Healthcare Branding Strategies: Creating New Competitive Advantages in a Sector That Dreads Disruption

Brand Strategy

US demand for healthcare is stronger than ever, driven by an aging population, increases in health insurance coverage, and soaring rates of chronic disease. At the same time, unnerving provider shortages and rampant medical debt undermine consumer confidence. COVID-19 exacerbated the issue but also presented the silver lining: Primed by the pandemic’s hectic pace of innovation, today’s patients, providers, and organizations anticipate and even welcome transformation from healthcare brands.

Healthcare Brand Building is More Vital Than Ever
As the US consumer landscape grows more digital, responsive, personalized, and home-centered, patients expect to see the same level of sophistication reflected in healthcare brand marketing—branding in healthcare cleaves to a clean-cut corporate aesthetic that doesn’t leave room for surprises. So healthcare branding companies must be experts in building impactful brands without going against the grain.

Businesses Raising the Bar in Healthcare Marketing and Branding

The Pharma Branding Formula
Despite the segment’s status as healthcare’s leading innovator, pharma brands are so formulaic their cheerfully detached voiceovers and protracted lists of side effects are a mainstay of sketch comedy. While brand conformity is counterintuitive as a D2C strategy, it makes sense in this B2B setting. Pharma brands sacrifice a little distinctiveness to reinforce a sense of belonging, so new medicines have that ‘business as usual’ vibe that reassures risk-averse physicians. In a 2023 survey, US physicians ranked pharma companies’ reputations as the leading factor in their prescription decisions, a finding that supports what strategists know empirically – patient preference counts, but persuading providers is the prime directive.”

Linking Reputation and Brand Integration
Reputation and brand go hand in hand, but effective reputational strategy requires close brand-business alignment. It’s a tall order in a hierarchical sector like corporate healthcare, where siloes are practically set in stone. Although accelerated transformation isn’t practical, advancements are always possible with targeted and incremental approaches. With startup culture starting to show up in healthcare, leaders are stepping out of their comfort zones to explore new integrative possibilities. Aligning brand strategy with corporate, competitive, growth, product, sales, and other considerations can only elevate drug makers’ reputations.

Physicians ranked a pharmaceutical company’s reputation as the leading factor in their prescription decisions, a finding that supports what strategists know empirically – patient preference counts, but persuading providers is the prime directive.

Healthcare Startups Succeed With Caution
In today’s ultra-shrewd investing environment, healthcare startups need to do more than solve a pain point to get noticed. To signal their viability to VCs and M&A buyers, emergent brands need to demonstrate how they fit into the existing healthcare ecosystem and how they plan to transform it. Aligning startup brands with healthcare marketing norms demonstrates market disruption tempered with discernment – a refreshing dose of humility in a business environment where hubris reigns supreme.

Boomers Driving Healthcare Brand Innovation
Hospitals serve patients from diverse backgrounds, and they all have unique preferences, priorities, and constraints. When choosing any kind of acute, inpatient, or ambulatory care, the decision maker may also be injured, ill, or worried about a loved one. Hospital branding will always prioritize access and clarity over creativity, but thriving brands don’t stay still. Especially when Baby Boomers are out there en masse, accessing Medicare and transforming healthcare with their privacy concerns, tech-savvy outlook, and awareness of medical branding.

What the Best Healthcare Branding Agencies Know
Brands must deliver beyond their traditional domains to win over the biggest generation. We want healthcare brands to embody our values. Freedom-loving Boomers are pushing for preventative, ambulatory, and home-based alternatives to inpatient and onsite care – all trends that impact margins in a sector already dealing with cash flow compression, waning unrestricted reserves, and a negative bias in ratings and outlooks for individual organizations. As always, a strategic brand positioning idea confers a significant competitive advantage. Define what’s salient to consumers and position your brand to provide and defend it. To go the distance, brands must be self-aware.

