Mark Ritson: Surgeon’s stamp is the mark of true branding

Don’t let the Simon Bramhall brand fade. Wield your argon gas with pride, and if you need a branding consultant, I’m your man.

At first sight Simon Bramhall looks very much like any other surgeon. Balding and bespectacled, Mr Bramhall has that combined look of confidence and concern that most of us would look for in a surgeon. The 48-year-old had been a consulting liver surgeon at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital for more than a decade.

In that time Bramhall has operated, very successfully, on hundreds of patients. He recently made headlines for having conducted the 4,000th successful liver transplant at the Queen Elizabeth and had frequently been the go-to surgeon in emergency cases in which time and expertise were key issues for liver surgery.

Shortly before Christmas, however, one of Bramhall’s former patients required routine surgery and he was not available for the procedure. A colleague stepped in to perform the surgery and when he finally reached the patient’s liver, discovered something so shocking it would result in Bramhall’s immediate suspension from his duties and a slew of contentious headlines in the national press.

There, as clear as day, burned into the patient’s liver were the unmistakable letters S and B. What had first appeared to be light scarring on the liver was actually the most fundamental branding imaginable – Bramhall had finished his surgery successfully and then, in a final act of professional pride, burned his initials onto his patient’s now fully functioning organ.

Experts have since speculated that Bramhall used a beam of Argon gas, typically used to seal blood vessels, to make his mark and hospital authorities are now concerned that the surgeon may well have branded hundreds of patients in the same way.

“It is quite astonishing to think someone may have done this, especially someone as experienced at Mr Bramhall,” a hospital source told The Scotsman newspaper. “I’m just a little shocked that something like this may have happened right under everyone’s noses. Now people may think otherwise about coming to the hospital, if the allegations are true.”

I am not so sure such reputational concern is warranted. Granted, Bramhall should have informed his patients that he would be branding them as part of the procedure. As Joyce Robins of Patient Concern pointed out last week: “This is a patient we are talking about, not an autograph book.” Quite right, but would patients really be so aghast at the presence of a surgeon’s initials on their vital organ if that surgeon was good at his job?

If you needed a liver transplant and you had to choose between an unnamed, commodity NHS surgeon who may or may not be at the top of their game and a celebrated renal surgeon with a national reputation and who was so proud of his handiwork he initialled all his patients before stitching them up, which option would you go for? I know which one I’d opt for. Sign me up. Literally.

OK, he broke a bunch of hospital regulations but behind Bramhall’s behaviour is a story as old as time itself. Never forget that branding derives from the old-Norse word for fire. Too many of today’s marketing managers think branding means differentiation or, even worse, a consistent look and feel with all the fonts and pantones carefully controlled. All of that is, of course, bollocks.

Branding started when a Viking whose name (ironically) has been lost to history started burning his initials onto his cows to stop people stealing them. Over time consumers became aware that Sven’s meat tasted better than Olaf’s meat and branding developed a consumption dimension too. Branding began with ownership, provenance and manufacture and only later did it develop a marketing relevance.

So my message to Bramhall is hold your head up high while enduring suspension from surgery. You are a pioneer sir. You are an innovator. You are a branding genius. Ignore the dullards in your industry who seek generic, unbranded livers. If they ever let you back into the operating theatre again, don’t let the Simon Bramhall brand fade in the face of bureaucracy and standardisation like so many before you. Wield your argon gas with pride and if you need a branding consultant to help with your legal defence (or improving your logo), I am your man.

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