Northwell health

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Be. Prove. Do.

If you say it be it. If you say it prove it. If you say it do it. Branding words to live by.

Every brand needs a claim or promise. The power and relevance of the promise is why companies invest in a brand strategist. Sadly, many brand promises are simple ad taglines. The one that comes immediately to mind is Northwell Health’s “Go North.”  It was developed, I believe, by JWT, NY as a smile at the end of each TV Ad.  Luckily, Northwell CMO Ramon Soto, hasn’t used the line on signage, called a logo lock-up. Monigle, the Northwell re-brand agency, probably counseled so. They know the difference between a brand strategy and tagline.

Go North is not a promise. It’s not much of anything except perhaps a dose of name-onics, a term initially coined by NY ad shop Jordan Case McGrath (I think). Go North-Northwell, get it?

You can’t be north. You can’t prove north. And you certainly can’t do north.

I rant here today because I saw another Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center ad over the weekend whose advertising tagline is actually a brand idea. And a good one. “More Science. Less Fear.”  As good as MSKCC is at cancer, they are not good at brand strategy. The ad, a wonderful cure story testimonial, attempted to “prove” its more science claim with the words “groundbreaking treatment.”  No explanation. As if potential cancer patient aren’t patient enough to read about a real treatment.

Be. Prove. Do.



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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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Embrace Change.

Sound familiar? I may have read it somewhere before.

Does The New York Times executive director Dean Baquet have to embrace change when ad revenue at the paper paper is off double digits? Does Mark Zuckerberg have to change HR bereavement policy to stay more competitive as the “new thing” luster (but not revenue) wears off the Facebook brand? Does Michael Dowling, Northwell Health CEO, have to embrace change when facing an insurance market that has to set prices for 2018 in less than three month?

For a professional that spends a lot of time looking at brand and business heritage, mining the perceptual depths of consumer, one might think I don’t embrace change. That I’m not incentivized to embrace change. You’d be wrong. Tomorrow is the only day I care about.

Sure I look for business proof that feeds the framework of brand strategy. Sure I do some rearview mirror planning. But tomorrow is “beyond the dashboard.” Future revenue is tomorrow. All earthly business delights are to be found tomorrow.



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The tagline for What’s The Idea? is “Campaign’s come and go…a powerful brand idea is indelible.”  Perhaps a little lengthy and the real ballast lies after the ellipses, but it works. And that brings me to taglines; taglines and strategy.

Here’s an admonition to all brand managers and CEOs — Don’t use a campaign line as your tagline. They are communications or ad-focused, not strategic. One that immediately comes to mind, one that hits close to my planning heart, is the tagline for Northwell Health. Their tagline is “Look North.” Other than suggesting one look at Northwell, it doesn’t really have a strategic message. Wasted space, if you ask me.

I wrote a tagline (and brand strategy) for Beacon Health Partners, an accountable care organization that was strategic “Healthier Practices.”  That’s was the claim. It applies to improved physician practices, both economic and in the healthcare delivered. It applies to patient practices, putting more responsibility on people for their own health. And it appeals/applies to payers, the insurance companies who carry much of the reimbursement water.

Strategic taglines come from brand strategy companies. Tactical, flimsy taglines come from ad agency creative departments. Big diff.




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Tossing Arrowheads.


90% of brand strategies are arrowheads.  They have a points, are sharp, and are usually well crafted.  In most cases, brand strategies are ad agency crafted.  In the agency creative process – the building of the ads – the last thing often completed is the tagline. Taglines are summations of all the creative work.  In the case of Northwell Health, a huge NY area health system, the wan tagline “Look North,” is not a brand strategy. It’s a bow on the present.  In the case of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, tagline “More Science. Less Fear.” is both a tagline and brand strategy.  It’s provable.

Arrowheads are pretty and last a long time in the dirt as any archeologist will tell you but as a tool they are worthless without a shaft and flights (feathers providing stability.)  Ever try throwing an arrowhead?

Brand strategies un-complicate complication. As an organizing principle “One claim and three proof planks” transform pages and pages of product, positioning, segmentation and experience folderol into a workable business-building system.  Carrying the metaphor forward, brand strategy puts aerodynamics behind the tagline.   

Look at your marketing documents and outputs and see if you can put onto paper your claim and proof array. If you can’t, you are tossing arrowheads.



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I help companies build brands by combing their business for evidence. Evidence is also proof but doesn’t turn into proof until later in the engagement — when we know what it’s proof of. (The “proof of what” is called the claim.) So at What’s The Idea? the brand exploratory is all about evidence.

If Kitchen Magic has remodeled 50,000 kitchens, that’s evidence. If Newsday provides more news coverage of Long Island than any other news source, that’s evidence. If Northwell Health delvers 42,000 babies that’s evidence.  And, if Trail Of Bits, creates a product that makes digital passwords obsolete, that’s evidence.

Marketing and advertising is tainted and ruined by too much claim and not enough evidence. 

When doing brand discovery I’m often inundated with generalizations. “Our kitchens are of the highest quality. We offer the best obstetric care. Our newspaper covers Long Island better than any other. We’re the leader in cyber security innovation.”  

These soft claims don’t help. If we can drill down so the claims are supported by evidence, then we have a place to start.



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Consumers are smart. And inured to marketing claims. Advertising, the home of the marketing claim, has become that guy at the party who talks about himself in glowing terms in order to get the girl. Full of himself, boastful and proud. But consumers have seen so many of these f shallow claims they shut them off.  That’s why good brand planning uses proof as its foundation. Proof is what people remember.

I have a past client in the healthcare space who has decided to move into the health insurance business. He begins as the rest of the industry is consolidating or retreating. A number of insurers today are pulling out of insurance exchanges fueling the Affordable Care Act. So, the big guys are complaining they’re not making money and one little guy is starting anew.  I like it.

The CEO is a physician, so I know he’ll take the physicians view of the business. This could very easily be a premium price play, but rather doubt it. The CEO is knows for efficiency, technology and driving cost out of the business (while improving outcomes). So I’m eager to see what he has up his sleeve. I’m eager to see the proof.

There is a health system insurance program called CareConnect in the NY market with a 10-15% price advantage. Proof or reason to believe that advantage comes from its parent Northwell Health. He will have a tough row to hoe but I’m betting on him. As a physician, he understands proof.

You have to get the claim right but you have to get the proofs righter.




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Here’s the unbridled truth about brand strategy.  Brand strategy is not easy to implement. And oddly, many marketing directors don’t know how to do it.  Brand strategies are more apt to be employed by CEOs. They get strategy.  

My framework for brand strategy — one claim and three proof planks — is brain dead simple to employ. But it has to be shared and enculturated throughout the company. When well crafted there are already major hints of the strategy within the company. But there are also hints of many other things – too many things. Brand strategy culls out the non-essentials.

If brand strategy is hard to operationalize at a large company, what’s the point?  Here’s the point: Think of the output of brand strategy as a song – a song made up of notes, phrases and riffs.  Brand strategy, even at less than 100% compliance, still offers riffs that can improve company performance. Elements of the brand brief, understood and implemented can make a huge difference.  

I developed a target in a brand brief for a high-end Northwell Health home care company. I called the target “Kings of the Castle.” These so-called kings were rich males who used to be captains of industry, but now were infirm of body…not mind. They were actually still owners of the family purse strings.  This one element of the strategy, by itself, was enough to propel powerful “product, experience and messaging.” It was not the full strategy, just a few notes. A riff.

The best brand strategies are all or nothing. But this is the real world. So every riff matters.



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