Growing Brand Relevance While Driving Volume


How do healthcare organizations successfully grow brand relevance and patient volume in order to meet business objectives while furthering stakeholder perceptions? Healthcare marketing strategist and branding thought leader Paul Szablowski covers short- and long-term considerations on how to achieve greater brand relevance while still driving measurable marketing ROI.


Paul Szablowski is a healthcare marketing expert, branding strategist and thought leader who has worked with major healthcare brands during his career. He has served as senior VP of brand experience with Texas Health Resources and vice president of marketing, communications, public relations and business strategy across the Dignity Health service area, among other positions. In this episode of the Maricich Health H-Word podcast, we discuss how healthcare organizations can balance overall brand impact while still driving measurable patient volume growth and ROI.

Topics include:

  • Short- and long-term health system considerations with respect to balancing brand impact while growing patient volume
  • How healthcare organizations can overcome the challenge of keeping brand continuity while addressing the needs of COVID-19 to communicate safe, open and available services
  • How to leverage paradigm shifts in technology and patient care to redefine the brand experience, factoring in evolving consumer trust and expectations

David: In this podcast, we focus on discussing key issues relevant to branding, advertising and communications within the integrated healthcare ecosystem. This includes health systems, medical groups, payers, device and life science innovators, and healthcare technology companies. This is David Maricich, president of Maricich Health, and our co-host is Mark Maricich, CEO.

The topic of today’s podcast is balancing branding with driving volume. Joining us is Paul Szablowski as our guest today, who is a healthcare strategist, thought leader and consultant with Maricich Health. And he’s worked with major healthcare brands, such as his role as senior VP of brand experience with Texas Health Resources; vice president of marketing, communications, public relations and business strategy for Dignity Health; as well as other healthcare organizations. Today, we’ll focus on the importance of branding for health systems and with driving differentiated awareness, but while still ensuring that trackable transactional volume goals are being met and the challenges related to balancing the two. So, Paul, what are some of your thoughts about the importance of both of these considerations, but then ultimately how to ensure the balance of the two?

Paul: Well, thank you for having me today, David and Mark. So it’s a very interesting question, and I think it’s important to understand where this sweet spot is at the intersection of both of these and where your organization is along this journey. The past 10 to 12 months have been very difficult on the healthcare system, and everybody is looking to regain that service line volume. But at the same time, consumers are looking at systems in a very different way than they did 10 to 12 months ago. So establishing a very solid brand positioning along with driving service line growth is extremely important. One of the ways that that could happen is looking at incremental volume. What’s the low-hanging fruit? Now, how do we get people back who have signed up for elective surgery but haven’t come back in? How do we regain our relationship with these individuals and reestablish our brand position in the market?

Mark: Thanks, Paul. We’ve been in many situations where the research clearly pointed towards claiming a big, bold and differentiated brand position in the marketplace that’s meant to shape brand awareness and perceptions over time. And those cases are distinctly trackable. Call to action may not be part of the program. And even though we will benchmark perceptions ahead of time with a plan, to remeasure in three months or six months or a year, there is always an internal need to show immediate campaign results. And the short term, I’m sure you’ve seen that. So with your experience working with healthcare organizations, how can we best demonstrate success with key stakeholders with the ROI they need in those earlier stages in the campaign?

Paul: Yeah, great question Mark, and I think it’s even more relevant today than it was a year ago. There’s tremendous pressure, economic pressure, on systems to regain their position. My experience is it’s very important to set expectations with key stakeholders. These are investment strategies. And we need to understand how those investment strategies will unfold. What key points could we go to say, look, it is working, people are clicking, people are calling people or wanting their health risk assessments. People are wanting more information. We have to create these pathways to action.

And as I’ve said many times, it’s not so much about marketing awareness or brand awareness as it is today about brand relevance. How do these systems become relevant in the lives of the people in the community that they serve under the circumstances that we’re in today?

David: Thanks, Paul. So in the current COVID-19 environment, health systems are using their CARES Act funding to help drive awareness around safe, open and available services, while still trying to balance a brand message and also demonstrating trackable success. What are some of your thoughts on the challenges that all may be facing this current environment, and how do we overcome them?

Paul: I think one of the real key differentiators today, as it was before, is the idea of speed, adaptability and proof. How do we prove to our communities that our hospitals and health systems and doctor’s offices are safe? How do we show them that we’re protecting our workers, we’re protecting our caregivers? And I think, again, in this situation, we’ve got to look at speed and adaptability. We all know how quickly things have changed, sometimes hourly. And we need to be prepared to look at those changes, adapt to them quickly and take advantage of those opportunities.

Mark: Related to this, there are so many different considerations and things to focus on during a campaign. Of course, we’ve got COVID issues, which is a major consideration in this current climate. You’ve also got branding; you’ve got ROI; you’ve got perceptions; you have stakeholders. You’ve got to build consensus of these campaigns as well. What are your thoughts on the challenges and solutions for maintaining that focus and really delivering a campaign to achieve all the objectives that we’re discussing here?

Paul: I think there’s going to be continuing pressure on marketers across the country to perform. And getting back to what I mentioned about speed and adaptability. I think the balance we’re talking about here may have multiple elements. So focusing on driving revenue may include a short-term strategy for some specific services like telehealth, teleurgent care, and then a longer-term strategy or midterm strategy for other products and services like elective procedures, where we can reach out to people and say, What have you been doing since we last talked? And here’s a webinar on exercise or nutrition related to that case. And I think the same is true for brand positioning. And what is one of the challenges and opportunities for your brand today that you’re facing, and what will be the challenges and opportunities tomorrow as we come out of this process and the environment changes?

