The New Face of Healthcare Marketing

Agency CEO Cary Bynum

Agency CEO Cary Bynum

The Affordable Care Act is not just changing healthcare. It is changing the way healthcare is marketed.

By Joe O’Donnell

Photography by Beau Gustafson


“Branding is more than a series of ads or a color palette. It’s the promises you make and keep (or don’t keep), it’s how your product is experienced, and it’s how your audiences feel about it.”

That is the succinct statement found on the blr | further web site, the 27-year-old marketing and advertising agency with offices out in Meadowbrook. While the agency is full service and represents clients across the spectrum of industries, it is blr’s work in the healthcare field that has built the firm’s reputation nationally.

CEO Cary Bynum founded the agency back in 1986 and its specialization in healthcare has evolved over the years.  With the advent of Obama Care, there is no other industry sitting on the cusp of so much change, and blr | further is sitting on the same ledge—with everyone about the jump off into a brave new world.

“We have been fortunate enough to be allowed into those conversations. We started out in life to be an advertising agency, but if your role is to create ads for the hospital systems now—if that is all you are bringing to the table—good luck to you is all I can say,” Bynum says.

“Like every other aspect of marketing, the tool set we bring to the table is expanded and in some cases totally different. Hospitals and physicians are very interested in using social media to enhance their relationships. Everything we do has to have a web play and a social media play within it. We used to come to the table armed with TV, radio, print, and outdoor…things which doctors still love, but now we have to think it through and find out how this is going to increase engagement. What are the sticking points in it that will help people interact with us over time?”

Bynum and his agency have honed a new approach in dealing with healthcare clients, and it revolves around the whole notion of brand:

“The next time you want to undertake a rebranding effort, or even a new campaign, start with acknowledging that your real brand is not what your ads say you are, but what others say you are when you’re not in the room. The brand is found in how you answer phones, and how clean you keep your facilities and how courteous your folks are to others, including their coworkers and even your vendors. Your brand is found in how well you resolve customer service issues. And how easy you make it to do business with your company. It’s responding to every situation with a sense of urgency and a sense of pride. It is taking a hard look at what you, as a company, do well and what you don’t do well and changing the things that get in the way of providing a consistently good customer experience. It is knowing what your customers want and then giving it to them at a really high level,” Bynum writes in a blog post.

This shift in thinking about marketing and branding has been given added emphasis within the healthcare segment by the changes underway with healthcare reform. The industry is being buffeted by strong winds of change and new mandates from the federal government. The agency is working with hospitals and systems that are heavily involved in the pilot programs that revolve around the Triple Aim Goals, the mandate handed down by Obama Care. Under the new guidelines the goal of a healthcare provider is to contain costs, enhance the patient experience and improve quality.  That is the Triple Aim effort.

“Beginning this year, I won’t say the days are numbered for creating campaigns that are based on your ability to treat disease, heart campaigns, cancer campaigns, but the pressures of the Affordable Care Act and the pressure on the hospital systems to keep people out of the hospital has found its way down to us. We have to develop programs and messaging that is designed to get people to take better care of themselves and engage their doctors and health systems before they get sick. And that has everyone scratching their heads, because throughout the history of mankind that has been an exercise in futility,” Bynum says.

BLR 3The system is being designed so that hospital systems will be assigned population groups that they will be responsible for. “But that population has options and choices and they don’t have to use me. So even though they are part of my scorecard, they are free to do whatever they want to do, including using other providers. The goal of marketing is going to be to educate and motivate and try to create preferences. So that if I am going to be responsible for you, I am doing what I can to get you to give me a shot at doing everything I can to manage you into a healthier lifestyle,” Bynum says.

“At one point, I was concerned about what all of this would mean for what we do for a living, but now I see it as a huge opportunity. So in the past the mission was we have folks who are really good at treating cancer, and we need to tell people who have cancer that we should be chosen. So you kind of know what you are dealing with there, cancer is the motivator, just like heart disease and diabetes. You have a built in population and you know what you should be telling them to get them in the system.

“If you are not sick and feeling great and are 35 years old, what am I going to tell you? That’s where the challenge is,” Bynum says.