The High-Tech Challengers Disrupting Healthcare
Hospitals aren’t the only healthcare segment feeling the heat – all legacy healthcare brands are wise to monitor these industry newcomers and their brand strategies closely. Non-healthcare technology brands like Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, Oracle, and Meta have entered the market, leveraging their existing systems, infrastructure, and expertise to scale and support care delivery. While Big Tech companies seem aligned with healthcare’s ‘fit over flair’ brand ethos, they impact the landscape in other ways. And as you’ll see, ambitious brands can always find competitor weaknesses to capitalize on, like Big Data’s troubled track record around personal data.

Healthcare Brand Strategy Moves You Can Use
Each brand plays the hand it’s dealt, and healthcare is no exception. To create competitive advantages, study healthcare brand strategies that maximize superpowers, mitigate negatives, and de-position competitors. In the following examples, we’ll unpack some healthcare brand strategies to see what ambitious brand leaders can learn from them.

Healthcare Partners Get Played by Platforms
Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft, and Oracle are poised to blow a hole through regulated healthcare markets with a systematic, 4-phase strategy. Scholars liken Big Tech’s approach to colonization because outsiders enter as collaborators, then switch to competitors, vying for strategic and economic gains. Health systems meet their digital needs short-term while enabling their future competitors to muscle into the market.

Big Data brands view our personal information as raw material and assert something like manifest destiny, which preordains them to extract its value. Scholars liken Big Tech’s systematic 4-phase approach to colonization because outsiders enter as collaborators, then switch to competitors, vying for strategic and economic gains. Here’s how they do it.

1. Partner with incumbent brands as a data services provider

2. Capture and model highly regulated patient data

3. Provide partners with data-driven insights – the hardest thing to do

4. Become direct competitors, squeezing partners out of the market

Apple’s Healthcare Brand Strategy: De-positioning Big Data
The ‘colonization’ strategy is highly effective, though every Big Tech player still contends for the same prize in healthcare – controlling ‘the cloud’ and our data. Still, distinct strategies are emerging among the competitors. In a classic Apple move,  Apple Health’s ‘Empowerment’ positioning has a clear purpose beyond profit, and that purpose just so happens to make competitors look bad. By pointedly providing patients with greater control, Apple makes Big Data’s insatiable drive to capitalize on patients’ data appear especially predatory by comparison.

In Healthcare Marketing and Branding, Competition is a Niche
To reinforce their data-driven healthcare moonshots, Big Tech also targets niche markets like professional development (Meta), provider and patient experience (Alphabet), B2B services (Microsoft), and consumer home health (Apple). Of course, Big Tech hasn’t yet cornered the market on niche healthcare brands. Innovative primary care startups serving niche populations have raised more than $1 billion in the last several years, according to Pitchbook. Folx Health is one of them.

The Healthcare Startup Transforming LGBTQ+ Care
As Folx CEO Liana Douillet-Guzmán tells it, the American healthcare system “wasn’t built for us.”

A startup that’s revolutionizing primary care, Folx’s goal is to offer LGBTQ+ patients “access to care that is not just affirming, but expert.” After four years in business, Folx has more than proven its concept. Last year, Folx secured $30 million in Series B funding, which was extra impressive in an already-cooling investor climate. This year, Fast Company ranked Folx Health #28 among ‘The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.’ As one VC investor put it, “(Others) have underestimated the immense market size for advances in healthcare for distinct populations. We’re more bullish than ever that these niches aren’t so niche.”

The Series A Start-up Tackling Healthcare Inequity
Another primary care operator closing gaps in an underserved niche is Fazer client Matter Health. The Nashville-based Series A start-up brings value-based, prevention-forward primary care directly to the communities that need it most. Matter is pioneering a new model that addresses patients’ physical, mental, and social needs by bringing primary care home. Building clinics inside senior and affordable living communities makes access to primary care convenient and consistent for dual-eligible patients, controlling healthcare costs by reducing ER utilization, treatment delay, and preventable hospitalizations. To make Matter feel like home, the D2C healthcare brand needed to project a warm, trustworthy, and inviting essence that brings its purpose to life. Matter’s key message, “Total healthcare. Where you live.” emphasizes its core competitive advantage: presence. Buoyed by our branding efforts, Matter Health secured $35 million in a series A funding led by Jordan Park group.

