How a Hospital in New York’s Most Remote Borough Grew Its Brand by Tapping into Nativism. Staten Island Nativism, That Is.
// By Peter Hochstein //
Old and familiar hospital names sometimes die hard. A case in point:
In 2007, the former Saint Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center in New York’s borough of Staten Island changed its name to Richmond University Medical Center. Three years later, the hospital hired Wax Custom Communications of Miami, Florida. The assignment was to reinforce the name change and help build patient traffic for its major service lines for what is currently a 470-bed hospital treating 234,735 outpatients annually.
Bill Wax, president and founder of the agency, recalls getting off the Staten Island Ferry from Manhattan and climbing into a radio taxi. He asked the driver to take him to his client, Richmond University Medical Center. “Sure,” said the driver. He picked up his microphone and told his dispatcher, “Hey, I’m taking a passenger over to Saint Vinny’s.”This turned out to be far from an isolated case. During man-on-the-street and focus group interviews, Wax says his people had to keep clarifying which hospital they were asking about by saying, “You know, the old St. Vincent’s.”
Complicating the matter, the hospital’s principal rival has a similar name, Staten Island University Hospital. (“Staten Island” and “Richmond” are nearly interchangeable. Richmond is the name of a county comprised solely of Staten Island.)
Fortunately, by virtue of its location, Richmond University Medical Center, which we’ll hereafter refer to as RUMC, was able to leverage a mindset, driven in part by geography.
Staten Island is a bit cut off from the center of things. While it has three bridges to New Jersey, one to Brooklyn, and its famous ferry, the island is the only New York borough with no direct bridge or subway to Manhattan.
Staten Island is also the least populated borough—housing only about 472,000 inhabitants out of the city’s 8.4 million. It tends to vote differently, too, usually Republican while the rest of the city most often goes Democratic. And while the island has pockets of poverty and of considerable wealth, Staten Islanders as a whole are largely working or middle class, with a median income of about $72,000.
Many Staten Islanders revel in their apartness. So much so, in fact, that in the late 1980s there was even a serious movement, led by an influential state senator, to secede from the city.
The island’s local pride was confirmed for Wax in research that included “top to bottom interviews” of the hospital staff, random interviews at the ferry terminals and the Staten Island Mall, focus groups, and an online survey.
“Staten Islander don’t like to leave Staten Island,” Wax says. “They love Staten Island. ‘My grandfather was born here, my mother was born here, I was born here.’ That’s the mindset of Staten Islanders.”
Moreover, Wax says, the people who work for RUMC “have a deep-rooted love for the institution. They want to keep their hospital alive and thriving because it services that whole northern area of Staten Island.”
At the same time, according to the Wax agency’s website, there were some who saw RUMC as “old” and “archaic”—a perception that needed to be changed to “experienced” and “expert.”
The first stage of the Wax agency’s advertising campaign focused on building awareness of RUMC’s new name and initials, and the slogan “Close to You.”
Later advertising was dedicated to promoting the hospital’s expertise and experience in specific service lines. One print ad headline asked, “How do you measure the quality of a hospital?” And it answered, “Results.” The ad included a large photograph of a baby and bar chart that showed RUMC’s natal intensive care unit’s survival rate was 99.4 percent—a bit higher than the national benchmark.
More recently, the advertising celebrated the sense of a unique Staten Island identity. Richard Salhany, currently Senior Vice President of Medical Operations at RUMC, but who was also involved with marketing, puts it this way:
“What makes Richmond University Medical Center unique is that our employees are part of the community—many live and work here on Staten Island. When our patients are treated here, there’s a good chance that they may know a nurse, an orderly, or an administrator from their neighborhood, house of worship, or school. That’s a critical point—stay at a hospital close to home, where you are treated like a neighbor.”
As part of the campaign, the agency created video spots for local cable TV and for a website that the agency redesigned for RUMC.
The video is heavy on Staten Island “nativism.” For example, a doctor says, “I’m a native Staten Islander. In fact, not only was I born in this hospital, my mother was born in this hospital … we have deep roots in the community. I live right nearby the hospital. And I’m very proud to take care of a lot of the patients on Staten Island.”
In 2014, some of RUMC’s priorities and personnel had changed, and RUMC and Wax parted ways. But by then the advertising had achieved some impressive results. Despite a media budget that Wax estimates to be a quarter to a third of what rival Staten Island University Medical Center was spending, Web traffic increased by a factor of 10, calls increased 80 percent, and referrals grew by 40 percent, Wax says.
New Campaign? Don’t Overlook Your Website.
While “traditional” advertising drove the campaign, “A website makeover can change an institution internally as well as externally. A complete overhaul [made] a lot of things happen,” says Wax. “We were able to drive traffic to specific landing pages. This also opened up the possibility of digital advertising. We also developed a mobile sub-website for them. That was also a big hit.”
Peter Hochstein is a direct response advertising consultant, business journalist, and author. He is the author of “Lessons from 9 Innovative Health Care Marketing Campaigns,” a white paper available at the SHCM website. You can reach him through his website, http://peterhochstein.com.