Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth Health rebranding is a loose weave

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/20/2022 7:30:33 AM
Modified: 4/20/2022 7:29:17 AM

As we say in the newspaper biz, Joanne Conroy buried the lead. The CEO of newly rebranded Dartmouth Health could have easily launched her Facebook live video performance last Friday by letting rank-and-file employees know how they stand to benefit from the jumbo health system’s name change.

Instead, Conroy left everyone hanging. It wasn’t until around the 25-minute mark of the dog-and-pony show that she answered the burning question:

Will there be swag?

Yes, Conroy announced, gifts emblazoned with the new name and logo are on the way.

What a relief.

The umbrellas imprinted with the system’s old name — Dartmouth Hitchcock Health — handed out to employees a couple years ago seem so behind the times.

I probably should be taking DH’s “brand journey” more seriously. Nearly three years in the making, DH brass has a lot invested in the new “brand identity” aimed at courting more patients and insurance dollars from southern New Hampshire.

Only problem is DH execs won’t say how much money is being poured into the marketing rabbit hole.

That’s worrisome.

The last time I checked, DH was still a nonprofit. Taxpayers are entitled to transparency from a multibillion-dollar organization that feeds regularly at the public trough. In 2020 alone, the five-hospital system grabbed nearly $89 million in federal stimulus funds to offset revenue losses in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an interview with Valley News staff writer Nora Doyle-Burr after last Tuesday’s “brand launching,” Conroy said that none of the so-called CARES Act money has gone toward the rebranding campaign.

But Alan Sager, a longtime professor and director of the health care reform program at Boston University, isn’t buying it.

“Conroy’s assertion that Dartmouth Health didn’t divert federal COVID aid to finance rebranding is pure smoke-blowing,” Sager told me via email. “Once a hospital obtains money, it’s all interchangeable. Hospital revenue is revenue. It is mingled together.”

I asked DH spokeswoman Audra Burns for a ballpark figure on how much the state’s largest employer plans to spend on rebranding.

“We have been very mindful of the current economic landscape, and we intentionally designed our implementation as a transition, not an instant change,” Burns wrote back Tuesday. “We are taking a sensible, phased approach to the brand rollout over the next 2-3 years and following a ‘reduce and replenish’ strategy prioritizing implementation of the new brand, where it will have the most positive and far-reaching impact.”

Which brings me back to what Sager told me during an interview for the column that appeared in last Tuesday’s paper — just ahead of the brand launch.

“If they don’t tell us how much they’re spending on rebranding,” he said, “it means they’re ashamed.”

The rebranding in 2020 of what is now Mass General Brigham, one of the hospital systems that DH hopes to compete with in southern New Hampshire, reportedly cost as much as $100 million.

With that in mind, I think it’s safe to assume that DH’s spending will run into the millions, likely tens of millions.

Updating websites and other digital assets to reflect the new brand will take some bucks. Changing signage is another big-ticket item. Anything that says Norris Cotton Center eventually will need to be scrapped for new signs that spell out the rebranded Dartmouth Cancer Center.

Then there’s the big-time New York marketing and communications company called Applied Design Works that DH hired to handle the makeover. The company, which also has a California office, can’t work cheap. (The list of clients on its website includes Pfizer, Prudential and Zillow.)

I asked Burns, the DH spokesman, about the contract with Applied Design, but she wouldn’t say how much it’s for.

Applied Design deserves the credit — or blame, depending on your point of view — for coming up with DH’s new logo: The Weave. It features intertwined green and white lines reminiscent of tartan cloth, which is designed to represent the DH’s new motto: “World-class care woven into the fabric of our communities.”

I prefer Jeffrey Hinman’s interpretation of the lines and symbols headed in opposite directions. In an email that he sent me after Tuesday’s big brand launch, the Enfield resident quipped, “Actually, the new Dartmouth Health logo is a graphic representation of the routes taken by a (Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center) patient in search of a parking space.”

Unless the new logo doubles as a map of DHMC’s parking lots, I’m not sure patients will get much out of the rebranding.

Most people who use DH for their health care that I talk with aren’t caught up in the “new visual and verbal identity,” as Conroy called it in her “Connect with the CEO” Facebook show.

They’re more concerned about the weeks, even months, it sometimes takes to get in to see a specialist or undergo tests.

“If the millions spent on rebranding had not been wasted in this way, the same money could have been spent to pay for actual medical care,” Sager pointed out.

DH isn’t the first hospital group to go the rebranding route. Unfortunately, it won’t be the last.

In Friday’s “Connect with the CEO,” Conroy mentioned that DH had already received “a lot of calls from other health systems who wanted to learn from our experience.”

That’s not comforting. But hospital executives obsessed with branding helps explain why the U.S. spends way more on health care than any other country and still has poorer health outcomes than other high-income countries.

Style over substance.

The more opportunities for swag, the better.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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