Driving into Hertz to return my car to the West Palm Beach airport on Sunday, I couldn’t help but notice they’d altered the drop-off point. A veteran of this particular facility, I wondered why were we so close to the bus loading zone. And then it dawned on me because it was raining, they had us dropping off under the only large awning on the lot, a small act of consideration that I suspect went unnoticed by most. But not me. Caught without an umbrella, I was most grateful I wouldn’t have to sit on the plane soaked or scramble to find the one bathroom at PBI that had a hand dryer I could repurpose.
This story of going the extra mile for a customer is a great introduction to Arra G. Yerganian, Chief Marketing and Branding Officer at Sutter Health. I met Arra through The CMO Club (he won the Officers award) and not only was he kind enough to share his thoughts with me below, he even agreed to rerecord our podcast episode after the sound quality proved deficient (stay tuned for my “9 Ways to Screw Up a Podcast” post!). More importantly, Arra is leading a massive transformation in how Sutter Health not only markets itself but also how it delivers patient care.
Drew: Tell me about Sutter Health.
Arra: Sutter Health is a remarkable organization. We are an integrated team of clinical and non-clinical pioneers who are deeply rooted in our not for profit mission. And we really work together to change how you and I experience healthcare. In fact, through an independent study in the last few months, Truven Health Analytics (which is part of IBM) recently recognized Sutter as one of the highest performers (top five) amongst healthcare system in America. This study looked at things like saving more lives, having fewer complications, spending less per patient on episode of care, etc. This is truly an organization that’s unprecedented. We’re about $11 billion in revenue supported by 55,000 employees. I call them ‘members of our tribe’ and nearly 7,000 providers. These are people who develop the product and care every day that makes a difference in people’s lives.
Drew: Wow. So what does your role as CMO encompass?
Arra: Well, it’s a multitasking role for sure. I feel like I’m steering a big ship and I think for me it’s really about walking the brand promise. It’s about how we tell powerful stories and how we translate that into something that the consumer can really relate to. I often talk about this relationship that we have with the people we serve, not the “patient” and you need to understand the distinction. As healthcare’s going through the transformation in America, it’s not about putting the patient first. It’s about putting the person first. During every stage of being a patient you’re still a person. So it’s about leaning in. It’s about helping them understand you know them intellectually and emotionally and about the support and access we can provide. How we change the conversation around them and I think that’s our secret weapon for the healthcare system in Northern California.
Drew: Interesting. How does marketing fit into this vision?
Arra: For me, it’s about operationalizing the brand. It’s helping my fellow leaders understand that investing in marketing is an important endeavor, not just an expense. It’s changing the way the organization thinks about the brand. We’re helping the organization see that marketing can really add value. In fact, we can contribute to creative growth within this organization. I tell people we don’t necessarily need one more person to care for; we just need to take great care of the ones we have now. I call this the “love the ones you’re with” approach and it is a big differentiator for us since so many healthcare companies are just trying to acquire as many customers as they can.
Drew: How big is Sutter Health?
Arra: We are one of the largest healthcare systems in America and we’re really just in the Northern California footprint today. We service a geography of 12.5 million people and each of those three to three and a half million people that we care for every day are in the amazing care of our provider who truly go the extra mile and provide what I’m describing as intellectual and emotional support, going beyond the physical. It’s not just getting in to see the provider when you want to see them. That’s a given. To differentiate in a ‘sea of sameness’, it’s about that extra effort that we as an organization can deliver. We need to be the brand leaning in when others lean away. Remember, we care for people when they are at their most vulnerable. We have an awesome responsibility.
Drew: Let’s talk about a specific marketing initiative you’re particularly proud of.
Arra: I think this is somewhat unprecedented within the healthcare field; however, I had a vision when I arrived 16 months ago to create a brand management structure along lines of services like cardiology, oncology, women’s health, neuroscience, pediatrics, primary care, etc. This meant bringing professionals into the organization or nurturing those who were already here in marketing roles and focusing them all on these product lines and creating partnerships with clinical leaders who can help inform the content.
Drew: Sounds like P&G?
Arra: Exactly. These brand managers would build efficacy around their “products” and communicate the benefits to the mass market. I really wanted to understand what we do uniquely versus our competition. Where do we stand-alone as we service the consumers in our communities? With this new structure, we can get really specific and surgical. I call it ‘precision marketing’. You know there’s this movement called ‘precision medicine’ that’s become quite common. I think it really is about getting super targeted. I think about creating one to one relationships with three and a half million people and addressing topics that are of specific interest.
Drew: Makes sense. So how did precision marketing actually play out?
Arra: Well, for someone who’s suffering from coronary heart disease in a particular geography we can isolate by age and really dive in specifically to those individuals with a targeted message. Very, very different from the way most healthcare companies approach the challenge. I realized when I first arrived that lowest common denominator marketing is alive and well within the healthcare space. People talk about things like quality and expertise as if they’re differentiators. Seems to me that everyone expects when they go to a doctor to get quality care and that their doctor is an expert in their field, right?
Drew: Well, I certainly do.