David: Part of the biggest challenge is balancing that differentiated brand message, the need to deliver measurable results, but then ultimately connect best with the consumer. What are your thoughts on this?

Paul: Well, I think as we come out of this, there’s going to be a new level of competition. I even read an article that said buy your media placement now, because as we move out of the pandemic, everybody’s going to be scrambling to get their messages out. So standing out in a crowded marketplace with other systems all competing for consumer demand will require very strong brand relevance and a consumer-centric message. So effective and relevant content will be more important than it ever has been.

Mark: We’ve looked at quite a bit of research that talks about consumers’ brand trust in the pandemic. And does any of this come to mind that is particularly relevant to our conversation here today? I know that you have quite a bit of research that you’ve referred to and you’ve looked at and you’ve shared with us. What are some things that come to mind?

Paul: Yeah, there’s several things that I think are unfolding. Even going back to 2019 and the Edelman Trust Barometer, they talked about how trust with products and services, trust with brand, trust with the company attributes as essential buying considerations. And I think that’s even more important today. And if you look at service lines, a new report from Dr. Dotcom shows that 83% of patients plan to use virtual care post-pandemic. And that’s not just specific service lines. That goes across a real full continuum of care. So I think health systems can take advantage of the technology to connect with consumers who are becoming more and more familiar with the benefits available to them through digital health solutions. McKinsey also reported that marketing will play a critical role in this paradigm shift that we’re going to and that we as contemporary marketers need to define the brand experience and focus on high-performing service lines and consumer segments with the greatest opportunity to drive revenue growth for our systems.

David: What are some of the big-picture brand takeaways that you’d like to communicate today?

Paul: I think it’s going to be important to really redefine your brand positioning, to be relevant to consumers both today and looking forward. It has to be a little bit different. Again, it’s not just about brand awareness, but about brand relevance; and brands that highlight a strength and show of strength and their collaboration during this pandemic and communicate with optimism, emotion and compassion and facts, I think will rise above the pack.

Mark: Paul, we’ve been talking about quite a bit here today, and we have a number of questions that we’ve prepared and have thought about, and I have another question that’s a little bit outside of that.

Mark: Ultimately, when we’re working as an agency and we’re working with clients and we have this task ahead of us, of creating this relevant and differentiated brand to ROI is always part of that, being able to track it. Sometimes we as an agency are able to manage all that. We’re able to manage your overall branding, the message, the integration of the campaign, including the media.

Mark: In some situations, there are other partners that are a part of it. And we’ve found that the greatest success that we’ve had with really connecting the dots between ROI is when there’s complete transparency, and the biggest challenges when we’re working in silos, we’re not seeing what the reporting is on campaigns. We’re not seeing the different placements. Can you speak to that a little bit and how you would recommend chief marketing officers and VPs of marketing to really make sure there’s this integration so that all parties can really work towards this ultimate success with integrating and having this balance?

Paul: It has been a challenge for marketers for a long time: not sharing information, not understanding the information, not being able to have clear access to data, not being able to understand expected net revenue per procedure. And I think that has to change. It almost is moving into what we describe as a marketing operation structure where marketing has the same sort of discipline that accounting has and finance has and IT has. And we’ve got to start to speak a different language too and go to leadership and say we want to talk about investment strategies. We want to talk about performance measurement and reporting. We want to talk about our access to technology and data and analytics. We want to talk about talent management and do we have the right people and organizational alignment. And I think there’s an enormous opportunity today for those silos to begin to open their doors and recognize the value of collaboration. To recognize the value if we share this information throughout the organization to our key areas — this is how we’re going to drive sustainable growth and profitability going forward.

Mark: What are some short-term considerations that health systems need to be thinking about with respect to balancing brand impact and generating transactional volume and measurable results related to that?

Paul: I clearly understand that health systems may be focusing on short-term service line survival strategies. Pent-up demand for health services and a preference for strong brands is going to emerge. And I believe it’s going to emerge soon. We know that trust impacts consumer choice, and while quality and convenience and value rank high, trust is right up there, and a strong brand position can build that trust and ultimately drive consumer choice in buying decision. And research continues to show that doctors and nurses and health authorities remain one of the most trusted sources of information. So health systems should use this opportunity to highlight brand practice and high-priority, revenue-generating services through their clinical staffs.

David: Yes, thank you, Paul. It’s really been great to hear your perspective on this very important topic. One thing that I’d like to share, and we’ll be talking about more in future content from Maricich Health, is really the opportunity now for healthcare brands. And depending on where you are in the healthcare ecosystem, you may be doing more marketing than others. On the provider side, there is really a pause for a lot of healthcare marketers. What we’ll be talking about more is the opportunity more than ever before and much research showing that the general public consumers out there are really yearning for brands to step in and even nonhealthcare brands to step in during COVID-19 and communicate, especially so for healthcare brands.

And then also research that we found from sources like Kantar that really shows that at times of downturns and great change in society, there’s a huge opportunity for brands. And that will ultimately ladder through to an increasing volume as well, that they really do go hand-in-hand. So we’ll be talking more about that in the future. For all of you that have joined us today, thank you so much.

We look forward to another H-Word podcast. The H-Word is a production of Maricich Health, healthcare, branding, advertising and communications.

The experienced team at Maricich Health partners with clients throughout the integrated healthcare ecosystem, including hospitals, health systems, payers, retail-focused providers, device/life science innovators and healthcare technology companies. Learn more about how Maricich can be an important resource for your branding and integrated marketing initiatives.