The appointment of the NHS’ £97,000 per-year ‘Head of Brand’ has invited much controversy recently, calling in to question the value of brand management, especially at a time when NHS trusts face financial cuts and an uncertain future.

The Leeds-based role, defended by Sir David Nicholson, chief executive of the NHS, as an ‘unfortunate’ job title, has attracted adverse publicity, and ironically, negative connotations towards the NHS brand itself.

The question is: at time of reform in the NHS, what strategic role does branding have to play, and is a lucrative salary for a ‘Head of Brand’ justified?

I’m from a marketing background and whilst I see the value of an effective branding strategy, I also recognise that an organisation’s reputation is built on the quality of service, not just ensuring the correct typeface is being used, or making sure the tagline is always left aligned, never to the right.

Ultimately, brand managing the NHS is about building and maintaining brand equity, helping to secure a long-term, sustainable future. There are four elements to building brand equity that we can apply to the NHS:

1. Brand awareness
The NHS claims their logo has over ‘95% recognition among the general public’, making it ‘one of the most powerful logos in the UK’. No surprise, given the considerable marketing opportunities it has, whereby the logo is used consistently across stationery, building signage, logistics and service vehicles, asset tags on equipment and so on. This has been helped in part by streamlining the previous 600 logo variations in 1999, adopting a ‘one logo’ policy, building a clean, clear and credible brand identity across all NHS organisations.

The most recent and highly visible exposure for the brand was a tribute performance to the NHS at the Olympic opening ceremony earlier this year, attracting a global audience of over 900 million viewers. How much is that worth in marketing spend? Priceless.

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2. Perceived quality of a brand
As a general rule of thumb, if you can deliver a perceived quality in service, you can charge a premium price, hence, private health schemes. So what opportunities does this offer a nationally free facility for the public?

The answer, it seems, is to develop market opportunity by offering domestic services abroad, an initiative that was launched by the Department of Health (DH) and the UK Trade and Investment department (UKTI) earlier this summer. The vision, as I see it, has the rewards of increased cash flow to the UK, but moreover, the risk of lowering the domestic standards of healthcare as resource is spread thin due to the increase in potential export activities. A dangerous move for an institution which, in the current climate, needs to at least be perceived as though the UK market is its first priority.

Back on home soil, there needs to be sufficient communication across the NHS to ensure its 1.75 million staff understand the organisation’s values. Protecting your brand from external stakeholders can be tricky, least not when your employees are either unsatisfied and demoralised, or not supportive of the organisation’s strategic direction.

3. Brand loyalty
This is the measure of the commitment a patient has to a particular service or trust. According to the NHS handbook 2012/13, the NHS serves one million patients every 36 hours, so where does their loyalty lie?

Positive experiences and recommendations create strong reputations. Loyalty to trusts who have built a reputation based on patient care which exceeds expectations, will be the trust of choice. As patients adopt the ability to choose which GPs, hospitals, and even emergency services they use, location (or ability to travel) will become less important in a patient’s decision-making process.

Private healthcare providers are not safe either. A review of their core medical services (for example, expertise/experience of doctors and nurses) is paramount, but let’s not forget the important secondary elements such as comfort of room, variety of food/refreshments available, entertainment on offer etc, which patients willing to pay over and above their national insurance contributions for medical treatment, hold in consideration.

4. Brand associations
What springs to mind when you see an NHS logo? Healthcare, medicines, patients? Or is it budget cuts, poorly-paid nurses, reforms, bureaucracy?

 The most immediate opportunity I see to begin to improve brand reputation is by improving access to patient data, for patients. The Information Strategy by the DH introduced a 10-year framework for this very reason (amongst others) which should see patients recognise an improved service including increases in responsiveness, accessibility and transparency – all positive associations for the NHS brand.

The NHS suggests its communication principles are clear and professional, cost-effective, straightforward, modern, accessible, honest and respectful. These are sound principles and a key element for consistently promoting the brand to its varied and wide audience in the UK and maintaining any positive associations, so they must practice what they preach.

The challenge ahead…
When you consider the challenges ahead for the NHS, brand management does have a role to play, and is no easy task. The new ‘head of brand’ is charged with developing a promise to patients, and doing everything possible to ensure it is upheld. Investment in NHS frontline services is vital to delivering a service that the UK expects, and in turn, builds a brand, and a positive relationship with its public. One way or another, the ‘head of brand’ will have to earn their money.

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