Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Marginalization of the Healthcare Marketer

Yesterday morning I participated in a new business pitch. In the room were marketing directors from three quite successful hospitals; hospitals with bold plans and the financial strength to be moving full-speed-ahead on a pair of $100+ million building projects and one coming off the grand opening of a new replacement hospital within the last 12 months. These are successful institutions with thoughtful leaders who seem to routinely make wise decisions.

During our conversations we discussed what they’d like to change in their organizations in respect to marketing communications. They replied with a range of thoughts, from staffing to budget questions to more cooperative surgeons. But one comment on which there was quick consensus by the group was, “greater access to senior management.”

They embellished this idea by sharing that they had frequently only “heard about things after they happened” and been asked to manage communications in response. This was a real head-scratcher for us. These are successful businesses. How could marketing be so far out of the loop? We asked about their organizations’ strategic plans and marketing’s role in those plans and heard equally dismal responses. For all their success, here were another three healthcare marketers who, in their organizations’ eyes, just did stuff.

This has been something of a personal cause for me recently. So much so that I called a friend of mine at the Advisory Board Company to chat about it. My friend reported a frightening, albeit unscientific, observation. Over the past four years, she has, with her colleagues, presented in a few hundred hospital executive suites. We all know what it takes to be an Advisory Board member, so these are organizations with a measure of financial strength and an intellectual commitment to “right answers.” To the best of this consultant’s recollection, for all the strategic business development and corporate strategy conversations she’s had, she couldn’t remember one time, let me repeat that, one time, when a VP or Director of Marketing was in the room.

While I can imagine how healthcare marketers got themselves into this position—by not dispelling the “we just do stuff” perception—I’m more disturbed by how little many are doing to get out of it.

Last Fall, Booz Allen Hamilton published a study about The New Complete Marketer in which they reported, “growth in revenue and profitability is strongest among those companies that elevate marketing’s role to the strategic level.” Booz & Company surveyed Chief Marketing Officers at large, consumer-focused firms like Yahoo and Proctor & Gamble where driving sales is the heart of the company’s daily mission. Accountable to Wall Street, these companies trace a very direct path between Point A (current sales) and Point B (future, higher sales) that cuts right through three key disciplines: sales, marketing and product innovation.

To get to Point B, simply put, these experts agreed the best CMOs:
  • Put the consumer at the heart of marketing (especially moving from "checking-" or "validating-" focused research to true consumer knowledge research)
  • Make marketing accountable
  • Embrace the challenges of new media
  • Recognize the new organizational imperative (“Successful companies are building marketing organizations that leverage and balance generalist and specialist talent.” This refers to building marketing teams that complement category expertise with good, comprehensive marketing skills. Also, “marketing can no longer live on an island.” Marketing has organization-wide responsibility.)
  • Live a new agency paradigm (“Every effective marketing program now has a solid base in disciplined metrics that keep department goals closely aligned with the company’s strategic objectives.” This is the heart of transforming away from “just doing nice stuff.” How can your marketing strategies evolve from manufacturing and pushing ideas to co-creation of customer/patient experiences?)
  • Remain adaptable

So, it seems the challenge healthcare marketers have not taken up fully is a willingness and ability to demonstrate —and take accountability for— marketing’s role in helping their hospital achieve the goals outlined in the strategic plan.

Something we hear often is, “well that’s all fine and good for [computers/cookies/insurance] but healthcare is different.” The learning is relevant. More and more, healthcare marketers can most definitely learn from other categories where advertising and communications are an established, time-tested element of business strategy. Healthcare may be more complicated, but it’s not all that different. People don’t make important decisions in all the aspects of their life one way and then totally differently when it comes to their health. In the end, principles of quality, value and service are universal. The lessons are transferable.

Access is earned. Start thinking about rebuilding the hospital marketing function along the guidelines these successful CMOs have shown to work. Let’s work our way back into the boardroom.

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