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The rebranding of North Shore-LIJ as ‘Northwell Health’

Josue Polanco of the branding team shows the

Josue Polanco of the branding team shows the photo booth inside the branding bus to NSLIJ president and CEO Michael Dowling outside Huntington Hospital on Dec. 5, 2015. Credit: David L. Pokress

At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, the venerable North Shore-LIJ Health System name faded to black, replaced by a new brand: Northwell Health.

Rebranding the gigantic Great Neck-based health system, the largest private employer in the state, was a task nearly eight years in the making.

The renaming effort was reaching the boiling point in February, when Ramon Soto joined North Shore-LIJ as marketing chief. Within a month, Soto got a message that, he said, made his job insecurity light start “flashing on overdrive.”

CEO Michael Dowling was putting his foot on the accelerator to get the job finished.

“Ramon,” he said, “I need a new name, and I need it in two months,” Soto recalled.

The road to Northwell Health was long and full of false starts. It took more than two months to settle on the new name.

But on Friday, the health care system kicked off a media blitz — on TV, radio, in print and online — for a new “Look North” ad campaign designed to burn the new identity into the public mind.

And for the first time, the health care system, with ambitions to stretch up and down the Northeast, had a name not anchored to Long Island.

To one marketing expert, the North Shore-LIJ brand “directly speaks to location and regionality,” whereas Northwell Health seeks to convey “that we preserve your health,” said Joel Steckel, a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business who wasn’t an adviser to the hospital.

In Soto’s words, the “‘well’ piece is a signal to what we think the future of health care is all about: It’s about keeping people out of the health care system.”

Dowling said that the effort to rebrand began in 2008, and by the time Soto started work, discussions were churning.

“This was hot as a priority,” he said. “Lots of meetings with board members and senior leadership and people in the marketing department going through all these names.”

Rebranding can be onerous, expensive and full of pitfalls. Some of the system’s more than 130 trustees, many added through hospital mergers, were attached to the legacy North Shore and LIJ names. Mark Claster, chairman of Northwell’s board of trustees, acknowledged that it took time for the holdouts to “get on board.”

The adoption of a new brand is a signal event for the health care system, which has a long history on Long Island.

North Shore Hospital in Manhasset was founded in 1953, a year before Long Island Jewish Medical Center, which straddles the Nassau-Queens border, but the health care system dates its birth to 1990, when North Shore University Hospital merged with Community Hospital at Glen Cove.

In 1997, the growing North Shore Health System merged with LIJ, which received co-billing in the name North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System.

These days, Northwell is ranked the 14th largest health system in the country based on net patient revenue of almost $8 billion in 2014. It owns and operates 18 hospitals and has affiliations with three others — Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, Boca Raton Regional Hospital in Florida and Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn — in a system that stretches from Long Island to Manhattan and the outer boroughs and north to Westchester.

The organization has more than 61,000 workers and holds weekly orientation sessions for an average of 150 new hires, which Dowling religiously attends.

The system employs about 3,000 physicians and 15,000 nurses. Another 13,600 doctors have admitting privileges. The health care system also started a medical school and nursing school with Hofstra University in Hempstead.

Dowling said there was no alternative to pursuing a new brand name, given the system’s geographic expansion into New York City and its northern suburbs, and its affiliations with the Cleveland Clinic, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

Besides the outdated regional focus, the name showcased two hospitals at the expense of the 16 others, and gave no hint of a broader organization that includes a research institute, a new insurance company, CareConnect, and medical and nursing schools.

Major brands like Coca-Cola and Google are established over years, said Stern School’s Steckel. Northwell Health faces a similar trajectory.

“If the public perception changes within 10 years, that would be a success,” he said.

At North Shore-LIJ, internal discussions about adopting a new name began six years after Dowling became chief executive in 2002, but they gained little momentum. The branding impasse was at odds with the management style of Dowling.

“He’s a person who believes you’re either at the forefront of change or you’re the victim of it,” Soto said. “He’s willing to break glass.”

But Dowling delayed mounting a major marketing campaign because of the health system’s pending name change, spending a modest $2 million a year on marketing. The last major media campaign, themed “Hope Lives Here,” was pulled in 2011.

That left the door open to rivals such as Mount Sinai, NYU-Langone and New York-Presbyterian to create lavish marketing campaigns.

A branding consultancy, Landor of Manhattan, was hired in 2011 and another, Monigle Associates of Denver, in 2013. In October 2014 yet another consultant, Resonant Strategy Group of Jupiter, Florida, was hired, in part to review the previous work.

Finally, last March a global consultancy called Interbrand was brought in to assess the previous contenders and generate new names.

More than 5,000 names were floated formally and informally since 2008, board chairman Claster said.

April was spent evaluating and putting name candidates through trademark filters designed to flag names in use by other hospitals, insurance companies and other businesses under the health system’s umbrella.

The research process was grueling. Soto said potential names were subjected to linguistics analysis and legal review. Researchers did surveys, conducted interviews, bounced names off employees of the health care system and checked the online Urban Dictionary for hidden meanings.

Interbrand consultants warned Soto and his marketing department that they would tend to reject brand name candidates on first hearing because they would be empty words, lacking any connotations. They called this initial tendency to reject odd-looking names the “ick factor.”

“Immediately you’re going to say: ‘I don’t know about that,’” Soto said of the advice. Instead, Interbrand advised, “Embrace the ‘ick” factor.”

In May, the name “Northwell” was synthesized by an Interbrand consultant and became a candidate also.

By early summer, the list of 600 names of names was narrowed down to three: Northwell Health, Dedication Health and Laudica. When trademark filters were applied in June to “Northwell Health,” the executives and consultants found no conflicting ownership.

But finding a name was only half the battle. The board of trustees, which had shown mixed interest in a name change in the past, needed to be persuaded.

“When I started, Michael said, ‘Treat this as a political campaign ... Understand the third rails,’ ” Soto said.

The marketing chief said he and Dowling held “hundreds of conversations” about rebranding.

“We’d talk to [board members] over dinners. We’d talk to them in their homes,” Soto said.

A large part of that campaign involved persuading trustees, including many who were attached to the legacy names, that a new brand was required at all.

“Some people were attached to North Shore,” Dowling said. “Some to LIJ. Some to both of them together. At the end of the day, everybody came to the realization that it was time to do this.”

By July 7, Northwell Health had emerged from the pack. Dowling and Soto took that name to the 13-member president’s advisory council of the board of trustees. On July 22, the executive committee unanimously voted to present the name to the full board of trustees.

On Sept. 10, Soto made a formal presentation to the full board with Dowling and Claster adding supporting remarks. Approval was unanimous.

The next month, the system began rolling the brand out internally, including an app, myNorthwell, for employees. On Nov. 5 came the unveiling of the Northwell logo.

This year, officials said, Northwell will be upping the marketing ante to about $12 million, in line with its rivals.

One of the first salvos of that effort was a “Happy Birthday” commercial featuring Austin Sparacio, born at 31 seconds after midnight Jan. 1 to a Franklin Square couple at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

The commercial was scheduled to begin blanketing the airwaves 17 hours after the birth of Austin and Northwell Health itself.

In the future the system could outgrow even the metropolitan area.

“We’re turning into a super regional, from Philadelphia up to Boston,” Soto said. “We’re looking at opportunities to grow, and we will.”

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