Brand in the NHS: Being yourself in the National Health Service

By Marcus Watson

With an outright Tory government (who saw that coming!) looking for savings, these are challenging times for the NHS. My colleague Max du Bois recently attended a debate between influential political figures in healthcare on the future of the NHS, and he found their inability to suggest ideas of substance striking. With quality and care inconsistent and scare-stories abundant, how do NHS Foundation Trusts show their qualities and differentiate themselves, whilst also remaining part of the main NHS brand? 

Broadly speaking, an organisation’s brand should be an extension of its principles, and can only work at its full potential when the people who use the messages buy into what they hear and see. Co-production is key to making this possible; it’s no good creating messages if your staff don’t feel represented by them. By engaging internal stakeholders at every stage of development, you can tap into their insight and create brand messages that talk passionately and clearly about the work you do. This process can also help you bring separate organisations together as part of a merger or acquisition. As an outsider to the sector, these wider brand lessons seemed to have a certain pertinence for the NHS and its beleaguered Trusts and that got me thinking: What does the future hold and how can a co-productive approach to brand help?

Longer waiting times and pressures on understaffed, underfunded hospitals have led to a growing number of ‘doom and gloom’ stories about NHS care; these both lower patient trust and can harm an organisation’s reputation. Stories of patients provided with slings made from plastic bags, being given bells as substitutes for a broken alarm system, and left languishing on temporary beds in corridors overnight can be incredibly damaging. These problems could be critical for an NHS which depends on the public and their trust for its very existence. There is a risk of the NHS losing its badge of excellence, its confident quality and its ability to inspire peace of mind in patients. So what solutions can brand provide?

There are always going to be mistakes, but what’s key is that Trusts aren’t collectively damaged by individual failings. One hospital’s error should not tar the collective, but all too often mistakes are associated with ‘The NHS’ and not with the individual hospital. Clear messaging which highlights your Trust’s areas of expertise and quality will help cut through this inevitable media noise, whilst also helping you earn the credit your work deserves. These messages can also help draw together merging or acquired Trusts, helping you speak about your new venture in a positive light and cut through the negative press surrounding NHS mergers and acquisitions.

Our work with Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust and their merger with Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals highlighted the importance of giving voice to their collective world class expertise. We helped their leading care stand out from the crowd, and we developed these messages alongside patients and staff from all three hospitals. By leveraging your strengths you can reassure patients, giving them the confidence that even though they might be waiting in a ward, they’ll receive the very best care when they are seen by your doctors and nurses. 

A big part of creating that confidence is engaging with staff. The NHS is under pressure, and as such staff are increasingly forced to meet targets that are harder and harder to attain. This negative cycle, combined with media scrutiny and the impact of a new ‘league table culture’, can be demoralising, leading to poorer care quality and more mistakes. Moves towards greater patient choice, with league tables making comparisons between Trusts both direct and stark, have resulted in pressure that has never been higher, nor has the competition been fiercer.

We’ve found with our clients that by collaborating with staff to create positive, powerful messages which draw upon the best of their work, you can engage them in a common goal, something that’s even more important in a time of shifting boundaries and new mergers.  This set of guiding principles, generated by staff themselves, can be bought into and used to motivate.  Mistakes will still happen, but by uniting staff behind goals and aspirations they came up with, you can help undo disenchantment, a much more damaging adversary. With clear messaging, built by your staff and stakeholders, you can carve out your own unique part of the NHS.