Retailers Reshaping the Primary Care Category
With the future of healthcare in flux, the next big idea could come from anywhere – so why not Walgreens? Retail giants like Walmart, Amazon, Walgreens, and CVS did the same thing we would do: they identified the top customer pain points in primary care – cost transparency, convenience, access, and clarity – and set out to solve them. The retail pharmacies’ entry into primary care has begun to undermine the existing paradigm – one side effect – providers losing control over specialist referrals and their ability to keep patients in-system – signals the inherent precariousness of the current healthcare business models. Amazon’s recent acquisition of OneMedical only escalated the struggle for primary care primacy. Still, the market hasn’t decided whether Amazon’s vision for frictionless healthcare will trump the retail contenders’ familiar in-store experiences.

How a Hospital Inspired Brand Love
It’s rare for a hospital brand to inspire aspirational dreams, but NYC’s Hospital for Special Surgery is special. HSS’s aspirational brand strategy resonates emotionally and elicits a sense of pride in membership. By letting customers craft the message, HSS leverages what other institutions couldn’t: its status as the hospital of choice for elite athletes, which also appeals to non-athlete surgery patients. HSS reinforces the strategy with HSS-emblazoned merchandise that feels more like sports swag or souvenirs from a travel destination than something out of a hospital gift shop. HSS’s tagline, Back in the Game, aligns patients’ surgical journeys with those of elite athletes. The brand’s ‘Back in the Game Patient Forum’ is a public repository for patient success stories – and a tribute to the power of word-of-mouth. The stories’ authenticity and emotional resonance confer a significant competitive advantage in a sector where brands can be so cautious they’re almost featureless.

Healthcare Branding on the Buy-Side
In healthcare branding, M&A integrations are the perfect opportunity to advance your brand. Why not multitask when you have to communicate the change anyway? When North America’s leading crisis care brand acquired two digital behavioral health companies, the company’s brand transformation had broader implications beyond the marcom arena. Our client’s acquisitions were aimed at helping the company stay future-ready and aligned with healthcare industry shifts toward ecosystem strategies, platform companies, and end-to-end experiences. To make the most of the expansion, rebrand, and moment, we developed the brand integration strategy in coalition with client-side leaders who helped optimize the transition and make employees and stakeholders feel included, heard, and valued.

Because it’s the hardest thing to do, crisis care became Welltrack’s core solution. Our client has dominated the space for 30 years by managing a workforce of highly-trained crisis call center responders. Its secret sauce: an authentically mission-driven and egalitarian culture where great people make a difference. Its crisis care capabilities defend the brand against the legions of clinically-dubious ‘telemental’ contenders that entered the space during the pandemic lockdown. To guard against enterprise competitors offering a continuum of care, the client’s suite of services became ‘The Welltrack Ecosystem of Solutions,’ to communicate the value of its expanding safety net of services in safeguarding community members and streamlining the customer experience.

2020 Mindsight: Understanding Healthcare Customers
Last but not least is Mindsight, a Fazer client and emerging healthcare brand to watch. Mindsight’s founders envisioned a pioneering product and brand to take mental health testing and diagnosis into the 21st century. Positioning the brand as the solution to a common customer pain point – not knowing where to begin – we crafted the descriptor “A new first step.” Psychologically, the message takes the pressure off patients, many of whom are chronically stressed. Amid today’s information overload, Mindsight’s message evokes simplicity and certainty – two things every modern mind craves.

Resistance is futile – even for legacy healthcare brands.
While the industry’s in fast flux, competitive healthcare businesses can always create new advantages through brand strategy. With disruption erupting across the industry, this is a significant moment for healthcare brands. As any healthcare branding agency can tell you, competing in this segment is a balancing act. As competition intensifies and digital transformation develops apace, healthcare branding presents compelling opportunities to shape patient and partner perception through competitive brand strategy and authentic, customer-driven storytelling.




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