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January 3, 2019

What's in a name? For Ascension and Northwell, it's an 'emotional'—and costly—question.

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    Northwell Health and Ascension recently underwent massive rebrandings. Here's how the two health systems prepared for and executed the big undertakings, Beth Jones Sanborn writes for Healthcare Finance News.

    Access the digital strategy cheat sheets—for rebranding and beyond

    Why Northwell and Ascension chose to rebrand

    Northwell was formally known as North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System, a name Terry Lynam, Northwell's communications director, said routinely confused news organizations and even the health system's own employees.

    The health system decided it wanted to create a name that was both recognizable outside the New York metro area and better reflected its mission to not only treat people, but to help them be well, Lynam said. In addition, Northwell wanted a name that showed they weren't just a group of hospitals, but a large health system that includes 23 hospitals as well as 685 outpatient practices and a school of medicine.

    "In this competitive health care environment, the need to be highly visible and clearly understood both within and beyond the New York metropolitan area requires strong name recognition which is why our Board ended up voting unanimously to rebrand as Northwell Health," Lynam said.

    Ascension decided to rebrand to evolve from being a holding company of separate health systems into an operating company, Jones Sanborn writes.

    Nick Ragone, chief marketing and communications officer for Ascension, said, "We felt like in order to make this journey real for associates and our communities you needed to walk into a site of care that said Ascension on it. That's why we did it."

    Both health systems elected to keep the historic names of their facilities, just with "Northwell" or "Ascension" preceding the original name. "Keeping the names of the hospitals was in recognition of their unique histories within their respective communities because many of them date back, in some cases, 100-plus years," Lynam said.

    Slow and steady

    The rebranding process wasn't a quick one for Northwell or Ascension, with the Northwell's taking about eight years and the Ascension's taking around three, Jones Sanborn reports. While it might be tempting to speed through a tedious process taking your time is important because it's essential to get "full internal alignment before you can get to the external piece," Ragone said.

    Before anything changed, Ascension spent two years explaining the rebranding process to the health system's 165,000 associates. "Brands are very local and very emotional," Ragone said. "The associates and the community are very attached to those local brands. So you need to overcommunicate why you're doing this."

    Ragone said systems looking to rebrand should allow for 18 to 24 months of internal alignment, and the same for the external portion.

    Internal alignment created a challenge at Northwell, according to Lynam, as many of its employees had a personal connection to the health system's old name. To help with this, leadership used a "brand bus," a physical bus to tour around to all of Northwell's facilities to help employees understand the reason for the rebranding.

    When the re-brand launched officially, there was full awareness for why the change was necessary and more acceptance of the new name, Jones Sanborn reports.

    "You have to understand it's going to take time," Lynam said. "It's not going [to] happen overnight and you have to get buy-in internally before you try and push it through."

    The payoff

    Rebranding is a long and costly process, Jones Sanborn writes. According to Lynam, Northwell spent "well over $10 million a year" in the early goings on advertising, not to mention other expenses such as signage.

    But the process has been worth it, Lynam said, because Northwell wanted to succeed in a competitive environment against well-known names like NYU Langone, Mount Sinai, and New York Presbyterian.

    Now, three years later, Lynam said Northwell's old name is hardly ever used, and focus groups have shown a good recognition rate of the name Northwell Health

    Ragone said Ascension's rebranding process was similarly costly, especially when it came to signage, which he said covered about 70% to 80% of the cost of the campaign. But Ragone said it's been worth it to have a new brand that is identifiable and helps employees feel like they're truly part of Ascension. "We are speaking now as one voice," Ragone said (Jones Sanborn, Healthcare Finance News, 12/26/18).

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