north shore-lij health system

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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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Coen Brothers.

A.O. Scott in his New York Times review of the new movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” today nicely captures what makes a Coen Brothers movie a Coen Brothers movie. Says Scott, they offer a “brilliant magpie’s nest of surrealism, period detail and pop-culture scholarship.” To me this description means their work a magnetic, unusual and blasting through context. The Coen’s attention to period detail is another reason I love these guys. Como se “True Grit?”  And pop-culture scholarship just suggests their storytelling is human and humane(ish).

It strikes me that these are qualities that also make for a great brand strategy.  

I often find a little tension when presenting brand strategy… and it tells me I’ve done a good job.  

  • “We know where you live” a brand strategy for Newsday, was a thought a little creepy.
  • “A systematized approach to improving healthcare” for North Shore-LIJ, a bit cold.
  • “We crave attention” for a women-owned PR firm, a smidgen gender-sensitive.

Just as good advertising creative makes you think, feel and do something, so should a strategy. Sometimes, for the squeamish, the do something is ask me “Do we have to use that one word?”  My answer is always “No, it’s a strategy, not a tagline.”

I’m no Ethan and I’m no Joel yet my work aspires to staying power. To muscle memory served up as product value. A great brand plan is an organizing principle that sticks to your ribs.   Peace.


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What is heroic about Miracle Whip? What is heroic about the North Shore LIJ Health System? One is a dollop on a sandwich, another is a healthcare org that saves lives. What is heroic about Windham Mountain?  Actually, in the winter the resort has a program for the physically challenged – that’s pretty heroic.

In brand planning I love probing consumers for heroes and pride; rich areas that get to the heart of a person.  Yet many planners ask questions such as “Tell me how you use mayonnaise?” “What’s your favorite sandwich and why?”  “Share with me a story about the best place you ever ate a sandwich?” All nice tactical questions, but not brand plank questions.  And don’t get me wrong, not every brand has or needs heroic traits. In fact, for mayonnaise the notion is silly. But an ad about a kid who stands up to a bully in the school cafeteria and is rewarded with a tasty sandwich may be compelling to a mom.  Context.

Sometimes a brand plank may not have endemic value — it may be aspirational and tangential. It may not relate to heroics or pride but align with other human emotions.  As brand planners, we have to organize brand planks with hard values and soft values.  Just the right amount of lemon can turn Miracle Whip into Hellman’s. Hee hee. Peace!    


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I had to look up the word enculturation a couple of months back while writing a pitch email. In fact, at the time I wasn’t sure it was a word.  Enculturation is mission-critical to my business and the goal of every brand plan I write.  A good brand plan helps employees drink the Kool Aid — educating them as to the unique and meaningful points of difference. By enculturating a company with the brand’s promise and supports marketing in its many forms is simplified and made more effective.  Only when a company adopts a brand plan can it truly be extended to consumers. The enculturation of a brand plan organizes employee and consumer minds, removing clutter.

Most advertisers and marketers hate “clutter.” I love it.  The more clutter there is in a category the more likely it can be broken.  A brand strategy may sometimes sound familiar, maybe even undifferentiated, but if it’s the right one, it will be actionable and defensible and its messages, demonstrations, and deeds profound.

Newsday knows where people (on Long Island) live. The Daily News doesn’t. North Shore-LIJ Health System provides a systematized approach to improving healthcare. St. Francis Hospital doesn’t.  Isopure Plus uncovers the taste of pure protein. Milky Ensure doesn’t.

When a brand creates a culture around its points of advantage it becomes a brand. When it doesn’t it remains a product.  Peace!

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The New York StateSmokers Quitline (1-866-NY-QUITS) is a toll-free number to get help with smoking cessation. A while back while planning for the North Shore-LIJ Health System, I was asked to generate activity among Africa Americans. The program offered free nicotine patches.


If you’ve seen any Quitline ads recently, you’ll know they are quite powerful. A older gent talking through his voice box, a person with an amputated gangrenous foot. Lots of scary and lots of nasty. Our approach was different. We decided to celebrate smoker abstinence. Go positive. Use the advertising to suggest that it is the “powerful” who can face demon and say no.


To celebrate the power to quit I suggested making the nicotine patch a fashion symbol. (Remember how the birth control patch became a fashion symbol for a while?) We cast a young, cut, shirtless lad with cool tats proudly displaying his nicotine patch. Run on bus shelters and other OOH, the images were as powerful as the empowering message we conveyed.  Power and cool are way stronger motivators than preachy scare tactics.


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Cablevision is one of America’s largest cable television companies.  Also a provider of broadband internet and phone service, it has made a lot of money for the Dolan family. Charles Dolan was instrumental in the founding of HBO and is quite the entrepreneurial stud.  The Dolan’s — Charles has a son, James — have a somewhat weird and spotty diversification history, but I must admit I admire their moxie.

One investment decision they’ve recently made, which is brilliant, is to make their service area wireless for all Optimum customers – for free. Cablevision operates on Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut and though the total footprint is not completely covered, they have a good start. It is currently the largest wireless network in the country.  

Cablevision has long been viewed negatively by consumers; I remember once pitching a cancer care awareness program to them through the North Shore-LIJ Health Care System to which they responded “How is this going to help us sell more product?”  Today, years later, they are sponsoring a cancer care program.  And today, they are being good local citizen by wiring (or is it wirelessing) our communities. The frown is beginning to break around here when you mention Cablevision.  Brilliant investment. Peace!

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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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