Within the Obama Care initiative is the concept of the Medical Home and a focus on primary, preventive care. “The biggest focus right now is centered around developing programs that are aimed at allowing people to get in to a doctor when they need to see one and more importantly, before they need to see a doctor,” Bynum says.  Right now the agency is spending a lot of time consulting with hospital systems like St. Bernard’s in Jonesboro, Ark., and Bellin up in Wisconsin, talking to them about totally changing the way doctor’s offices interact with patients. The goal is to be able to promote what in the industry is being called a medical home. The concept of the medical home is that the provider, through staffing and electronic medical records, is going to have the support and tools necessary to reach out and help people lead a healthier life as opposed to sitting back and waiting on a patient to come in sick. “We call that episodic medicine. You come in sick, we treat that, and then don’t think about you any more until the next time we see you.

“It takes a whole new mindset on everybody’s part. You take any layer of this onion, and it is a total rethinking. Everything from how physicians get paid, to how hospital systems support a process that is going to be helping physicians plan and do things they have never done before—such as planning and thinking about the patient before they come into the office. It is a whole proactive approach that really does not exist,” Bynum says.

“Where we are going to fit in as marketers is in helping organizations as they try to figure out what their version or flavor of creating this medical home is going to look like. Then figuring out what needs to be said about it and how it is going to be priced so that we remove as many barriers as we can, both real and in the patient’s mind, to use. The big impediments to use are still out there: ‘I don’t have the time, I don’t have the need. I don’t have the money.’ So we are going to have to work through all of those things.

“This is the beginning of everything. We are still doing campaigns around episodic medicine because we are in such a transitional period. I would say in five years, we probably won’t be talking about cancer or heart treatment. We will be talking about how to prevent cancer or cardiovascular disease or how to get your diabetes treated before you are in an acute situation. If marketing is about building a better mousetrap then that is truly where we are. How do we remove barriers and motivate someone to take an action that they are not naturally motivated to take? How are we going to make it more affordable? Those are the conversations we are having right now,” Bynum says.

Blr | further, in Bynum’s view, has been an overnight success 25 years in the making. “The irony is that when the wheels came off in 2008, we ended up having our best year ever. We have put together a really strong five-year run, the majority of which has been working with clients in the healthcare sector who had the vision that there was much more at stake than just coming up with a new logo or an ad campaign,” Bynum says.

One of the best examples of the new approach to healthcare marketing exemplified by blr is the Make Medicine Better web and social initiative undertaken for BJC HealthCare in St. Louis, a large hospital system made of disparate units ranging from a top-five medical center to community hospitals with large charity patient loads.

BLR 4“They took a lot of risk in doing that with us,” Bynum says. “It went on to become a best practice in how healthcare can approach the social marketplace. It was launched in 2009 and is still ongoing today. Hundreds of thousands of people come to it to have conversations about healthcare and interact with the BJC brand. A lot of it is complaining about care they received, but it gives BJC the opportunity to take someone who has had a bad experience and make them feel really good about the resolution. It lets employees have an outlet in bragging about coworkers. All of the restrictions healthcare wanted to put on social media were turned on their ear. The conversations are already going on, you might as well embrace it.  You have to be out there in it or else they are going to take place without you. We built something that puts us in a good position to make this Obama Care transition under the battle cry of making medicine better. It is much more than a tag line. It is a culture for them,” Bynum says.

The agency is taking the lessons learned and the tools developed and are continuing to branch out. “We are doing things the typical agency does not do,” Bynum says. Example: Top Box, a web-based application to give health systems and physician groups a tool to monitor in real time how well they are delivering care. “There are tools to manage patient satisfaction. But now we are going to find out about a problem immediately and move you from being unsatisfied to being satisfied. If a nurse does something wrong, for example, we will find out about it while you are still in the hospital and we can fix it,” Bynum says.

“We love creative and do it really well, but we talk a lot more about fixing the brand—which means it has to walk the walk before we start talking about it. If we do those things right, the advertising becomes the easy part. The reason we are invited to talk to people all around the country is because that message makes sense and is refreshing. It is not that we are the anti-ad agency but we are not going to come into a client and say that an ad is going to solve your problem,” Bynum says.

“We have to figure out what the message is. If it is advertising we will do a great job with the creative, but if it is an internal restructuring so that the management mission and vision will be properly communicated. So that you can take 30,000 employees and turn them into brand ambassadors who have what they need to live the brand and make it real, then that is a win for us—even if we have nothing to enter in the Addy awards. We have clients who will tell you that is the impact we have.”

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