Healthcare on the African Continent is either in the hands of Government or a big business opportunity. Ironically some of the best healthcare provision falls in between those two camps, with semi-charitable organisations like the Aga Khan Foundation providing high end care but discounting the price for people of little means.
But whether you are trying to provide adequate healthcare for the masses, or specialised treatment for the wealthy, you are in the branding business. Whether you like it or not, or indeed whether you understand it or not.
That last statement is not meant to indicate that healthcare leaders are less intelligent than they might be. In my experience they are bright, articulate and have a bigger than average helping of altruism in their make-up. But many struggle with commercialisation. And as marketing is the sharp edge of commercialisation, discussing marketing with them is a bit like bringing up colonoscopy at the dinner table. We are all vaguely aware we should have it, but not just now and … spare us the details.
So perhaps we should take a lesson from the British National Health Service. Arguably the best known brand in UK. Experienced on a regular basis by a population conditioned to expect healthcare for free, and therefore often a source of disappointment, loudly expressed.
Free Healthcare For All is probably one of the most remarkable features of modern British society. And all over the world seaports and airports enjoy a thriving traffic from a stream of people who seek it out, because there is nothing like it where they live.
The NHS is a huge and complex institution. To be frank, private hospitals in Africa face a much easier marketing task. They are a distress purchase in an environment that offers few choices. But still they get bogged down in the process of delivery, which prevents them from painting a clear and attractive picture of what they have to offer. What we like to call their 'Brand Promise'.
Examine any marketing by a hospital near you and, with a few notable exceptions, all you will be able to deduce is that they stand for … hospital. Or.. good hospital. Or … caring hospital. I mean, it is not exactly brain surgery, is it?
Anyway, the biggest healthcare brand on the planet, the British NHS, has just appointed a marketer to help it reshape its future. And not just any marketer. Hei’s called Sir Stuart Rose, and latterly he turned around the fortunes of high street retail brand Marks & Spencer. To most of us from Africa, that’s a large shop in Marble Arch, London where we can buy underwear tax-free. But in reality it is one of the world’s most enduring retail brands, with an enormous and top quality offering in affordable fashion, food, and home ware. Not long ago it was dying on its feet. It had lost focus and, perhaps more importantly it had lost relevance in the minds of the British shopper. It had not helped that the brand had never advertised. That was a strategy that worked for perhaps 50 years, but when it stopped working my goodness they had to scramble.
After many years with Sir Stuart at the helm, Marks & Spencer is once again at the heart of the middle class, Middle England shopping experience. Loved and valued by millions. So, can a retail marketer help the biggest healthcare brand? Yes, I think that is very likely.
"M&S and the NHS are both taxi driver businesses," says Sir Stuart. By which he means that everyone knows them; knows where they are and has strongly-expressed views about them. He has begun his task by travelling the country talking to people inside and outside the NHS. In doing that he is gathering insights. Insights are actionable nuggets of information that marketers use to build their strategies. He reports: "there’s a lot of goodwill, and a strong brand ethos, but it would be wrong for me to say there isn’t a level of frustration."
Sir Stuart feels that the NHS does not focus on its customers as well as it could, and suffers from a rampant internal bureaucracy that hampers delivery. It is so daft that there is even an NHS app you can download to define all the acronyms in use. But he is also wise enough to discern that public expectations need to be reshaped. British people go to the doctor for the slightest sniff, which places an intolerable strain on people trying to attend to more serious conditions.
If you are in healthcare, keep an eye on how the NHS brand evolves under Sir Stuart’s hand. And take pride in the fact that this erudite marketer brings something of East Africa to the challenge. His bio tells me that he was educated at St. Joseph’s Convent School, Dar es Salaam.
Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people. www.thebrandinside.com
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