NHS must research its global branding plans

The NHS is one of the UK’s most beloved brands. It was highlighted to the world in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics this summer with an all-singing, all-dancing tribute. Patients and staff from one of the country’s flagship hospitals – Great Ormond Street – performed in the event, which was seen by billions around the world.

Ruth Mortimer

Now the Department of Health and UK Trade & Industry are jointly hoping to export the reputation of the NHS brand and its individual hospital brands outside the country. It is aiming to capitalise on the recent Olympics showcase by setting up branches of UK NHS brands in markets that already buy some British health services, such as the Middle East, India, China and Brazil.

Some NHS brands have already begun forging ahead with global expansion. The Moorfields Eye Hospital in London has private operations in Dubai. It is not yet entirely clear what types of healthcare could be offered in so many different markets with disparate ways of receiving and paying for care, but Healthcare UK, a body that launches this autumn, will help link hospitals with overseas clients keen to tap into British health expertise.

So what will be the benefits of Great Ormond Street Mumbai or The Royal Marsden Rio de Janeiro? Health minister Anne Milton claims the initiative is “good news” for NHS patients, who will get better services at their hospital due to increased investment from overseas activities.

But brand extension is rarely a smooth process. When 22,000 new launches were monitored over a three-year period (where more than 90 per cent were brand extensions) the failure rate was higher in the first year of launch for extensions than new brands, according to a 2004 Research International study. And the failure rate for brand extensions in the FMCG market is often around 80 per cent or even higher.

And, of course, we’re not talking about something as simple as a new yoghurt flavour here. We’re talking about a medical brand that exists as the sum of accumulated consumer experiences. That is a far more complex beast to market.

If I was a hospital brand, I’d be talking to UK universities about their brand expansion drive… into Malaysia and Thailand

I’d also suggest that it can be hard for organisations such as hospitals to reinvent themselves as customer-centric. I’ve had long waits at hospital for standard appointments. Of course, I did not complain – I’m aware that the NHS is under pressure to cut spending and has stretched resources. Had I been a paying customer, I’d have reacted quite differently.

If I was a hospital brand, I’d be talking to UK universities about their brand expansion drive, which has been in place for some years. Many British higher education brands are setting up branches in Malaysia and Thailand. The NHS should be heavily researching how these outposts reflect on the parent brand and whether they are proving a success.

And, with research in mind, perhaps the NHS and Healthcare UK managers should take 15 minutes to watch a gripping new video on how Microsoft used Star Wars film characters to inspire an internal segmentation project. The film is part of the ‘Uses of Research’ series, produced in partnership with Quadrangle, and shows how effective research can change the future of an organisation.

Can NHS expansion make our health service a global brand, rather than just a domestic one? Perhaps, but it will need a set of new skills. Successful brand extensions are not just badging exercises.

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