The transformation of brand governance at VCU Health and Children's Health

Branding as a Doctrine, Not a Discipline

Getting to a point of consistent use of brand can be challenging in any industry. This is especially true in healthcare, where marketing teams are often seen as nothing more than the department that tells you when you’re using the wrong logo or PowerPoint template. Sound familiar? It shouldn’t, but the reality is it probably does. The challenge then is to move brand governance practices away from this perception of playing the role of “brand cop” in favor of a new approach – something far more valuable and service-oriented – like that of a “brand concierge”.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. VCU Health and Children’s Health were both recently recognized by Strategic Healthcare’s eHealthcare Awards for rewriting the rules of brand governance using the latest brand center tools and technology. But, the question is, how did it happen? We caught up with Cynthia Schmidt – Chief of Marketing at VCU Health, and Ashley Young – Director of Marketing at Children’s Health, to find out what it is they’re doing that’s making them so successful in ushering in this new approach to brand governance. Asking the questions was Monigle’s CMO, Gabriel Cohen.

"It's important to communicate that we're not just the logo factory."

Cynthia Schmidt, Chief of Marketing, VCU Health

Gabriel: More and more we’re seeing companies move away from physical brand books and guidelines to more online, dynamic versions of themselves. Why do you think the physical brand book or static PDF don’t work today for effective brand governance?

Cynthia (VCU Health): Nobody takes the time to read anymore. Brand books look great and the designers are proud of them but they end up sitting on a shelf, unread. Brand is a living, breathing organism that requires something more flexible and dynamic. It’s not just about how you use logos, colors, and fonts. It’s about the people, patient experiences, and how we talk about ourselves. It’s important we communicate with our audiences who influence brand in places where they are accustomed to looking for information – not just in a one brand book.

Ashley (Children’s Health): I completely agree. Every time we printed a brand book, something would change two weeks later. So you either print again, which can be expensive, or you make too many exceptions and special notes to the point where the value of your brand starts to drop. Being able to make updates to a real-time online platform is helpful, and more consistent with the way people work and how they consume content today.

VCU Health - a symbol of change brochure

Gabriel: As you think about changing your approach to brand governance, what has been your biggest obstacle?

Cynthia: For us it was a lack of education and understanding. We were very much dealing with the internal perception of being the “brand police”. We were known as “the people who shout at me when I use the wrong PowerPoint template” or simply “the people who give us our coffee cups with the logo on them”. Branding didn’t have much of a seat at the leadership level and most employees didn’t even understand the importance of brand, never mind why they should care about brand governance. It was important to communicate that we are not just the logo factory. This is about changing the institution, changing how we talk about the institution, our behaviors, and engaging people to be a part of delivering on our promise.

"Every time we printed a brand book, something would change two weeks later."

Ashley Young, Director of Marketing, Children's Health

Gabriel: At the time of implementing your new online brand centers, you both rebranded from being predominantly known as a medical center to an integrated medical system. Can you tell us a bit more about the transition and the ways in which the brand center helped you in the process?

Ashley: Prior to 2014 we were simply known as Children’s Medical Center, but as a system of care we had grown from one main hospital to a total of 40 locations including two main hospitals, multiple specialty centers, primary care facilities, imaging centers, and so on. The rebrand to Children’s Health was designed to raise awareness that we were now an integrated system, not just a single location.

Through research, we found we had more equity in the red balloon that you see in our visual identity than we did in the medical center name itself. Our strategy was to change our name to Children’s Health and use the red balloon liberally to create consistency and establish recognition across the entire system. Being an Academic Medical Center (AMC) also creates some interesting complexities. For example, our physicians are actually employed by UT Southwestern Medical Center, not Children’s Health. This used to result in regular confusion. The brand center allows us to educate on the branding usage rules related to these partnerships. Having a place for people to learn about how the co-branding would work, when and where to use one or both identities, was helpful to many people.

Cynthia: It was an important tool – a big part of our brand launch. First, our brand center was designed so folks could quickly sign on. Using Single Sign-On (SSO) technology was key so that our people didn’t have to remember another password. Second, we wanted to ensure that the brand center was serving people well around launch. To understand how the brand was being activated, we used the built-in reports to monitor usage and trends on the site.

Third, with so many people out there creating VCU Health content, we needed to ensure they knew how to talk about the new institution. Of particular importance was the brand architecture section. Given the complex nature of the system – including academic, research, and clinical operations – we had a troubled past in terms of how we were referred to. This section was wonderful in helping people understand where all the legacy names lived within the new master brand – VCU Health – and it enabled them to talk more accurately while maintaining a sense of ownership and pride in their own entities. Coupled with examples of the brand in action – including mock-ups of building signage, business cards, and marketing collateral – helped them to really see and understand how it would work.

Lastly, a built-in helpdesk allowed us to save our inboxes from being inundated with email requests and understand what types of questions were being asked most frequently. This informs what we need to create next, whether it be new guidelines or new assets. It made it a much better experience for users who had questions and made them feel as if we were acting on their feedback.

Gabriel: When it comes to managing and maintaining the brand center post-launch, who is responsible and what resources do you have in place?

Cynthia: We have one dedicated resource from an administrative perspective. It does require a full-time position to keep up with it and update content – it’s not a plug-and-play solution. Additionally, the University (VCU) saw what we were doing and decided they wanted a BEAM brand for themselves! We are excited to collaborate with their team for an even better experience once they are on board.

Ashley: Yes, similar story for us. We have a brand team here and one person is probably 50% allocated to maintaining the brand center in terms of managing new requests and making updates. That said, the whole team is constantly thinking and working on new content – all of which ends up in the brand center itself.

Gabriel: How do you keep people coming back to the brand center? And what advice would you give to those either considering a new brand center platform or struggling to get engagement with their existing one?

Ashley: Consider building a business case based on the cost of printed brand books or guidelines vs. the cost of building an online brand center. There are many efficiencies – especially time savings – that come with this (the online brand center) approach. To keep people coming back, we have utilized roadshows to educate and demonstrate the brand center, as well as utilizing a company-wide newsletter that goes out on a daily basis to drive people there. We feature a brand initiative at least once a month and use the brand center itself as the call-to-action for our employees to learn more. In the near future, a tour of the brand center will also be incorporated into new employee onboarding to ensure we’re driving awareness right from the start.

Cynthia: For us, it was mainly a case of making it as visible as possible. Getting the brand center in front of people. It’s not enough to just launch it and expect people to come. They will not clamor for it no matter how good it is if you’re passive about it – you need to adopt a push strategy to drive continuous engagement. It’s important to always refresh the content, send out regular examples of usage to spur ideas and inspire others. Integrating it into some form of reward or recognition would be even better.

Listen to the full conversation and see the VCU Health and Children's Health brand in action.