It must have listened to its ad agency and now only measures “first mentions.”  That’s a research term for a telephone poll indicating what consumers answer when asked, “Name a hospital or hospital system in your region.” That’s measuring the media plan and the budget, not the communication of the work.

The best politicians are those who have a vision, are true to it, and allow the populace to experience that vision.  Process that vision. The worst are those who read opinion polls and change direction at will.  Similarly, the best brands have a plan that creates meaningful differentiation and organized claim and proof to consumers.  And they stick to it. Peace!

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When first working on the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System business I thought I was going to dislike the category. Now I’m a fan.  Perhaps I was conditioned to think healthcare was bad and unexciting because the ads were so bad.   My agency,  Welch Nehlen Groome, made recommendations to North Shore to manage the brand as if a consumer packaged good: land on a strategic idea, organized it, stick to it and use the it to manage the client. The approach paid off. In our market “Setting new standards in healthcare”- a promise every healthcare provide would aspire to – was better known than “the best cancer care anywhere” the promise of Memorial Sloan Kettering.

What turned me around on healthcare was the depth and complexity of the sell. It offered very fertile ground for connecting with consumers.  If you did your homework, you could hear great stories about the human condition. Talk about finding the pain?  Stories about relationships, e.g., caregiver, doctor patient, etc. Even stories about heroism.  Then there was the science side of the storytelling.  What the docs did. The role of diagnosis, R&D, the team.  Suffice it to say a lot of info could go into the making of an ad.

The Hospital For Special Surgery ran an ad in the NY Times today that is half brilliant. The headline is “Our doctors work hard to perfect joint replacement. Our scientists work hard to prevent them.” Buried in the copy are no less than 5 awesome stories waiting to be told —  waiting to convince people to jump in their cars to go to HSS. But the stories won’t be read; the headline was either written by a tyro or a beat down writer too busy to connect. Too busy to change or save a life.  When we get advertising right in the digital age, those five stories will be linked web videos. In print, they will be underlined and printed in blue to let readers know there is multimedia attached. When we get advertising right in the digital age, we will write headlines that jab us like a needle. Peace!

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When I worked on the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System business with Welch Nehlen Groome, system CEO Michael Dowling would meet every Monday morning with new employees and welcome them. The system employed about 30,000 people so Mr. Dowling had an opportunity to go really viral with his mission.

At face value the mission, embodied in the tagline “Setting New Standards in Healthcare,” didn’t sound like much.  Operationalized, it was a brand game-changer.

The brand planks supporting the strategy were unassailable and uniquely North Shore – creating tremendous wealth for the brand. Yet what was missing from the equation and where I didn’t do a good job as brand planner was getting senior management to acculturate the brand plan through the employee world. Had every Monday morning Mr. Dowling shared the brand strategy with his impressionable new employees, imagine how much stronger his brand would be today.

People think health systems are about saving money. Done correctly, they are about redistributing healthcare wealth (clinical and economic).  North Shore had a system for doing this.  It was, and is, its secret sauce.

All companies, big or small, need to share their unique brand strategies with employees. Otherwise, every employee at every company is driven by the same strategy: earn a paycheck.

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A few years ago my ad agency was pitching a TV campaign to the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. In the room were the two top officers of the system, some board members and the marketing director. The work was about cancer care. The CEO of North Shore had most recently been a senior director at Goldman Sachs.
We showed the storyboard, which was great, and then we broke out the big guns: a voiceover by Morgan Freeman. Since first listening to the narrative style of Mr. Freeman in the Shawshank Redemption, I had always wanted to use him as a voiceover. We mashed up some of his lines from the movie and played them for the room to set the tone — then read the script. It was healthcare at its most poignant. You know what it feels like when your body goes a tingle?
When the silence was finally broken and feeling returned to our bodies one of the board members asked “What will he cost,?” to which the CEO by way of Goldman Sachs responded reaching for his wallet “I don’t care, I’ll pay for him out of my pocket.”
Prayers and props to Morgan Freeman. Please get well sir.

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One of the brand planks of the North Shore-LIJ Health System was “leading edge treatments and technology.” Unfortunately, this is a plank most every hospital in the country uses when developing advertising.  It was only when paired with North Shore’s two other planks, that the true brand story emerged.

One of North Shore’s competitors in New York is NewYork-Presbyterian. Today, NY-Pres broke a “leading edge treatments and technology” ad that beats most hands down.  If you don’t ask your doctor about NY-Pres after reading this ad, you are not paying attention. The campaign idea, by the way, is “Amazing things are happening here.”

The Deathstalker Scorpion’s venon contains chlorotoxin, which some crazy health geek found attaches itself to “specific brain cancer cells.” The docs and researcher at NY-Pres are trying to find ways to make chlorotoxin deliver radioactive atoms to cancer cells in the brain.  Wow! That’s some serious.

I’m not sure if Munn Rabot is still doing this advertising work, but it sure feels like them. It’s excellent storytelling and excellent work.

Okay, you are sick and have to pick a hospital. Any come to mind?

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One of my finer moments in advertising occurred in a new business pitch when I told the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System that their current tagline, developed by the previous ad agency, was spectacular. I later learned that was the reason we won the business. The tagline was “Setting New Standards in Healthcare.” 
As the lead planner on the business, I told NS-LIJ that every time they spent a dollar promoting themselves, the message should contain an example of Setting a New Standards In Healthcare.  “If I come to you with and ad,” I told them, “that does not demonstrate an improved standard of healthcare, send me home.”
It’s been a while since I have worked with North Shore, but living in their market area I do see some ads, and it really hurts to see that they have fallen into the “We’re here” trap. The latest ad I read told consumers that one of the hospitals has a neurosciences institute. The copy goes on to say they have state-of-the-art facilities, smart doctors, blah, blah, blah. We’re Here! Buried deep in the ad, though, were some actual new standards in neuro care for the community, but you had to hunt for them. The headline said  something doofy, like it’s a no-brainer, or some such.
Somehow the easiest ever branding idea was misplaced by a smiling person with a black bag of ads, who didn’t follow the brief. 

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