Arra: Right, so let’s take it to a whole new level. When we talk about intellectual access it’s about being able to easily talk to the healthcare professional. Get clear information about things like pricing. Get the healthcare professional to lean in and not appear rushed. When I think about emotional access it’s treating the people that we work with like humans. Having our healthcare teams work together toward collaborative care so you are not being treated like a statistic–not being treated like a burden. These are the things that we as an organization are striving to do every day that really separate us.
Drew: Getting back to the brand management structure…
Arra: So when I implemented this brand management structure at this highest level we can, for example, sit with a cardiologist and ask him/her lots of questions: What really makes the work you do different and unique? What are the research breakthroughs? What’s helping you do better care for the people that we serve? By the way, we’re the second largest non-teaching research system in the country. This is a not for profit organization that truly understands the importance of giving back. Part of the way we give back is through this philanthropic effort of doing research in the community.
Drew: This must be a complicated branding challenge given the Sutter Health parent brand and now these service-specific sub-brands.
Arra: It’s actually even more complex because we were previously federated model with approximately 24 hospital CEOs, all managing in many respects, legacy brands that have somehow come together over the last 150 years under the Sutter Health umbrella. So in order to pay homage to those strong and uniquely positioned brands, particularly in our ‘out of home’ creative and even the via radio campaigns, we’ve put Sutter Health on center stage while paying homage to our affiliated brands, i.e., Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Alta Bates Summit, or Sutter Gould, for example; then we highlight the line of service, like cardiology, pediatrics, or urgent care before we do any discussion about the work that we do.
Drew: That is complicated. So how do you hold all of these communications together?
Arra: We created a very light-hearted campaign to start building familiarity in the marketplace and that’s called the “Smile Out” campaign. The whole idea is we choose somebody, for example, with a sinus condition and would say literally, “Sniffle in. Smile out.” Or for orthopedics, we say “Limp in. Smile Out.” When we talk about cardiology, we say, “Flutter in. Smile out.” Each of these is connected to a line of service, Sutter Health and our local, very community-based hospital systems. So yes, we have multiple challenges but it is very exciting that we can actually break through and create this connection across the multiple brands, the lines of service and the geography in which we are in.
Drew: How are you measuring and charting the success of your marketing initiatives?
Arra: We’re doing brand research in ways we’ve never done before. We’re also utilizing the amazing amounts of data that we already had more effectively. For example, we have the largest single installation of Epic, the hospital records management system, in the country. But all this wonderful data without insight, as you know, is useless. So effectively understanding, for example, that there’s a difference between awareness, familiarity and consideration is a big transformational idea in an organization that hasn’t really thought about marketing the way I describe. And incidentally, I’m the first Chief Marketing and Branding Officer this organization’s long and rich history.
Drew: Let’s dive into the research more. What kinds of things did you want to track?
Arra: Not surprisingly, our awareness is high and we are a trusted brand. We need to help consumers better understand what we really stand for; that which makes us uniquely different. 23.5 hours a day people don’t think about healthcare. So we want to make sure that the moment when you do have to think about your personal care or the care of a loved one, you think of Sutter Health…and it’s in the most positive light. That’s why making an emotional connectional is so important. I want them to feel confident, I want them to feel as if they’re in control and they own their own destiny. Because at the end of the day the brand strategy for me is to increase physical, intellectual and emotional access to healthcare so people can more confidently and independently engage with their health.
Drew: How did you persuade the folks internally to invest in this research?
Arra: So interestingly we’ve already made that investment. We have all the data, it’s really about peeling the onion back to understand how the data can inform the way we think about communicating with different segments of consumer. So, customer segmentation and segmentation research is absolutely at the forefront of our new strategy. Doing panel research, understanding really what makes people emotionally tick so that we can do the right thing when, for example, they’re giving birth. I love to tell people because I found this out really by accident. At Sutter Health; we give birth to three kindergarten classes a day! Funny enough, one of every three consumers that I meet throughout our Northern California footprint introduce themselves to me as either having given birth or having being born at a Sutter Hospital. That’s a meaningful statistic. In fact, we take care of one out of every 100 Americans, one out of every 4 Northern Californians. These are truly remarkable statistics. We have in our DNA the spirit of doing amazing things for people every day – we just need to bring those stories to light.
Drew: What’s your advice for your fellow marketers?
Arra: It’s funny — about a week ago I was at an even at the Avaya Stadium in San Jose, we’re a partner to the San Jose Earthquakes, a Major League Soccer team they serve the same 100 communities that we serve. And it happened to be Saturday so we brought our ambulances, helicopters, and providers and it was great opportunity to activate the brand with the 10,000 people in the stands and generate some good will.
So my six-year-old son, my youngest with three of his friends clamored into Sutter Health mobile clinic and within minutes, they tried out a stethoscope and other cool tools. They then switch their roles; first doctor then patient. I watch their intellectual curiosity, their flexibility, and their focus and realize that they could change the world if given the opportunity. If we look at the world through their lens, we could change the world. And in this period of rapid evolution requiring great curiosity, determination and adaptability, we have the opportunity to do so. So I encourage marketers to have the courage to think way outside the box. It’s okay to fail. I tell people all the time, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” I want them to really think differently; I think that’s paramount to success. Take some calculated risks; I think that’s super important.