Is Your Brand Adrift in the Sea of Sameness?

Apr 06, 2018

There are some categories in advertising that consistently look the same. Change the logo, and your ad is virtually the same as another brand’s. Hospitals and health systems happen to be one of those categories. Just take a look at the advertisements below—they represent five different brands. Really!

Various hospital ads

We were recently engaged by a regional healthcare network with a national reputation that had a marketing challenge similar to many other brands—their voice was in the market, but they were not realizing any true share-of-voice or seeing the desired impact from their efforts.

Their first challenge was strategic. In a crowded, competitive market where everyone has some features or attributes that can be identified as superior, it is hard to be seen as unique. In this case, the client and all of its competitors were promoting their national rankings. Billboards in the market at the same time had headlines such as:

  • “A Top 4 Hospital in the U.S”
  • “We’re Number 1 and 2”
  • “Recognized as Best Hospital”

To top off the confusion, every brand used blue as their primary color palette. This proliferation of blue, as well as the similar communication strategy, is what our Curiosity strategy team refers to as the sea of sameness.*

So, how does one break out of the sea of sameness?

  1. It starts with a clear positioning.

    Our client had previously worked with a consulting firm, which, after extensive research and other techniques, providedthem with what they felt was their differentiating position. When our client came to us, they had to admit they weren’t really sure what the positioning that was given to them really meant to their potential patients, or how to turn it into a communications strategy.

    Our first interaction with our new client had to cover the fact that there is a difference between a category directive and a brand positioning. What the consultant had provided was a definition of what is taking place in the category—every company in the healthcare environment is driving growth by their ability to continue to change, evolve and upgrade products and services based on new technologies, new medical breakthroughs, and to improve hospital aesthetics. So, although it was accurate, the positioning was not unique or consumer-centric in any way.

  2. Remember the customer is your target.

    It is easy to get caught up in the bravado of focusing inward, and translating that into the communications strategy. Many healthcare institutions focus on their individual doctors, on technology, or on rankings, which aligns with what we saw in our example of the Sea of Sameness. These all boast features or attributes, but positioning is all about benefits. Marketers should be asking the important questions: Why are patients going to the hospital in the first place? What are they hoping the result will be? What are they expecting out of the experience?

  3. Focus on The Job to Be Done.

    In 2007 Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen and coauthors articulated the Jobs to Be Done concept in a Sloan Management Review article (Spring 2007) as follows: "Most companies segment their markets by customer demographics or product characteristics and differentiate their offerings by adding features and functions. But the consumer has a different view of the marketplace. He simply has a job to be done and is seeking to 'hire' the best product or service to do it." As you dive deep into the concept of JTBD, at first blush you might think that  a particular consumer wants a specified surgery to be performed accurately and well, so hyping specific doctors or rankings would fulfill the strategic positioning need. But as you keep diving in, ask WHY the patient wants the procedure to be performed accurately and well. That's when you start to uncover the true strategic imperative.

  4. Determine a true customer positioning.

    In this instance, we determined that the patient’s goal when receiving hospital care is to get back to themselves, to be whole again, and to enjoy the things in life that drive them. That evolved to the consumer positioning of “For Your Pursuit,” with a campaign that speaks to potential patients in a meaningful way—presenting that this hospital wants to heal you so that you can get on with your life and back to your chosen pursuits. This positioning, supported by the features and attributes of the hospital as reasons-to-believe, had the opportunity to truly stand out in the marketplace—and it did when brought to life with engaging and dynamic visuals of people and their pursuits.

    Print ad samples

*The sea of sameness is a metaphor derived from Stanford University economist Harold Hotelling’s law of “principle of minimal differentiation,” 1929.