If you were about to have surgery, which hospital would you opt to go to? What about if your daughter was about to have a baby? Or what if you needed an outpatient procedure? Which off-site medical establishment would you pick, and why?

Though “branding” is not a word most people associate with hospitals, the truth is that healthcare systems rely just as much on brand identity as soda makers, car companies, and sports teams.

And typically, a hospital system’s brand strength lies in its reputation. You would have your surgery in one hospital because it’s known for the type of operation you need. But a different hospital is known for its maternity care.

Attention to reputation is something Peter Connolly says has buoyed St. Peter’s Health Care for its century-long life. More people are born at St. Peter’s in New Brunswick (6,000 a year on average) than at any other hospital in New Jersey, and Connolly, the hospital’s chief marketing officer, says that statistics like this do not happen by accident.

The hospital’s success and its place in the community, he says, are a direct result of branding itself as a consistent healthcare system and a top-notch natal care center for decades.

Connolly will discuss “Branding and Lessons Learned” at the Middlesex Chamber’s Third Thursday Leadership Luncheon on February 16 at 11:45 a.m. at the Courtyard Marriott-Cranbury. Cost: $65. Visit www.mcrcc.org.

Connolly, who joined St. Peter’s in 2006 as the president of its foundation, grew up in Long Island, where his father was general counsel for State Farm Insurance. Connolly went to Boston College (Class of 1978), where he studied political science and met his wife, Susan, on his first day there.

She went on to teach Catholic school and retired 26 years ago to raise the kids — one of whom managed to grab a foul ball from the 1994 baseball game in Baltimore during which Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s streak for most consecutive games played. “He was on TV,” Connolly says. “I had a cell phone the size of a shoe; the client who got me the tickets called me and said ‘I guess my account’s secure now.’”

Until 1989 Connolly managed a Macy’s distribution center and then a Macy’s store in Lake Grove, New York. From there he went to Ikea, eventually serving as chief marketing officer for the Swedish furniture store chain.

It was here that Connolly came to understand branding. Ikea, though extremely successful in Europe, was not doing well in the United States, due mainly to how the company had positioned itself.

“In Sweden, if you told people you had low-cost furniture, you were smart,” he says. “But in the U.S., your home is considered an extension of who you are.” In other words, the words “low-cost furniture” here translate into “cheap and temporary,” Connolly says.

Ikea had been trying to crack the American market with the same approach that had worked so well for the company in Europe — as an outlet for inexpensive furniture, some assembly required. The problem, he says, was that “Americans are not big on assembling their own furniture.”

After redefining Ikea as a “life stages” store, meaning that its products would be targeted to younger people just starting out, people in transition, etc., Connolly watched the chain become a giant in the American retail picture. After getting the company on a good course, Connolly became the chief marketing officer at MSNBC, where he oversaw the channel’s efforts to establish itself as a financial information station.

From there Connolly moved into clothing retail, first at Polo and then at Tommy Hilfiger, where he became the president of worldwide marketing from 1997 to 2005 and introduced the brand into 61 countries. He has been an adjunct professor at the Rutgers Center for Management Development in Piscataway since 2008.

Do your homework. Whether a hospital or a furniture outlet, Connolly says the first thing an organization needs to do when considering its brand message is research. You find out what the general perception of your organization is, outside its walls. Ikea, for example, saw itself as a smart, European alternative to expensive American furniture stores, but Americans saw it as something just this side of a flea market. In fact, in focus groups with Ikea customers, people hesitantly admitted to having Ikea products in their homes, Connolly says. They were embarrassed to admit to the store itself that they had shopped there.

Know your strengths. Once you have an idea of how your public sees you, zero in on what positive aspects you represent. For St. Peter’s, Connolly says, research showed that the community saw the hospital as solid and consistent. The staff and programs were seen favorably, and the fact that the hospital was founded a century ago was a strong factor in that perception, so Connolly and his staff have run with that message.

The hospital’s other reputation (for being a major maternity center) also is part of the branding message. St. Peter’s, in fact, has the largest neo-natal intensive care facility between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Next steps. With its reputation secure in the community’s mind, St. Peter’s is now focusing on telling the world about things it might not know, Connolly says. St. Peter’s recently expanded into Skillman with the opening of its Urgent Care Center (U.S. 1, January 25) and is rolling out campaigns to highlight its epilepsy and breast care centers. It also is expanding its emergency room.

Keeping with its reputation for natal care, St. Peter’s also is touting its Gianna Center for Women’s Health and Fertility, which has locations in Manhattan and New Brunswick. The center, since it is part of a Catholic hospital, assists with female fertility issues without in vitro fertilization, a method frowned upon in the Catholic church.

The competitive picture among hospital systems demands a continuous effort to let people know about St. Peter’s, Connolly says. But he does not see the hospital business as any more competitive than it always has been. “Maybe it’s more complicated,” he says. There are new legislative issues popping up all the time and ever-thornier compensation and insurance matters, but overall, he says, all hospital branding and positioning comes down to one thing: “Hospitals have always lived on their reputations.”

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